Cole's Corner

Moving Forward: Graphic designers adapt to NASCAR’s Next Gen

By Cole Cusumano

Paint schemes have played a prominent role in NASCAR’s history dating back to the late 1950s. Conjoined with numerical values as association, many have become iconic forms of identity throughout the years. Much like the foundation of the sport, these designs have become a tradition throughout the sanctioning body’s decades of evolution.

The NASCAR Cup Series is weeks away from ushering a new era with the Next Gen car and other radical changes. One of the most divisive actions the sanctioning body is implementing in 2022 is shifting the numbers from the center of the door to the left behind the front wheels, something that’s received mass backlash from fans.

This move shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as many anticipated changes in number placement since NASCAR’s experiment two years ago during the All-Star Race. For most, the criticism is due to lack of aesthetic appeal and an unspoken standard upheld for generations.

There will always be a resistance to change, but it’s inevitable. Fans can only digest what’s presented in front of them, but for those working behind the scenes, this directly impacts their livelihood.

Director of Digital and Creative for Trackhouse Racing, Kyle Sykes, has become one of the most revered graphic artists in the sport. Credited by many as a pioneer in the concept paint scheme trend, the Wisconsin native turned his passion into a profession through Instagram.

After freelancing for Front Row Motorsports for three years, Sykes got an email from Trackhouse President, Ty Norris, who wanted to enlist his skills for the new team in 2021. Now living out his dream, he’s had to adjust his methods and embrace change.

“I had a hard time at first with the number shift, since I was so used to it being centered,” Sykes told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Like anything else it takes some time to learn the best approach after a change is made. I know that much like other things in life, you have to adapt, because that’s the only way to excel — you have to be flexible and learn to master the next challenge.”

Aside from working with a certain design during past graphic endeavors, Sykes initial sense of skepticism was due to the “balanced” look the centered numbers provided. After drafting designs all off season for Trackhouse, he’s grown accustomed to the shift and believes after a few weeks fans will hardly pay any mind to it. 

Similarly to Sykes, paint schemes are everything for Kyle Williams. Working as a graphic designer at the Decal Source in North Carolina since 2018, he’s produced designs for dozens of teams throughout all  three of NASCAR’s top series and beyond. 

Williams’ love for graphic design began in the early 2000s with the game “NASCAR Racing 4,” where he’d spend more time in the paint booth than on track. He started working professionally as an artist in 2014 at Himmer Graphics in Pennsylvania, where his friend took him in and helped him understand the process beyond designing such as laminating, installing and more.

Having been around the industry and profession for nearly a decade, Williams, too, had strong feelings about the number placement.

“I’m a traditionalist at heart when it comes to NASCAR,” Williams told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I embrace change, but there’s some things I feel like, if it’s not broken, why do you have to fix it? I still feel that way about the numbers.”

Part of Williams’ apprehension to the number placement is because it affects his designing process. He regularly implements lines and such emitting from the front wheel wells to give off a “fast” illusion. The change for 2022 essentially eliminates that possibility, as he and teams prefer the numbers to have a solid-colored background.

Williams has also been very vocal about the absence of side skirt wraps with the Next Gen car. All vehicles will essentially have a black trim at the bottom of the car, which halts continuity of paint schemes.

Bob Leverone / Getty Images

For example, 23XI Racing brought a test car to Charlotte Motor Speedway with the side skirts wrapped (pictured left). Due to branding guidelines, this will not be allowed during the regular season. Williams speculates this is due to exhaust heat.

Sykes also expressed difficulties at first when working with the new leftward placement, because it derailed his process for how he began each design: around the number. 

Perhaps the biggest advocate for the number shift is Justin Harris at Joe Gibbs Racing. The Appalachian State University graduate has been with the organization since 2016 and is a Computer Numerical Control machinist turned graphic designer.

Whereas many didn’t want change at all, Harris embraced it and actually hoped the numbers would be moved to the quarter panels.

“In terms of designing it, I really like the options now,” Harris told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I think some of the cars were starting to get a little blank looking right in front of that number where there was nothing there and you weren’t allowed to put anything there. Obviously with no contingencies on the car anymore, you get to have a bit more freedom.  

“Now, depending on the logo, you get about a 40-percent larger logo the sponsors can have. The only concern of mine is that it took away from some of our technical partners.”

This is a direct correlation of the new body styles for the Next Gen car. One reason the numbers realistically couldn’t get shifted to the quarter panels is because those areas shrunk drastically. As a result, secondary sponsors (such a Rheem for JGR) are being moved to the decklid and other less exposure friendly areas of the vehicles.

This raises a solid counter argument to NASCAR’s claims of more room for investors to display their brand – primary sponsors, yes, but technical partners will likely be taking a backseat. Not to mention, the additional space with the number shift may not be as significant as advertised.

Williams had the privilege of being involved in Toyotas development process for the Next Gen car branding and fears the showroom-accurate designs may present some issues when scaling logos larger due to the sleek indentations of the body lines.

“You try to max that logo out, it’s going to get cut off running into the wheel well or the window area, and I think a lot of us don’t really mind when that happens, but according to the branding guidelines of some of these companies, they do,” Williams said. “They want their logo to be as clear and as prominent as anything and they don’t want to see it get cut off.”

While there may be additional space behind the number, the largest obstacle designers are running into is what Sykes refers to as “shelves” above the rear wheel wells. True to manufacturer designs, there is a sharp protrusion that makes it difficult to utilize an image without distorting it.

No. 20 DeWalt Camry designed by Harris.

“It’s so flat that the one piece of feedback I have received the most from partners is to not let the logo get above that, because it warps it,” Sykes explained. “You might not notice it on TV, but when you get up next to that car on pit road, it gets cut off and that’s a challenge. Now we’re shrinking our area to put a logo, because of that shelf, so it’s almost like a smaller area.”

“The company doesn’t want to see their logo distorted and that’s a very hard thing for people that are really passionate about paint schemes to grasp, because it’s not the nicest looking thing sometimes, but it might be the most effective for their money, and that’ where there’s a crazy parallel between what looks good and what is effective in marketing,” Williams added.

To combat the aggressive body lines, Harris invented a technique with the Gen-six car in 2017, where he wrapped the entire car in a one-inch grid pattern and spent an entire week tracing areas with protrusions and indentations.

“If you wrap it in a straight line, you’ll see how crooked everything is or how warped things get really quick,” Harris said. “I had to come up with something to give me a good base of where I can put stuff at.”

The only issue with the Next Gen car, is there have been so few produced he hasn’t had the resources to do it yet, but doesn’t anticipate it will be an issue before the season.  

The final spot giving designers the most difficulty are the hoods. All three manufacturers have unique designs the artists and installers must work around to ensure continuity with the logos.

The Fords aren’t as tricky, because teams are being given templates for the vents. The scoops that dive in on the Camrys have been compared to IMSA cars, and while problematic, they aren’t nearly as difficult to work with as the Camaros.

A closer look at the Camaro hood vents

Sykes revealed the largest area of emphasis in his designing process is taking the decal installers into consideration, even prior to the Next Gen reveal. He praised the workers at Trackhouse for their attention to detail and how they wrap each vent individually in order for the design to look seamless.

“I want to stay on the good sides of all people; our partners, our team owners, our drivers and our installers,” Sykes said. “It’s one thing to see it on my computer screen, but we have to make that 2D design come to life on a real race car. I take so much pride in my work and I know as an installer, that’s pride in their work. I want to make sure everyone’s set up for success and that the car looks as perfect as it can be.”

Graphic designers have had to adjust to a new car just like teams and athletes. It may seem like it comes naturally for them to develop cool-looking paint schemes throughout the season – and in most cases that’s true – but it’s not to say it isn’t challenging. 

Putting the car itself in the rearview, designers are finding they have more artistic freedom with the additional space given the newness of this change. Prior to the number movement, sponsors had more input due to the standard that even casual viewers knew of in terms of paint schemes. 

With the previous generations and centered numbers, there was a traditional uniform that teams, partners and even new incoming sponsors were accustomed to seeing and left little room for artistic freedom, because they expected things to be presented a specific way for so long.

Ironically, one thing Sykes has noticed with some of the paint schemes revealed for 2022 is basic and bland designs. Essentially teams and designers moving the number because they were told to and not optimizing space.

“I’m big into, ‘let’s fill the space if they’re going to give us the space,’” Sykes said. “The point is to expand their brand name or include all sorts of brand elements in there as much as you can. I feel like we have done a really good job with that. I think it’s going to come down to designers getting used to it and learning how to fill that space with the necessary things in a smart way.”

Williams is of the thought process that these simplistic paint schemes are by design – and he hopes it trends in this direction. While deviating from tradition with the numbers moving from the center, he hopes this enables designers to go back to NASCAR’s roots in terms of basic, yet effective and iconic paint schemes. 

Reflecting on the 1990s and early 2000s, many of the infamous paint schemes like Jeff Gordon’s “Rainbow Warrior” and Dale Earnhardt’s black Goodwrench car weren’t very busy. They were simple, yet bold designs that were as much of an identity for the drivers as their numbers.

Jeff Gordon’s “Rainbow Warrior”

Simplistic designs are what Williams regularly strives for in his work with Sam Bass being his main inspiration. He also draws influence from his favorite paint scheme, Jason Leffler’s Singular car from 2001, which he credits with teaching color contrast, shape coherence and other skills at a young age.

“I have noticed that I am leaning towards a lot more simplistic designs,” Williams said. “I think it’s going to be cool, because you can look back at some 90s cars and get some inspiration. I’m hoping, at least for my traditionalist sense, that some of these paint schemes get a little bit less busy. I think what’s been lost is that we don’t have those iconic paint schemes anymore.”

Much like the on-track product, the three graphic designers believe this will be a trial season for paint schemes as well. This is why Skyes think many teams such as Trackhouse have been producing designs for the test sessions instead of simple matte gray like years past.

The hope is the additional space serves as an allure for more Fortune 500 companies to jump on board and restore NASCAR to its glory days. While the different paint schemes on a weekly basis are fun to look at, it leads to lack of identity from drivers, which the sport is in need of.

Maybe this move can unearth the traditional roots of iconic paint schemes while also bringing progressive change with the number placement and stability from primary sponsors. 

“Let your mind be open about the creativity that we’re about to have with the designs,” Williams concluded. “We’ve had the same old, same old for 50-60 years and if there has to be a change, this is the way to do it. I think there’s going to be a lot of naysayers at first, but once you start to see the paint schemes every week, it’s going to become a lot more normal, because it already has for me after a couple months of dealing with them.”

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