Some of us here at RideLust are old enough to remember when NASCAR was the National Association of Stock Car Racing and not a spec series. We remember waking up early on Sunday mornings to watch Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Ricky Rudd, Dale Earnhardt, and Buddy Baker race against each other in Chevys, Pontiacs, Fords, and Buicks that were actually based on the cars people could buy in the showroom.
What happened to that NASCAR? Who or what took what used to be a fun racing series to watch and turned it into a racing series based little in reality?
Suspect #1: 1987 Ford Thunderbird
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the manufacturers involved in NASCAR would design cars with racing in mind. From the outrageous Plymouth Superbird of 1970 to the 1987 Ford Thunderbird, manufacturers sought body designs and engines that would remain within the boundaries of the NASCAR rulebook but give their drivers and advantage. In the case of the 1987 Thunderbird, they succeeded all too well.
In 1987 Ford introduced a new Thunderbird that was more aerodynamic than anything that had raced in NASCAR in a long time. The car featured a new nose with a lower profile than the 1986 model. At the Winston 500 that year, Bill Elliott set the qualifying record at 212.809 mph, a record that has yet to be officially broken. That same weekend, Bobby Allison’s Buick got airborne at over 200 mph and nearly went through the catch fence (the video is here for you crash voyeurs). After that, NASCAR mandated a restrictor plate be used at Daytona and Talladega to reduce the power of the cars, and therefore the speeds. The end result is these races wind up by being run in large packs with positions changing often in the middle of the pack, but passing is reduced in the top positions.
Suspect #2: Jeff Gordon
Full Disclosure: The author is a Dale Earnhardt, Sr. fan and has little love for Jeff “I’m So Gay” Gordon.
Jeff Gordon is a talented racer. There is no doubt about that. In fact, it is his domination of NASCAR through the ’90s that is cause for pause in reviewing the death of NASCAR. You see, Jeff Gordon was a different type of racer. He is an excellent driver, but a whiny little bitch off the track. With the rise of Jeff Gordon we saw the death of the racer who settled things with his fists and with determination on the track. Instead, now we have a host of racers who settle things on the camera and complain about perceived injustice in the rule book, or how unfair it is that so-and-so crashed into him. We now have to endure an unending stream of post-race interviews where drivers whine instead of talk about what happened and vow to be back next week.
Jeff Gordon’s popularity also brought in an entire new fan base. Instead of die-hard NASCAR fans and gearheads, NASCAR now had to cater to bandwagon fans and women. They had to begin promoting the good looking drivers, even if they weren’t that good on the track. They had to throw phantom debris cautions to give their chosen ones a chance to catch up. They had to dumb down the announcers. We now get analysis from Allen Bestwick and Darrell Waltrip instead of Dr. Jerry Punch and Dick Berggren. We now have to listen to them explain every single frickin’ race what “loose” and “tight” mean.
Suspect #3: NASCAR
Truthfully, most of what is bringing NASCAR to irrelevance is NASCAR itself. It is NASCAR that has pushed the spec template for cars rather than allow the manufacturers to design cars within certain dimensions. This was not caused solely by the 1987 Ford Thunderbird. NASCAR could easily have employed items like roof flaps and spoiler angles to keep the cars from flying or reaching “dangerous” speeds. Instead, NASCAR embarked on a two decade push to slow cars down and provide better driver safety and survivability. We have no problem with increasing the safety of the cars for the drivers. Things like the HANS device to help drivers survive accidents are critical to the safety and enjoyment of the race. What NASCAR did, though, was to create a template car in the name of safety and competition that has taken the sport away from its stock car roots and turned it into IROC.
NASCAR has kept the engine rules the same for the last 20+ years. Sprint Cup cars run a 358 cubic inch pushrod engine with a carburetor. No manufacturer of new cars still produces cars with carburetors, except maybe in India or Zimbabwe. Engine development for NASCAR is not used to prove out technologies for the street. Instead, the manufacturers try to give the teams heads and blocks that will make the most horsepower possible from the setup they have to deal with, but in no way can transfer that technology to our road car.
NASCAR has put a great emphasis on the “Young Guns” — drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, etc. — even so far as getting them sponsorship from Gillette. These drivers are exciting to watch, but are not necessarily the best drivers. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., for example, won one race last year and zero races the year before. Sure, his dad was a great racer and died a tragic death, but to promote someone who is average at best further pushes NASCAR to the fringes of racing.
Racing serves several purposes. First, it is great advertisement for an automaker. The old line “Win on Sunday. Sell on Monday” was developed because of stock car racing. Second, racing is a technology proving ground. Manufacturers and teams are trying everything they can to find an advantage. The ability to get several hundred horsepower out of a small 4-cylinder engine has been driven by racing. Finally, racing is entertainment. We watch racing for the strategy, the personalities and to see someone push the limit and finish first.
When a racing series moves away from any of these purposes, they become a fringe element of the racing world. While NASCAR still enjoys huge popularity, it is quickly becoming irrelevant. All the cars are the same with decals on the nose the only distinguishing characteristic. NASCAR is not advancing technology for our road cars. We at RideLust have no problem with carbureted engines, but racing is supposed give us civilians something to look forward to on our next car. NASCAR is beginning to fail as an entertainment venue. Gone are the mental racers who use strategy on the race track and actually entertain on a deeper level. Replacing them are a bunch of whiny prima donnas who would rather crash into each other than actually think. NASCAR has become the automotive equivalent of professional wrestling.
So what is a racing fan left with? Sadly, in the US, we are not left with much. Speed Chanel has become NASCAR TV, but does still show Formula 1 and ALMS. You have to either be nocturnal or have a DVR to watch, though. World Rally Championship is an excellent racing series and fulfills all three purposes for racing. Sadly, in Speed Chanel’s move to show more NASCAR-related content, they have dropped their WRC coverage and have forced those of us who like to watch rally cars to download videos of races online. A more true version of stock car racing is the V8 Supercars down in Australia. Unfortunately, we do not get any coverage of that here in the US and once again have to dig around the dark corners of the interwebz looking for race footage. So, like a heroin addict, we scrounge around the web and the TV tuner looking for a hit here and there. It’s all we can do.
Image Credits: HowStuffWorks.com, NASCAR, All Left Turns, ESPN