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Who Killed NASCAR: NASCAR Moves to Irrelevance

Posted in American Le Mans Series, Chevrolet, Ford, Formula 1, General, History, NASCAR, Racing, Toyota by Dustin May | April 8th, 2009 | 9 Responses |


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

Bill Elliott's 1987 Ford Thunderbird - 212.809 mph at Talladega

Bill Elliott's 1987 Ford Thunderbird - 212.809 mph at Talladega

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

Jeff Gordon

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

NASCAR President Mike Helton

NASCAR President Mike Helton

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

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9 Responses

  1. SCOTT GIBB SR. says:


  2. Tom B says:

    Didn’t they also use leaded gasoline until 2 years ago?
    Never have been a fan, but this article seems to sum my reasons up pretty well.

  3. Bozr says:

    I started with some skepticism but after reading the full article I have to agree.
    First off, I’m also a fan of Jr. Second, I’m giving Gordon one more chance since he’s on the same team. One more time doing a dirty hit on somebody and his name goes right back to Tinky Winky and the Purple Purse. We’ll see how that goes.
    That said, and I hate that phrase but it works here.. Stock Car Racing is no longer and I have to agree. It’s moved beyond it’s definition, not that it isn’t popular, it gotten a lot of people interested in the sport. The problem is, it’s not a competition of car manufacturers anymore, it’s Win on Sunday and buy a hamburger or some paint or tacos get a haircut, some 2×4’s and some insurance. What happened there?
    What I want to see.
    I want to see a manufacturers race. Straight off the lot. I want to see the same engines and bodies we all get. I want to see fuel injected computer controlled. Let them modify the heads the computers the suspension, intake, exhaust, keep them safe and whatever else it takes. I want back the spirit of innovation that people like Smokey Yunick and others brought to the sport.
    That would be Stock Car Racing.

  4. Biotech is Godzilla says:

    When I was a kid, rock and roll/stock car racing/insert any other form of nostalgia here was soooo much better. The main point learned here is the age of the author and his biases.

  5. John McKechnie says:

    Used to love stock cars when cars looked like cars,not profiles.Am in New Zealand and get V8 SUPERCARS live .Best REAK stock car racing.Wish you boys in the US could get it also.

  6. John McKechnie says:

    Follow on ……..In v8 Supercars here (NZ/AUS) ,it is Manufacturers Ford vs GM-Holden.One top driver Marcus Ambrose is now breaking in to NASCAR over there.The cars LOOK and ARE real cars-boot lids,4 doors,bonnet.No body wants profile cars here.They are road car bodies externally ,normal floors etc -family cars,taxis.Same size engines.REAL street circuts with corners.Drivers have balls and are not computer nerds/media darlings.They do not want to alter this winning formula to what NASCAR do.We love our V8 action simple

  7. Matt2001TJ says:

    Let us not forget how Bill France decided to ban the roadrunner superbird and the 426 hemi in 1965 for one season both due to preferential treatment for the “Ford cry baby’s”… Richard Petty in retaliation did not race NASCAR in 1965 as a result. Instead he went drag racing for a season with a 1965 Hemi Barracuda. While Mr. France did many great things for the sport he was also detrimental as well.

  8. Tom says:

    Finally someone with media clout and an avenue to get publlished has written for the whole world to see, what I have been saying since ’87. The nascar modeling agency sucks and is it sucks big time. I was a fan until ’87, but after 5 minutes of the first carb restricted race, I turned it off and have never gone back. nascar nees to die. Not only is it irrelevant, it is an insult to the sport of racing, and it’s little nascar modeling agency boys are an insult to real race car drivers the world over.

  9. Paul Ethier says:

    I have to agree that I also would like to see Nascar go back to the manufactures based series, but incorporate the driver safety features.
    Get rid of the restrictor plates. Let the tracks update THEIR safety features. They can ad more and stronger cables in the catch fences, and move the grandstands back some more. If a track is unwilling to do that after rakeing in millions over the years with little more than safer barriers and a repave every 20 years, PULL THE RACE!. Bet Daytona and Talledega would do HEADSTANDS to improve, if they went one season with no Nascar races. (Yes, we could do without for a season if it brought back real RACING!)
    I was a Petty fan ’till he stopped winning. Then I lost interest and switched to sprints and midgets. The only reason I came back was BECAUSE of Jeff Gordon, so I don’t think he brought in a NEW kind of fan, though I’m sure some WERE NEW. Someone will ALWAYS be on top when they first start watching, in MY case it was Fireball Roberts.
    Nascar has had a rough road, trying to do ALL of the adjustments, and has gone to the QUICK fix on many occations, staying with too many of them beyond reason. At least they gave up on the restrictor plate for LOUDON! Let the TRACKS do THEIR part to stay current. If the cars become too fast for them, take the show someplace else.
    We need new drivers all the time. They don’t CHANGE the fanbase, they SUSTAIN IT! Now if I could find one I was interested in, so I could get happy more than ONCE in THREE YEARS…