NASCAR’s New Street Cred

Mar 7, 2013

NASCAR calls them Gen-6 race cars and they were designed to do something the Gen-1 cars did right from the start-look like the same vehicles found in dealer showrooms.

Of course, back then, they were the cars from the showrooms-literally. And it didn’t take long for Edsel Ford to coin the phrase, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

Since then, though, manufacturers participating in the top tiers of NASCAR racing have seen the evolution of the Sprint Cup Series go from being those actual factory cars to purpose-built race machines-”both in how they are constructed and how they look to the thousands of fans at the tracks and millions more watching on TV.

By the time the evolution had progressed to Gen-5 and NASCAR’s much-debated Car of Tomorrow (COT), from the outside the cars all looked alike with only the nose, tail and opera windows offering any manufacturer styling cues. The OEMs didn’t like the look and the fans, normally very brand loyal, didn’t seem to care for it either.

And with good reason. NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, in all its previous iterations, had been a place where fans saw a car that looked like the one in their driveway.

(In fairness, the COT did include a number of very important safety improvements that greatly benefitted drivers.)

The COT seemed to be the end result of a gradual progression toward sameness-what many called an IROC series of racing where the cars were practically identical in every way.

Edsel Ford II reinforced that recently.

“There was a time where the pendulum had swung too far and now, I think the pendulum has come back to the middle,” he says. “I think all the manufacturers-and I can’t speak for anyone but Ford-but I think we’re very happy with where we are now.”

I Know You

For the Gen-6 Sprint Cup cars, NASCAR “gave back” much more of the car’s body to the manufacturers to establish their respective brands as well as build a better race car. So, when fans and buyers see a new Chevy SS, Ford Fusion or Toyota Camry at the track, they’ll know what it is at first sight. (And, hopefully, remember it when they enter the showroom.)

Observers agree, in fact, that 2013 offers the best matching of race cars to street cars fans have seen since the early 1990s, when the Monte Carlo, Grand Prix and Thunderbird waged war on NASCAR tracks and gained tremendous followings. (More importantly for speed shops and performance professionals, all three of those body styles also enjoyed special editions linked to NASCAR and sold at dealerships.)

At the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, journalists were given the chance to see the unique personalities of these new race cars up-close before teams headed to Daytona. The consensus was that there will be no problem telling the differences between a Ford, Chevy or Toyota as they roar past on the track.

(Dodge, despite winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship with driver Brad Keselowski and unveiling a critically acclaimed Gen-6 entry last year, will not be supporting a team in the 2013 Sprint Cup series.)

The hope is that the look of the cars will link directly with the showroom versions and interest in the new street cars will rise. Detroit is already on a performance hot streak with its latest muscle car/pony car wars, and these new race vehicles should only build on the excitement generated by the Camaro/Mustang/Challenger renaissance.

Fans are Real Winners

Chevy’s new SS Sprint Cup entry is based on the factory V-8, rear-wheel drive car that will appeal to those thinking old-school on their choice of transportation.

Ford’s journey was a little harder.

Its production Fusion is front-wheel drive. The rear-wheel drive race car uses a much longer hood on a lower and wider stance. To create a race car with the proper look, the Ford Design Center had to incorporate the production Fusion’s design identity details such as the shapes of the headlights, fog lights and grille openings, as well as the new body side character lines.

The result is almost deceptive, as the racer has the look and feel of the production Fusion even though they share no common surfaces.

“The real winners in all this are the fans, who once again can really identify with the cars they’re cheering for,” Ford notes.

Toyota had to do the same thing with its front-wheel drive Camry in making it fit NASCAR’s COT platform while looking like the street version. Early track testing had all cars being faster than their Gen-5 counterparts, and they are still in heavy development to achieve a better balance with areo and downforce.

Just how close are the new race machines to their street-legal brothers? A quick look at the comparative specs of the Ford Fusion shows the race car has a 110-inch wheelbase vs. the street version’s 112 inches. In overall length, the body of a street Fusion will measure 191.7 inches, while the NASCAR version is slightly longer at 196.2 inches.

Even the weights are similar, with the newly lightened NASCAR spec of 3,300 pounds vs. the 3,526 pounds of a FWD Fusion.

Rick Hendrick a Fan

In the past, car owners would often start with the same body style seen on the track and make their own changes to personalize and improve their vehicle’s looks and performance. While it’s too early to tell if that will be the case again, one Chevy race team owner with strong ties to the street side of the business thinks the new cars are already a hit.

In fact, Rick Hendrick, team owner of Hendrick Motorsports, says the new racers will actually sell production cars off his lots.

“When we showed those cars in Vegas, the four (race) cars and the street car, Twitter lit up. I mean, it was the number one tweet that afternoon and around the world. When I went out to Barrett-Jackson and we did the Corvette deal, we got flooded at the dealerships. We’ve already sold out of Corvettes for 2014 from what exposure we’ve had. Now, all of a sudden, we’re getting calls, ‘How can I get on a list to get an SS?’ Nobody called me and said they wanted to get on a list to get a Car of Tomorrow, I can tell you that.

“So that’s good for the dealerships,” he continues. “And the diehard fans-the guys I see at those car auctions that wear the Corvette shirts and really know cars-they know when the 409 was out, when the last Stingray was built and all that. Now here’s a car that if you can’t put your family in a Corvette or a Camaro because they won’t fit, the same motor that’s in the SS Camaro is going to be in an SS Chevrolet four-door. So you have a good-looking car that you see on the track.”

Hendrick believes the demand generated by the new cars, and the expected trickle-down effect on the performance aftermarket, is very real.

“I can’t give anybody a price or we’d already have deposits,” he says of the SS. “It’s a tremendous commitment from Chevrolet. The race car and the street car were built at the same time when they were in design. We worked with the design engineers, showing it to NASCAR along the way. Some of the things that NASCAR let them do like the coves on the side, the front treatment, it is, by far, the race car that’s going to be the closest to the street car of any car in the garage area. And it’ll be the only rear-wheel drive car.”

Hendrick’s dealerships have been known for making and selling Special Editions of street cars looking like his NASCAR team cars. Those plans won’t change anytime soon.

“We always do special editions,” he said. “We’ll have (Dale) Earnhardt editions and (Jeff) Gordon editions, and we’ll do a lot of that. But right now, I think we’ll be able to sell what we can get without touching them.”

Time Will Tell

Will these new models mean new business for aftermarket speed shops and engine builders? Time will tell if they will develop into viable and marketable street machines. But for now, it’s a matter of going back to the history of stock car racing.

“NASCAR fans are the most loyal customers we have,” Edsel Ford says. “So, I think we’re back to the old days where we have Ford vs. General Motors vs. Toyota. I mean, this is where it all started. It was great fun.”

Both NASCAR and Detroit’s Gen-6 cars will warrant keeping an eye on to see if they turn out to be the popular models that do, indeed, “sell on Monday.” Because, if they do, they might just be selling performance parts on Tuesday.

Generations

NASCAR defined its new 2013 Sprint Cup cars as Gen-6 and gave an official breakdown of the previous generations when the cars debuted during this year’s NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway:

GEN-1 was from 1948 to 1966. By the end of that era, a number of bigger tracks followed the lead of Daytona International Speedway when it was opened in 1959. Tracks such as Charlotte and Atlanta opened the next year and joined Darlington as tracks much larger and faster than the usual half-milers. The increased speeds showed the cars needed to be stronger and safer to be able to race. NASCAR race cars up to this point used stock frames and bodies with doors strapped or welded shut. Survival in racing had created the need for reinforced wheels, heavy-duty axles and other stronger pieces. As the cars went faster, the weak pieces would be replaced with stronger ones built by the factory and racers.

GEN-2 was from 1967 to 1980 and the full-size frames went from stock to purpose-built tubing, with the suspension components following suit. Now, chassis building became a NASCAR cottage industry. The bodies were still stock, OEM sheet metal, but installed over the now-racing chassis and modified slightly to help increase speeds and handling.

GEN-3 was from 1981 to 1991 and was most notable when the wheelbase was reduced to 110 inches and intermediate cars were used. The move was done to resemble the cars folks were buying. The chassis became more refined while still using the same basic design from the mid-’60s. The bodies were still mostly made from the manufacturer’s stock pieces.

GEN-4 was from 1992 thru 2006 and the bodies began to be highly modified. Speeds increased as a result and the cars sported more of an exaggerated showroom look. NASCAR instituted the use of molded fiberglass nose and tail pieces that were one piece instead of the many used on street cars. This allowed faster car building and even faster clean-up on the track. It was at this time that a number of drivers were killed and a safer design, always a priority with NASCAR, was clearly needed.

GEN-5 was the Car of Tomorrow (COT) and along with a much safer car came common body specs to avoid one brand having an advantage. The cars tended to all look the same with only a few secondary areas for brand identification. A common joke among NASCAR car builders was about building a “Doris” where they took a Dodge race car, swapped out the opera windows, nose and tail and it became a Ford Taurus or vice versa. It was at this point the manufacturers wanted the look of their own cars back-especially as car sales tanked and the recovery was labored.

Today’s GEN-6 cars have more manufacturer-specific body panels, carbon fiber hood and deck lids and more common styling cues with the showroom version. In short, NASCAR gave the manufacturers an increased number of areas of the body to work with to bridge creating a viable race car and distinctive street car. NASCAR says the move “puts the ‘stock’ back in stock car racing.”