Last week, a number of the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams were testing the new “sixth-generation” car at Charlotte. This new car, which will replace the 2012 version, has a number of differences from the previous standardized race car.
The last major revision to the car rules came in 2007 with the introduction of the so-called “Car of Tomorrow” (CoT). These cars introduced the concept of “common templates” – all makes had to fit exactly the same package of NASCAR templates and the tolerances were so tight the teams had to race exactly the same bodywork and chassis at all types of racetrack whether it be a superspeedway, short track or a road course. All this was supposed to save the teams money by eliminating the never-ending fine-tuning of the car’s aerodynamics that characterized the previous generation of Sprint Cup race cars. In addition, the CoT was built to provide the driver with more crash protection.
So, what to call the new car? It wouldn’t do to keep using “Car of Tomorrow” even it that moniker was still valid. So, we’re now going to call it the “Sixth-Generation” race car. Simple enough and easy to say – but it does beg the question: What were the previous five generations, and when did NASCAR undergo the change from one “generation” to the next? More on that later.
Most importantly, the sixth-generation cars will no longer be required to all conform to common templates but will have obvious visual differences among the different makes, producing a look more like the various production models. We have already seen this trend with the recent Nationwide Mustangs and Challengers. In an attempt to make the race cars more closely resemble the street versions, the noses will be a bit longer and the trunk a bit shorter.
Anyway, the new cars were tested at Charlotte and they seemed to pass muster. They have tinkered with the rules for the suspension and made the bodies a bit smaller. Whatever the reason, the new cars seem to be a bit faster than the 2012 version. Fortunately, it seems to be easy to dial-in different amounts of power using the new electronic fuel injection system, so if fine-tuning is needed here, I guess we’ll get it.
Note this: NASCAR may change the aero package or the power levels for the cars at Daytona during Speedweeks after seeing how the cars run once they all get there. As always, making your pool choices based on speeds set before the actual Daytona 500 race is always risky. For that matter we won’t really know how fast these cars will be through the long haul of the season until we get the Daytona superspeedway behind us and are into the stretch of non-restrictor plate tracks.
Okay, NASCAR is calling this new car the sixth-generation car. There is an obvious break between the 2012 version and the 2013 car. The fifth-generation is also obvious: That began when the car of tomorrow with its common templates arrived in 2007. Originally the fifth-generation cars had a standardized rear wing, but this was replaced with the traditional rear spoiler in response to fan preferences.
The demarcation of previous four generation is not so clear, but NASCAR has given it their best shot:
Generation 1 (1948-1966). This runs from the very beginning of NASCAR to the end of the requirement that the cars all run stock frame and bodywork. I would have made this two separate generations. The first being the short-lived “Strictly Stock” era, which ran for only the first (1949) season. This was followed by the “Grand National” generation, which gradually allowed more and more modifications in the name of safety and reliability.
Generation 2 (1967-1980). With the development of unibody cars by the car makers, NASCAR allowed the use of a race team-fabricated frame with the unibody car panels mounted on top. Most of the cars – with the exception of the Dodges, which used a torsion bar suspension – used a chassis based on the 1965 Ford Galaxie (all coil springs) with the short trailing arms of the Ford replaced by longer “truck arms” from the Chevrolet pickup truck. During this period each car used a race engine based on the ones used in production models – including 427 ci engines from each of the big three – but, by the end of the generation, things had settled down to using the “small block” V8s of about 365 ci exclusively. A lot of evolution went on in the course of this generation.
Generation 3 (1981-1991). The Detroit automakers were “downsizing” their cars in response to fuel shortages and NASCAR followed suit. They reduced the wheelbase from 115 inches to 110 inches and the approved models were the new downsized cars. As it turned out, at first GM had the advantage with its various coupes and the dark horse Pontiac LeMans. The LeMans was fast at Daytona, but NASCAR slapped a huge rear spoiler on the car by the Atlanta race more than taking away its aero advantage. Dodge had withdrawn from the scene and Ford had its uncompetitive boxy Thunderbird – leaving the competition to the GM coupes. The Buick was the best of the lot and it dominated the first couple of seasons. Later Bill Elliot got the new aerodynamic Thunderbird and emerged as the dominant force. In this era of NASCAR-mandated stock body configurations, Chevrolet had to produce a new Lumina shape that mimicked the Thunderbird giving Earnhardt and others a weapon with which to fight the Fords.
Generation 4 (1992-2006). This division between generation three and four is not so clear to me. Throughout most of generation three, NASCAR would make its body templates by simply taking them from the actual production bodywork. And, then they would fine-tune the differences between the different makes by mandating slightly different-sized rear spoilers and other such tweaks. However, the production cars started to diverge in size and it became harder to produce equity – a concept that became official NASCAR doctrine. The Pontiac Grand Am was notably shorter front and rear and, after some teams tried to fudge it by adding unapproved extensions, NASCAR backed off and let them modify their cars. This ended the era of stock bodywork and now the factories were renting wind tunnels to fine-tune their specific bodywork to maximize their aero competitiveness – and lobbying NASCAR to get permission for make-specific adjustments to the rules.
A major shift came in 1998 when Ford discontinued the two-door Thunderbird and NASCAR allowed them to build a supposedly four-door race car based on the new Ford Taurus. This new NASCAR-approved Ford race car bore little resemblance to the production car and the idea of it having four doors was only imaginary. If I were counting generations, I would mark this as a break given that all new cars that came along from any manufacturer (Dodge, Chevrolet) after this were required to produce bodywork that conformed to NASCAR’s Taurus-style templates – that is, all makes of race cars now carried essentially identical bodywork going forward.
That brings us back to the fifth generation “Car of Tomorrow” with its unashamedly common templates for all makes.
So, if it were up to me, I would probably recognize eight different generations even though the demarcation between 1991 and 1992 is pretty arbitrary. But, at least we now have a reason to review the history of the evolution of NASCAR’s stock car racing over the years – and we do have a simple name to refer to the new “Sixth Generation” race cars that we’ll see on the tracks starting next February.
(Images courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR; and Buz McKim / NASCAR Hall of Fame)