The Racing Capital
of the World
February 15, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Daytona Beach, Florida - The so-called “glory days” of stock car racing featured race cars that looked just like the 1965 Ford Galaxy 500 that Dad – make that, Grandpa – drove as the family car. Drivers such as Fearless Fred Lorenzen would burn up the track in the Daytona 500 in this model of car to take the checkered flag in 1965. Or for the Richard Petty fans, the elaborate Mopar creations that “King Richard” drove to six of his record seven Daytona 500 victories from 1964-81.
Bill Elliott fans remember the look of the 1985 Ford Thunderbird – a car that looked like it was going 200 mph sitting still. He would zoom that car to victory lane in that year’s Daytona 500 in a season when he became “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”
But over time, the NASCAR Sprint Cup “stock car” became homogenized to the point where the fans couldn’t tell the difference from a Ford to a Chevrolet or a Dodge to a Toyota. Instead of recognizing car brands, fans were looking for paint schemes to identify who was who on the racetrack.
The low-point came during the “Car of Tomorrow” period from 2007-12 when NASCAR created a much safer but boxier race car that even featured a rear wing for several years before that was thankfully removed two years ago. Revisionist historians at NASCAR have since renamed that car the “Generation Five” model as they were preparing for the future by reviewing what worked in the past.
Enter the “Generation Six” – race cars that actually look like Fords and Chevrolets and Toyotas (Dodge left the sport after last season). That has created an automotive buzz around this year’s Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway bringing the “gearhead” fans and car buffs back into the NASCAR equation.
Through preseason testing at Daytona and Charlotte Motor Speedway and a tire test at Darlington, drivers and teams were able to learn the characteristics of the new race cars. But most admit many of their questions won’t be answered until they hit the track at Daytona to prepare for the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 24.
Practice began Friday, Feb. 15 for the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race Saturday, Feb. 16. Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying is Sunday, Feb. 17 with the Daytona Duels – two 150-mile qualifying races set for Thursday, Feb. 21 – to lead into NASCAR’s crown jewel that following Sunday.
These are the same race cars that will compete at the most famous speedway on the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – for the Crown Royal presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday, July 28.
Between now and the Daytona 500, NASCAR drivers and teams are preparing for the unknown variables presented by the new car.
That is why some drivers will take a test pilot mentality into this week’s preliminaries to see the capabilities of this car for bump drafting, traditional drafting and other tricks of the trade that will deliver victory in NASCAR’s biggest race.
“I would assume that's what it's going to be like,” said Tony Stewart, from Columbus, Ind. “Somebody is going to have the nerve to try it (bump drafting), be impatient and try it. That's when we'll have the answer.”
Stewart achieved his “Brickyard legend” status as a two-time Brickyard 400 winner and a three-time NASCAR Cup champion. Several years ago, bump drafting was the rage at Daytona and Talladega, often resulting in mass mayhem. Stewart was an outspoken foe of that style of racing. He advocated that NASCAR officials could end that practice by making sure the front bumpers did not match the same height as the rear bumper on another car.
Two years ago, NASCAR jacked up the rear ends, but that created an even odder form of racing known as “two-car tandems” in which the trailing car could get its nose under the front car and create a more compact aerodynamic vacuum. The second car in line would overheat its engine, eventually needing to swap positions or devise a way to get cooler air into the radiator.
During preseason testing at Daytona in January, drivers attempted to run in a large pack on the second day of testing. But when bump drafting was attempted between Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr., it triggered a multi-car crash that ended the test session for many teams.
“We've only seen one guy try it so far, it didn't end up very well,” Stewart said of that incident. “I doubt that's the last time we'll see it tried. I'll say by Thursday we'll have a really clear idea if that's going to be possible or not.
“It's a theory. Like I say, I think having Saturday and Thursday night's races is good. The logic, if you push a guy, it picks the guy up and wrecks him, doesn't make guys want to do that much if that's the end result.”
But it’s a near certainty that these drivers will want to test the limits of the new package, which could make practice and the preliminary races more valuable than ever at Daytona. But who will be the first to test whether the new car can bump draft?
“You'll see somebody try it,” Stewart said. “Somebody is bound to try it again. Just 'cause it didn't work the first time doesn't mean somebody else isn't going to try it. I will say at some point during practice, somebody will try it. It may just be on the straightaway at first, but somebody's going to try it to see if they can make it work. If one makes it work, everybody is going to figure out how to do it.
“I'm too old to be the first guy to try anything now. So I'll anxiously wait for the crew chief to say, ‘Yeah, that just happened, and we're going to have to figure it out.’ I think you got to go out and at least see what's going on. You got to see how the car is going to react. You're going to have to see mostly how it sucks up and how when you get there how it pushes a guy without physically touching the bumper.
“We've always talked about air being like a spring between the cars, and that's still in play. I think you're still going to have to go out there and physically figure that out, figure out what you have to do, what you can and can't get away with.”
Stewart believes the new car has a lot of downforce and is easier to drive than the previous version of NASCAR’s top race car. That will allow drivers to be more aggressive on the racetrack, which NASCAR hopes results in better racing.
Whenever a major change is made, there are always the “laws of unintended consequences.” When NASCAR went from the larger wheelbase cars of the 1970s to the smaller wheelbase machines in the early 1980s, the result was more cars becoming airborne during crashes. Aerodynamic changes have minimized that to a great degree.
And between now and the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, there will likely be plenty of unintended consequences with the “Generation Six” car.
“I think crash damage is going to be something to learn from and understand how to repair the race car,” said four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. “When those guys crashed on the backstretch during the test, stuff broke apart and disappeared. Where before with the sheet metal on the car you were able to bend things, put things back in place. I understand that we didn’t have all the parts and pieces on the cars at that time, either, but noses would smash in pretty easily. I think crash damage will be something that we all need to learn pretty quickly.”
Defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, the winner of the inaugural Indiana 250 NASCAR Nationwide Series race last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, never liked the previous version race car because of the way it looked.
“I 100 percent agree with that,” said four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon of Pittsboro, Ind. “That was the first thing I noticed about the COT, that I didn't like the way it looked. I expressed my opinions. I didn't like the way it drove, either.
“In the last couple years, we made that car drive really well - but at a price. You hear the TV commentators saying: ‘What is that car doing? It's running sideways down the straightaway.’ Through inspection line, NASCAR's head was spinning trying to figure out what these teams were doing (with that car).
“What's nice about this car is it's going to start off looking good, driving good, looking like a race car should look.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500 in what is now referred to as the “Generation Four” car. NASCAR’s most popular driver praised the new car, and that gives him confidence he will be a factor at Daytona again this year.
“We'll get to see how the car is once we get on the racetrack and run a few laps,” Earnhardt said. “I feel pretty confident that we're going to have strong Speedweeks. Just ready to buckle down and get to it. I really don't know how the car is going to race and draft, what kind of strategy we'll need to be using or think about using. That sort of changes and turns, does different stuff throughout the week. It changes as the week goes.
“Everybody has got to learn the car, figure out what makes it go fast. Hopefully we can do that before anybody else.”
Earnhardt is hopeful that NASCAR drivers and fans have seen the last of the two-car tandem.
“I hope it's gone,” he said. “I hope we don't do that anymore. I don't enjoy doing that. I like taking care of myself, having to worry about what I have to do in a car instead of having to worry about me and somebody else.”
NASCAR has even introduced carbon fiber something that has been a key component to construct Indy cars for decades – to the Gen 6 stock car. Because those pieces must be supplied by manufacturers and cannot be fabricated in race shops such as the parts made with sheet metal, areas where crew chiefs can use their innovative expertise have been removed.
Entering the season, teams are trying to make sure they have plenty of parts in stock because they are unable to build some of the pieces in-house.
“The hardest part has been trying to get the body panels from the manufacturers,” Earnhardt said. “The manufacturers, I don't know that they're quite used to pushing out that kind of production toward motorsports programs. They haven't done that in years, really. It seems like 20 years since we were getting panels from manufacturers to strictly use on the car. So that process has really held everything up. Getting the deck lids and stuff is OK. The deck lids, we were actually using homemade or pieced-together deck lids to get through the test, to be able to go to Nashville and practice the car. They aren't the deck lids we're going to race.
“All of that really was running behind considerably more than people wanted it to. Just sort of understanding exactly what kind of material we're dealing with, we're having a lot of brace failures on the quarter panels and stuff because we're trying to weld a piece of this metal from Chevrolet and the materials don't like each other. The quarter panel from Chevy is real thin. There's all kinds of bugs like that to be worked out, worked out over time. All that stuff is just a process, something you come to expect, especially with a brand-new car.
“I think we'll have the stuff we need when we show up for the racetrack when it's time to race, but, yeah, it's been tight.”
This is a car all drivers enjoy strapping into and taking the wheel. It’s the return of the “hot rod” to NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.
“It's a great car,” Earnhardt said. “It's a step in the right direction. There's so much to learn. We'll make it a better car. Over the year, we'll learn what the car likes and doesn't like. I think it's starting off on the right foot. I say positive things about it because that's the way I feel. But I think everybody needs to just be patient, let the car kind of come to us, let us sort of improve the car over time.
“I think it's a great direction we're going in. The potential for us to really enjoy this car, it to give us and provide us with good racing is good.”
NASCAR officials are pleased with the way the new cars have performed in testing. Compared to the struggles that came with the previous version of car that Kyle Busch drove to victory at Bristol and then said it drove like a “milk crate,” there haven’t been any disparaging comments made to the Gen 6 car.
“Things are looking pretty good,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “We’ve had an opportunity in all of 2012 to do a lot of on-track testing with teams and with Goodyear. We believe we have the best package ever to start a season off. The input from the drivers and the teams and engineers and our engineers – things seem to be heading in the right direction for great competition on the racetrack. The drivers are really going to like these cars, and they are going to like hustling them around the corners.
“We’ve been fairly open with the introduction of these cars. Ford introduced first, followed by Toyota, and Chevrolet was the last to introduce their car. The fans have really voiced their opinion they like what they see and are very interested to see what goes on on the racetrack. It was a long process. It started way back when we brought the new Nationwide car online with the Mustang and Dodge Charger and Chevrolet Malibu, which is now going to be the Camaro. We had already talked to the manufacturers in late 2009 about making the Cup car more relevant.
“We think we have a home run here.”