Cheer up, disgruntled NASCAR fans. In 2013, for the first time in six years, Sprint Cup races feature stock cars that actually look like stock cars.
Yes, the universally reviled Car of Tomorrow is yesterday’s news, ending a brief, unhappy fling with one-size-fits-all bodies that resembled garishly colored blobs more than anything sold in showrooms. Replacing the CoT is a so-called Gen-6 car that looks like a properly racy version of a street-going Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion, or Toyota Camry.
“With the [Car of Tomorrow], there was more of an interest in safety and parity,” says Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “But we knew early on that we needed to have more brand identity in the cars. So we worked with the manufacturers on getting back to product-relevant cars.”
The reaffirmation of NASCAR’s commitment to the win-on-Sunday, sell-on-Monday philosophy that spawned the creation of stock car racing is good news for both automakers and fans. But in a larger sense, the sixth-generation body is just the latest in a series of developments that are putting a kinder and gentler face on a new-and-improved NASCAR.
A decade ago, NASCAR was a dictatorial juggernaut whose marketing prowess had turned American open-wheel and sports car racing into back-of-the-pack also-rans. Racetrack attendance, broadcast viewership, and sponsorship interest were soaring. Once dismissed as a regional peculiarity, stock car racing was being touted as a sport for the new millennium, and the term “NASCAR dads” entered the national lexicon.
Still, as fans confronted ever-rising costs and skyrocketing ticket prices, critics claimed that NASCAR had gotten too big for its britches. And when the housing bubble burst in 2007, NASCAR took a serious hit. Sponsors split. Fans fled. TV numbers cratered. Then the Car of Tomorrow debuted to a chorus of snark and smack from drivers and fans alike.
“I can’t stand to drive them,” Kyle Busch declared after the first CoT race, at Bristol in 2007. “They suck.” And he’s the guy who won the race.
To be fair, the Car of Tomorrow was exponentially safer than the car it replaced. Since all bodies shared a common template, the CoT promoted parity. But the timing of the car’s introduction made NASCAR seem tone-deaf.
In the bad old days, NASCAR would have testily ignored the criticism. But under the stewardship of CEO Brian France, the organization has been surprisingly open to change, and it began implementing rules expressly written to please fans looking for more exciting action.
In 2009, Sprint Cup adopted double-file restarts to ratchet up the tension after yellow flags. The next year, the nebulous “boys, have at it” policy (or nonpolicy, if you prefer) was instituted, with predictably incendiary results. The year after that, the point system was rejiggered to place a heftier premium on winning races.
NASCAR also started showing some love to automakers who wanted race cars that were more relevant to their street cars. So last year, electronic fuel-injection units provided by Freescale/McLaren and Bosch—better known for their F1 technology—finally replaced the old Holley-derived carburetors that had been standard equipment for decades.
Meanwhile, NASCAR asked manufacturers to submit proposals for new sixth-generation bodies. The major constraint was that the sheetmetal had to fit over the Car of Tomorrow chassis, which was being retained along with the basic CoT suspension geometry. The manufacturers tested scale models and full-size mock-ups in wind tunnels to generate drag, downforce, and side-force numbers. NASCAR, working with outside consultants, then suggested tweaks that retained the signature look of each body while equalizing aerodynamic performance.
Although preseason tests of the Gen-6 cars weren’t definitive, the early results are promising. “This has been the opposite [of the CoT experience],” Matt Kenseth said after testing his new Camry at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Everybody’s really excited about how the car looks more like a production car, but it’s the same chassis that we’re used to. So far, they’re looking good, and they’re driving good, too.”
The body has been designed to—fingers crossed—make the car perform better in traffic by mitigating aero push. At the same time, NASCAR took the opportunity to trim more than 100 pounds from the car, which should improve performance. Also, rear-suspension rules were rewritten to prevent the sorry spectacle of cars tracking down the straights with their tails kicked out, like wrecked Ford Pintos with crudely straightened frames.
“With the Gen-6 car, we’ve taken the R&D a lot farther than with any other car or rules package since I can remember,” says Pemberton, who began as a mechanic in 1979. “So we feel like we’re going to be in a better place than we’ve ever been before.”