I don’t really want to go on with this – a subject that has been broached several times already – but I have to add, again, that you probably know the biggest story of the off-season has been the coming of NASCAR’s “Generation 6” Sprint Cup car
They are the Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry that come with the claim they far more resemble their street counterparts than any other cars in recent NASCAR history.
Which is a good thing, by the way. We have yet to see how they will perform but after testing at Daytona, teams and NASCAR seem to think they are on to something.
Now, I have a question. What does “Generation 6” – or “Gen 6” as it is also known – mean?
According to NASCAR, it is the latest generation of stock car racing styles, something it has touted regularly.
“Generation 1” was prevalent from 1948-1966. “Generation 2” followed from 1967-1980 and a year later, “Generation 3” began and held firm for 10 years.
“Generation 4” was on stage from 1992-2006 and then from 2007-2012, “Generation 5” held sway.
And now we’re on the way toward “Generation 6.”
Each of these “generations” featured alterations to the cars which were intended to improve performance, increase safety, reduce cost and, all the while, maintain NASCAR’s reputation for competitiveness across the board.
For the most part, all evolved smoothly. In fact, “Generation 1” lasted nearly 20 years simply because NASCAR made no changes to the basics: Strictly stock frame and body, doors strapped or bolted shut, seat belts and heavy duty rear end axles.
“Generation 5” lives in infamy because it marked the “Car of Tomorrow,” a radically altered vehicle NASCAR enforced to create a new era of safety.
The COT had common body and chassis for all manufacturers, cut down the need for speedway-specific cars and came with a front splitter and rear wing for aerodynamic adjustments.
The car was widely despised by competitors and fans alike. Because of NASCAR’s strict policy for commonality, there wasn’t much teams could do to find “creative” means to make the car faster.
And the fans were disgruntled because the cars had little manufacturer identity. You have heard, time and again, the complaint about how the car was just like an International Race of Champions vehicle – one designed to be a member of an army of clones.
No identity for the fans and little opportunity for teams to be innovative and test the limits of their “creativity?” Boring, boring, boring.
Well, the hope is that “Generation 6” brings a change to most of that, if not all of it (remember, NASCAR is going to let “creativity” go so far).
But as unique as the “Car of Tomorrow” was, it did not provide the most dramatic, far-reaching changes to NASCAR competition. The “Generation 3” vehicle achieved that.
When it was introduced in 1981 it changed forever the NASCAR competitive environment.
For the ’81 season NASCAR decreed that all wheelbases would be reduced from 115 inches to 110 inches. This downsizing, the first ever attempted by the sanctioning body, was to permit the cars to better represent those on the showroom floor.
After all, Detroit hadn’t made a 115-inch wheelbase car in years.
It didn’t appear dropping five inches off the wheelbase would be much of a big deal. But it turned out to be the most difficult, and debated, change in NASCAR’s history.
The smaller cars proved fast during testing at Daytona. But they did not handle well. They were all over the track. Drivers like Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson said they were terrified of what they experienced and saw no way the “shrunk” cars could run in a draft.
When he participated in testing, a white-knuckled Dale Earnhardt admitted he was “nervous as hell” and saw no way “these cars can run in a pack.”
A couple of frightening wrecks during testing and practice for the Daytona 500 emphasized Earnhardt’s beliefs.
What NASCAR and the teams were dealing with was a new age in aerodynamics. Smaller cars simply acted far differently on the track than their larger counterparts – which is something, obviously, no one had ever experienced.
The only way NASCAR could alleviate the problem was to create more downforce – and that eventually led to seemingly endless changes in rear spoiler height and width.
Only Allison seemed to have it figured out. He showed up at Daytona with a Pontiac LeMans, which he and team owner Harry Ranier secretly tested at Talladega, and immediately it was the fastest car on the track.
The LeMans’ design seemed perfect for its smaller wheelbase and permitted spoiler size. Only Allison had picked up on that.
At first, NASCAR told the complaining competitors that the car was legal and that they had their chance to use it also – so shut up.
Allison won the pole for the Daytona, lost the Busch Clash because of an errant pit stop and then won his 125-mile qualifying race. Indeed, he was the prime favorite to win the 500.
NASCAR couldn’t bear to have one team with such an obvious advantage. It tried to offset Allison’s edge not once, but twice, before the Daytona 500 as it allowed rival teams to increase the size of the rear spoilers to gain more stability.
Allison led 117 laps of the Daytona 500 but lost the race when Richard Petty made a final stop for gas only – where all others took on four tires – to beat Allison by 3.5 seconds
The controversial situation was far from over. On March 11, 1981, four days before the race at Atlanta, NASCAR decreed that instead of the same number of square inches on every rear spoiler for every team, different models would be accorded custom sizes.
Rather than square inches, height would be the requirement. And, as hard as his might be to believe, each model from each manufacturer – Ford, General Motors and Chrysler – would receive its own customized rear spoiler.
NASCAR never admitted it, but this new legislation was targeted at Allison and his LeMans. For the Atlanta race, he was allowed a spoiler 2 ½ inches tall – nearly an inch smaller than any other. As a result whatever edge in stability his car had was lost.
Allison was at such a disadvantage that within two months, he and Ranier switched to a Buick Regal.
It’s been said NASCAR got just what it wanted – right or wrong.
NASCAR fooled around with rear spoiler sizes for most of the season, trying hard to remove the instability of the new car while, at the same time, maintain competitive balance.
Eventually NASCAR found a balance. Well, it’s more accurate to say that the teams figured out how to deal with the smaller car.
And, after the passing of a few more “generations,” the 110-inch wheelbase is still very much a part of NASCAR.
And it hasn’t been an issue for 32 years.