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Track Talk: Six generations of stalk cars, the evolution of NASCAR

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 10:50 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 10:52 a.m. CDT

required that the doors be bolted or strapped shut, with aircraft-quality seat belts (originally just a lap belt) for the driver, and heavy-duty rear axles installed to prevent the cars from flipping at racing speeds. These were the days when fans in the grandstands could easily identify the brands of stock cars racing on the track.

Generation 2 — 1967-1980

Still a stock body, but attached to a frame modified specifically for racing. Such ‘70s NASCAR icons as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker etched their names on the record books in “Gen 2” cars, and a whole new generation of race fans began to take notice of the sport. The modified chassis and more powerful racing engines were then being built by such renowned constructors as Holman-Moody, Banjo Matthews and Hutcherson-Pagan. But the cars were still very ‘stock’ from the perspective of fans in the grandstands, and the era of “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” attracted U.S. automakers to NASCAR, and opened the flood gates of manufacturer support for top-drawer NASCAR race teams.

Generation 3 — 1981-1991 

NASCAR reduced the wheel base of the “Gen 3” car to 110 inches, downsizing the cars to resemble what the average consumer saw on his favorite auto dealer’s showroom floor. At the same time, NASCAR was beginning to rapidly expand its reach into areas of the country previously untapped for the sport, via racetrack facilities on the west coast and much-expanded live television exposure for their traditional events. NASCAR superstars Dale Earnhardt (Sr.), Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine were making big names for themselves in the sport, and NASCAR racing was gaining new fans from coast to coast. Despite the fact that “Gen 3” cars were fully fabricated, and were assembled by specialty manufacturers, body panels still were purchased through the production automakers, and the cars still appeared “stock” to the average fan.

Generation 4 — 1992-2006

As the popularity of NASCAR exploded across the continent, and new tracks were being built in California, New Hampshire, Illinois, Kansas and other states. Interest in the sport was accelerating, and fans flocked to the events in increasing numbers at every racetrack. NASCAR had become a truly national sport, and such non-southern drivers as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle were winning races and championships, and serving notice that a new generation of drivers would match the next generation of racecar. No longer stock in any real way, with the bumpers, nose and tail composed of molded composite materials only based on production specifications and bodywork massaged through hours of wind-tunnel time, the manufacturer’s ‘brands’ of the “Gen 4” cars were a bit more difficult for casual fans to identify on the racetrack.  

Generation 5 — 2007-2012

In 2001, NASCAR made a commitment to all stakeholders that their newly founded Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C. would be tasked with developing the next generation of racecars. A car that would be by far the most advanced in terms of driver safety features, such as energy absorbing front and rear frames, more space between the driver’s door and driver, and a new seating and head-restraint system that would prevent most of the common injuries from side, front or rear impact. So it was that the Car of Tomorrow (COT) was created and rolled out in 2007, with identical bodies and frames for all cars, and just the front air dam “splitter” and rear spoiler blade for teams to adjust the aero package. Trouble was, some fans in the grandstands were not sure which ‘brand’ of car a particular driver was piloting, and but for headlight, taillight, grill and logo decals, all identity of the Chevys, Fords, Dodges and Toyotas on the track had been erased. Not surprisingly, the COT car wasn’t as interesting to fans and automakers, even though such new NASCAR stars as Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were gaining notoriety.

Which brings us to the current season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, and the 2013 introduction of the “Gen 6” car. Underneath the new racecar’s skin, it is still a ‘COT’ car, with all the latest driver safety innovations. But on the exterior, the body panels are now manufacturer-unique, meaning that the “Gen 6” racecars are no longer clones of one another, and actually resemble the cars found in showrooms all across the USA.  For race fans, this means that racecars really look like the “brands” they are supposed to be.  In other words, almost in a return to the earlier generations of NASCAR racecars, this new design puts the “stock” back into “stock car racing”. And racers, NASCAR officials, and most importantly the fans, are raving about it.

The first race with Gen 6 cars — the 55th running of the storied Daytona 500 — is now in the history books, and five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has the honor of not only winning his second career Daytona 500, but of being the first winner in a “Gen 6” car. A new racing season is underway, and there will be more to talk about as the drama unfolds at races in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Bristol in March.  But one thing’s for sure in this new NASCAR season: Fans can root for their favorite driver, and know for sure the ‘brand’ of stock car he or she is driving. 

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