A Car of Tomorrow Renaissance

I read a post the other day over at Autoextremist (a fantastic automotive blog) about the optimism surrounding the introduction of the Gen 6 car even in the face of continuing struggles for NASCAR, and it got me thinking about the recent evolution of our race cars. In the post, Mr. De Lorenzo talks about NASCAR’s unwillingness to change, and brings up the argument about races being too long and there being too many cookie cutter tracks. I agree that we probably have too many similar tracks, but I think he is incorrect in what he calls NASCAR’s “head-in-sand approach.” The Gen 6 car’s adoption is a perfect example of NASCAR’s ability to change, and their quest for a stronger sport.

As we’ve discussed ad nauseum over the years here at TNI, the reasons behind NASCAR’s fall are many. The sharp decline in the economy has played probably the largest role, but I also think the introduction of the COT did serious damage. Even though Cup cars haven’t been anything close to approaching a stock looking car for at least two decades, the COT erased what little was left of brand differentiation. But, in NASCAR’s defense, the COT made a lot of sense when it was brought about.

Put into use for the 2008 season, the two biggest reasons for the creation of the COT were improved driver safety (brought about mostly by Dale Earnhardt’s death), and a leveling of the competitive playing field. On both counts, the COT was successful. The COT put the drivers in a much safer position inside the cars (see video here for proof), and the competitiveness of the races was dramatically improved.

But where NASCAR had hoped to satisfy the fans’ want for better racing, the use of a common template to do so destroyed any brand recognition outside of emblems and headlight decals. NASCAR seriously underestimated the importance to both the fans and the manufacturers of how the cars actually looked.

I think at this point in our exploration of the car evolution it’s key to remember that NASCAR is a reactionary body, as are most similar entities. Problems are addressed as they arise. The COT was in no way a proactive move, which brings us to this season’s introduction of the Gen 6 cars.

Now that NASCAR has figured out ways to keep drivers safer (car improvements, HANS devices, SAFER barriers, etc.), and improve the quality of the racing, both of which are fundamental to NASCAR’s future health, they see and are addressing the next set of issues: aesthetics.

In the new world of corporate involvement in sports, everything has become about three letters: R.O.I. It’s not good enough anymore for companies to just have their logos displayed everywhere. They want real results, and they want to be able to measure those results. Executives must have empirical data to show stakeholders that spending big money on sports actually helps business. For the manufacturers in NASCAR, this means a return to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Having race cars look much closer to their stock counterparts  will aid in this effort.

NASCAR is also hoping that having much more attractive race cars will bring back some of those fans that have walked away from the sport over the last few years. Now they can say the drivers are safer, the racing is as good as it’s ever been, and look how great the cars look!

Whether or not the Gen 6 cars will have a real positive effect on the sport remains to be seen. But I think it’s unfair to say that NASCAR isn’t trying to make improvements. Are they probably too reactive? Yes. At the end of the day though, NASCAR wants whatever will make the fans happy and keep them engaged. Because lots of engaged fans means more money for all involved.

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16 Responses to “A Car of Tomorrow Renaissance”

  1. Daniel says:

    I like this article, you bring up a lot of great points! Good job!

  2. RA Eckart says:

    Hopefully, the on-track racing is as good or better than how the COT turned out near the end of its run. After fits & starts in 2008, the car was allowed to improve, and by 2012, the racing was as close as its ever been.

    That said, the COT was easily the most-tested new car NASCAR ever introduced. Besides computer simulation & wind-tunnel, the on-track testing was extensive over the course of many years.

    Contrast that to the Gen 6 car. It’s bodywork wasn’t even approved until the second half of this year, late in the game. No doubt there was wind-tunnel testing, but actual on-track testing is running behind the COT.

    Which leaves us with computer simulation. Although not much has been written, I’d guess the computer simulation on this car dwarfs everything that’s come before it. Hence, the lack of urgency to approve bodywork until 6 months ahead of introduction.

    So at least we know that stakeholders have had to put all their trust in computer simulation. As long as NASCAR is comfortable making massive rules changes IF things don’t work out, we should be fine.

    But as far as real-world, on-track testing, the Gen 6 car has just now come out of the dark.

  3. Craig says:

    I’m really optimistic about the Gen 6 car. It looks great, and it appears the RD focus here was making the racing more competitive. There will probably be growing pains, but this new car is real step forward. The COT, especially its early form, was ugly as hell, and it still had the same aero push problems of the Gen 4 car. I can’t wait for the Shootout to see them in action.

  4. Neon says:

    IMO nice job NASCAR cause the cars look great. I especially like the fender blisters at the wheel arches front to rear and the transition from the hood to the fenders up front. These new body lines add character that the COT was lacking. The slab sides became a bit boring. The jury is still out on the near vertical slab rear (looks a bit like BMW’s Bangle Butt to me), but if it changes up the nose to tail drafting match up….then I’ll go for it.
    Now just throw away restrictor plates at Daytona & Dega and cut ‘em loose.
    The Duels only 1 month from yesterday, I better get my bags packed!

  5. Doug in CA says:

    I have no great thoughts on the car itself, but wanted to chime in on something in your post: “In the post, Mr. De Lorenzo talks about NASCAR’s unwillingness to change, and brings up the argument about races being too long and there being too many cookie cutter tracks.”

    I’m not going to argue the cookie-cutters. I agree 100% that variety is the spice of life, and I love road racing.

    But the races being too long is another topic. Look, NASCAR is about big engines enduring for a long time. You want short races? Go to Eldora and watch a 50-lapper. Go to NHRA and watch races that last under 5 seconds. Go to Indy car and see 90-minute races. All are fine forms of racing, but they aren’t what NASCAR is! NASCAR is about pit strategy (without the contrived pit strategies of F1), and about building an engine that lasts. It’s a team sport. It’s why I advocated having not only the driver’s name, but also the crew chief’s name, on the cars this year.

  6. Larry says:

    I have always disagreed and argued against the thought that all 1 1/2 mile tracks are cookie-cutter tracks. The surfaces are different, the banking varies, the weather conditions change. That makes each and every one of the tracks unique.

  7. dshaf_rpms says:

    I wish I could share people’s optimism about the Gen 6 but I don’t understand how it will help the sport.

    To me, the discussions about needed changes in NASCAR begin and end with appealing to the “casual” sports fan. Ratings are decreasing, sponsors are leaving, many races are not competitive, TV coverage is terrible, etc.

    NASCAR needs new, younger eyeballs.

    How does a slightly distinctive nose and new headlight decals achieve that?

    Look, I’m sure that the manufacturers are happy about the Gen 6 and brand distinction but I worry that the days of “sell on Monday” are over. Today’s kids aren’t buying cars like they did in previous generations.

    NASCAR should be experimenting with radical changes: Shorter season. Shorter races. (w/Qualifying heats?) Add as much real-time online content as possible. More road courses.

    Why would a stick-and-ball fan sit for 4 hours watching a “race” where 3 laps after each restart the entire field is single-file? And the TV coverage zooms in on individual cars so close that you can’t tell what turn it’s in? For 30+ Sundays?

    I want as many people as possible to love racing like I do. But I don’t think the Gen 6 helps me be an evangelist at all.

  8. Michael in SoCal says:

    I have to disagree with Larry’s comment about the ‘cookie cutter’ tracks being unique. Here’s why:

    Auto Club Speedway, Kentucky Speedway & (old) Kansas:
    one 2 mile track, two 1.5 milers, 14 degrees banking in the turns, between 8 – 11 degrees banking on the front stretch, all D-shaped ovals.

    Chicagoland Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, (new) Kansas Speedway, Michigan Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
    one 2 mile track, four 1.5 milers, 17 – 20 degrees banking in the turns, 9 – 12 degrees banking on the front stretch (Homestead-Miami has 4 degrees banking on the front & back stretch), all except Homestead are D-shaped ovals (Homestead is shaped similar to Indianapolis).

    Atlanta, Charlotte & Texas Motor Speedway: all SMI tracks, all 1.5 milers (Atlanta is 1.54 miles long), 24 degrees banking in the turns, 5 degrees banking front & back stretch, all Quad-ovals.

    And then there’s Indianapolis (already similar to Homestead-Miami) and Pocono (similar to Indianapolis as a low banked 2.5 miler).

    So maybe there are 3 classes of cookie-cutter tracks, with a fourth class to include long low-banking tracks (Indy & Pocono). But what’s the main thing that all these tracks have in common? Races where the cars get strung out single file for long segments at a time. You’ll get side-by-side racing for a couple of laps following restarts, but until the next caution, you’re going to be watching a parade of fast cars racing the wind. Not really exciting, either on TV or in person.

    So you have 12 tracks, hosting 16 races (including the All Star race) that produce the same parade of cars racing. Sure, the tracks themselves have some variety among them, but not much. But the racing these tracks produce most of the time is unfortunately pretty tepid at best.

    To me, that is a bad thing for Nascar. But it does open up a lot of race weekends for me to do something else on race day.

  9. Woogeroo says:

    If they fix the racing action(on track passing & lead changes) on the track… and the coverage thereof, the rest will take care of itself.

    As interesting as I find various aspects of the sport… when I’m watching the race, all I care about is green flag racing action and on track battles for position.

    I don’t care what the drivers said, what they ate for lunch, where they played golf or anything else.

    I just want to see the whole race, from up front to all the way in the back.

    -W

  10. Doug in CA says:

    dishaf and Michael: I agree with both of you. Dishaf is right in that the cookie cutters (hold on a minute) don’t do much to attract new fans like Talladega, Daytona, and maybe short tracks and road courses do.

    Michael, you’re right, too – the tracks are all more or less different. I go to the races at Fontana and have come to appreciate the racing there – things unfold over long periods of time as drivers check out high and low grooves, plotting passes. I also think that’s “true fan” stuff, not stuff the casual observer would appreciate or come back for more of. I suspect you can watch a race at each track and appreciate the subtleties. (Sorry for the ending preposition and the self-important reference.)

    Sadly, though, appreciating the development of races at the cookie cutters takes time – you have to follow NASCAR for a few years and, more important, you have to attend races. I bet the Fontana races are incredibly boring on TV. The TV viewer simply isn’t given the chance to watch two cars duel for 6th place over 10 laps, or to watch the guy in 23rd closing in on the top 10 over 30 laps.

    The other big problem of seeing the races on TV is that you miss the sound, the sheer power. The first time I ever saw race cars pass me at speed (Indianapolis, 1967), I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. You don’t get the sense of speed, the noise, or the tire small on TV. It’s why I tell folks, “You may or may not like racing, but don’t make that call until you have actually been to a race.”

  11. Woogeroo says:

    Doug in CA :

    that is what I tell people too, who say they don’t like racing… even tho’ I’ve only been to two cup races, 20 years apart.

    I can still recall being 9 years old in the Atlanta infield as the cars came diving into the turn… vroom vroom vroom vroom……………..

    I met a lady, she said she loves to go to races, but watchin’ ‘em on tv doesn’t do anything for her. :D

    -W

  12. Michael in SoCal says:

    Doug – I agree with you about being at a race in person. That first & second lap where the cars are still in a pack and they come roaring around the frontstretch (or wherever you’re sitting) is a HUGE rush. And yes, the racing at Fontana leads itself to be a fan’s racetrack, as opposed to a casual fan’s racetrack. You need to pay attention and watch how a driver will set up a pass over the span of 5 – 6 laps, utilizing the enormous racing surface to find the right line.

    And it does come down to personal preferences too. I like short track racing, where the speeds aren’t so high, but the action is. The larger tracks are a display of speed and engine capability. Give me Irwindale over Fontana any day. But to each their own.

    My big complaint is that there are too many cookie cutter races. I say all cookie cutter tracks get one race a piece. Spread out some races to shorter tracks and maybe add a road course or two.

    But realistically, this is all for nought. There are way too many business heads involved in the decisions, and too many people tryig to protect the bottom line at SMI & ISC (and Nascar too) for any big changes to happen. But Nascar is racing at Rockingham again and there’s a new car that actually looks like a street car (who knows how it will race, but finding out will be a lot of fun), so I think there are reasons to be hopeful.

  13. Doug in CA says:

    Michael: every year I say, “This is the year I go to Irwindale, a mere 25 miles up the 605 from my home in Long Beach.” I went to Ascot, the old dirt track in Gardena, about 30 years ago and loved it.

  14. Michael in SoCal says:

    Doug – Maybe we can carpool – I live in Long Beach too!

  15. Tim says:

    I do like the new cars. But everyone keeps asking what Nascar has to do to get viewers. The Problem is the live broadcasts are just awful. I don’t mean the commentators, I’m talking about all the commercials. I can’t sit thru a race anymore, I have to tape it and watch it later. If I was a new viewer I wouldn’t have lasted an hour. At no time can the viewer get involved with anything happening on the track. I think at one point they were at lap 72 and came back at lap 54? You used to get interviews from the crew chiefs, the pit reporters would let you know if someone was having an issue with tire wear or water temps, or whatever. It would keep you interested. Or they would let you know that maybe your driver got a bad set of tires. We got nothing. There wasn’t anytime. By the time they came back and did there promotions for the broadcast, it was time for another commercial break. I know tons of people who don’t watch it anymore. It’s just brutal. If they don’t include anything but the leader and Danika, how do you get into it?

  16. Paul McChesney says:

    I was wondering if we will see NASCAR race cars constructed from fiberglass or from composite material. It only seems logical, then Body parts or complete bodies could be replaced due to some form of damage.
    Teams would still be in charge of aerodynamics of the bodies within template boundaries.

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