While I’m hardly prehistoric, this old world of ours is, in fact, a very different place than where I grew up. Thanks to my lifelong fascination with fast, loud cars, I recall back in the days when car makers released new or improved car models in September.
Back then, there was great public interest to see what Detroit had wrought. In the days leading up to the official new release date, the showroom windows of car dealers were often blocked with brown paper to hide the wonders within. Little kids like me, impatient by nature, did our best to find a tiny gap in the paper we could peek through to see what was going on inside. That’s how I saw my first Mustang, and it was love at first sight, although my efforts to convince my dad that our family of seven could somehow wedge ourselves into a sporty little two-door coupe as a practical family car fell short.
Information and misinformation we’d gleaned about the new iron was traded as a valued currency in the cafeteria once school began. There was endless debate over which was the “coolest” new car. I doubt it mattered to Detroit designers and engineers but the general consensus among my friends and I, still six years too young to get a license, much less buy a new car, was that 1970 was the pinnacle of automotive design. You had the restyled and achingly beautiful new Mach One Mustang, some with the 428 Cobra Jet engine. (My first car, though I bought it used in 1975.)
The second generation Camaro was a big hit, as were the Plymouth ‘Cuda, the Dodge Challenger, and the overhauled and voluptuous new GM Mid-Size A bodies, though that didn’t apply much to the 1970 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser dad bought my mom. Hey, it did have the 455 engine and that’s the car I learned to do burnouts in, though while well out of range of my parents’ hearing. The school of thought back then was often summed up as “lower, wider, and faster.” (“And more expensive,” I can hear my dad grouse. He took the annual car price increases as a personal affront.)
I’m told kids in general these days don’t care much about new cars. Even high school kids voluntarily forego getting a driver’s license. That was an unthinkable state of affairs when I went to Radnor High School, but back then we couldn’t call an Uber, either. (At least partially because we didn’t have a cell phone or the Internets, which I suppose would now be an unthinkable state of affairs for this generation of high school kids.)
That lack of interest in cars, fast and loud or otherwise, is said to be contributing to the decline in interest in NASCAR racing among the younger generation. (Which, to me, would include Moses.)
Oh, I’m sure in every school there’s still one or two token gearheads, Billy Bob, with the 35-inch mud tires under his decades-old lifted Chevy K20 four by four powered by a small block with a Crane cam, Holley carb, Cyclone headers and an Edelbrock intake. But I doubt there’s many more cafeteria fistfights over who makes a better truck: Ford or Chevy. (Yes, I have witnessed such an occurrence with my own two eyes, though my diminutive stature and self-preservation instinct sent me scrambling for the parking lot – the protective sanctuary of gearheads and stoners alike. I mean, after all, nobody had crossed a line by saying a Camaro was a better car than a Mustang. That would have triggered a riot and I’d have been up on incitement charges.)
Back then, if you followed stock car racing on TV or in person, you might not have had a favorite driver but you almost certainly had a favorite make of car. You pulled for the Fords, the GMs or the Mopars. And that allegiance probably translated to what you had in the driveway. Back then, you could tell them apart at a glance and there was no mistaking which brand of car you were looking at. To some extent, I’m told there’s still a remnant of that sentiment. On a recent TV show, I heard Tony Stewart say that when his Joe Gibbs team switched from Chevy to Toyota in 2008, three quarters of the membership in his fan club chose not to renew.
I don’t know if that sentiment still exists. Yep, back in the days of peeking through windows at car dealerships in September, GM was the undisputed sales champion and it wasn’t even close. GM fans strongly discouraged family members from marrying a Ford guy. (But somewhere along the way, Toyota took over as top dog and there was nary a peep of protest. Yep, those new Camrys come rolling off the ships at the dock, each one costing American jobs (yeah, I know; follow the money). By and large, people just grin like morons and stand there as if they wait long enough, a new Toyota Hemi Superbird is bound to roll onto the docks soon.
I grew up in very different times. GM was once so intent on rolling out new metal every year that even stylistic triumphs like the 1963 Corvette split window, the 1957 Chevy Belair, the 1969 Camaro SS and the 1970 Chevelle were all one-year wonders.
But next year, NASCAR is getting a brand new car, at least for some racetracks. I’ve gotten a peek through the brown paper at it and I don’t like what I’m seeing. It surely doesn’t look like any Mustang, Camaro or Camry I’ve ever seen. If it did, the supermarket parking lots would be knee-deep in torn off front splitters within a week.
NASCAR hasn’t even trademarked a new name for their new critters. Normally, I hear it called the All-Star package (it was used in this year’s All-Star race) or the “drafting package.” But what I’m calling it is “the restrictor plate package” and, like many of you, I have little use for restrictor plate racing like we have at Talladega and Daytona right now. Plates do, in fact, create more passing. If you consider huge pig piles of wrecks dramatic, they increase drama as well.
But what the plates reduce is the worth of having a talented driver at the wheel. Sure, you go out there and run with your tongue hanging out the side of your mouth. Yet how you fare is largely a matter of luck and where you’re positioned during the final restart. Even whether you’re lined up on the inside or outside lane is going to have more to do with how you finish than how good a race you drove. It seems counterintuitive but over the years the drivers who had the best results at the plate tracks were often the harshest critics of that form of racing. I’m thinking of Dale Earnhardt Sr. here who famously once said, “I don’t care what they say. This ain’t real racing.”
Oh, the “new” cars will only be used on some tracks. (Most notably, they’ll be absent at the short tracks and road courses.) Pocono, Chicago, Kansas, Indy, Michigan, Fontana, Charlotte and other intermediate ovals are most likely where the new package will be used first.
There is, in fact, more to the new cars than just slapping a restrictor plate between the throttle body and intake manifold. There’s those giant snowplows of front splitters, a taller rear spoiler, and air ducts that channel air from the front of the car out of the wheel wells. There may be a mandatory Little Christmas Tree air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror though I doubt it. This package is, after all, one of those infamous “works in progress” NASCAR likes to float around as trial balloons to see how much flak they draw. The official announcement of which tracks will use the package is still probably a week or two away.
NASCAR had even considered using the new package this year at some tracks but hastily reversed that decision when it proved nearly universally unpopular with the teams and drivers. What seems certain is that the package will be in place for at least some of the playoff races next year, though ironically not at Charlotte (where the experiment began). That’s because of the new ROVAL configuration, if that, in fact, goes well enough it’s retained for next year.
Having the plates and the rest of the package used in the playoffs (and while drivers are trying to make the playoffs) just further increases the randomness of winning a championship. It’s just like how this whole 10-race playoff deal is less fair than the traditional full-season title. In any sport, a participant who achieves the highest level of athleticism in his chosen discipline should be champion, not the guy who snuck into the postseason on a single win and got hot for a few of the final ten races. Will that actually diminish the pride and worth of a championship? In my mind, it will, though my guess is some of you will feel otherwise. Making the cars so equal, the least common denominator, will cheapen the sport and downplay the skills of its participants.
NASCAR likes to trumpet the package has worked well to date in that All-Star race and a few NASCAR XFINITY Series events it has been used in. They seem particularly pleased with a four-wide run to the finish (of the stage, not the race) in the NXS race at Indy. Yeah, like who knew? You get a caution flag late in a stage, restart with one to go and drivers are going to run wide open to try to score some stage points. (And yes, I feel stage racing and stage points diminish the legitimacy of auto racing as well.)
Let’s recall this new package is still in its infancy. The crew chiefs, engineers and team members at NASCAR’s top level are very intelligent, skilled and creative men and women. Give them a few races to figure out the quirks and nuances of the new cars and some of them will doubtless improve from the baseline more than others based on their experience. Experimentation and of course a team owner who can continue writing huge checks for stuff like wind tunnel time will help. OCD scanning rigs and tri-post shakers will still make a difference.
Back in the 1990s, there was constant complaining by drivers of each make of car that participated saying their mounts were at an aerodynamic disadvantage. To make the racing more exciting, they claimed NASCAR needed to allow them to run more spoiler or take some spoiler away from the other brands. NASCAR finally came up with what was called the 5 and 5 rules, mandating each team regardless of make run five-inch front spoilers and five-inch rear spoilers. It was going to make the racing so much better and eliminate all that belly-aching the fans had come to hate.
So, how did that work out? Ummm, not well, to be kind. Jeff Gordon won 13 of that year’s 33 races and Mark Martin won seven. Everyone else should have stayed home. (Well, except for Dale Earnhardt, who won his only Daytona 500 to kick off that year.)
By early fall, when Gordon had sewn up the championship, NASCAR finally admitted they had a dog of a system on their hands and began tweaking the rules again as often as they could get away with it. So, yes, I imagine the “new car” will remain a work in progress. But unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to work very well at all. Peeking through the brown paper in NASCAR’s showroom for next year’s model, I don’t see anything ahead I feel the need to run to the cafeteria to announce. My guess is the plethora of plate tracks next year is going to be one of those deals where longtime fans are thinking, “Seen so many things I ain’t never seen before, turn off the lights, I don’t want to see anymore.”
Hmm. Maybe if I tape brown paper over the lenses of my eyeglasses I can just steal an occasional peek.