Home / Beside the Rising Tide / Beside the Rising Tide: A Brand-New NASCAR
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Beside the Rising Tide: A Brand-New NASCAR

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.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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23 comments

  1. Avatar

    Another thought provoking column Matt! The comments, opinions, and ideas you get in return are proof of your skills and reflect all of our wishes to get stock car racing back to what we used to thoroughly enjoy. In every business organization, large or small, you have the people at the top and the people at the bottom. The people at the top think the people at the bottom aren’t doing enough and the people at the bottom think the people at the top are nuts. That said, both groups know someone in the middle of all that that has the skills to make it all work, but that person or those persons don’t have the muscle to advance their agenda without great risk to their own security. By that I mean you can have great solutions but if the toppers don’t embrace it, soon YOU become the problem and we all know where that can lead. The people at the top have to listen and adapt or soon Rome will burn. It’s already smoldering! Having experienced a factory downsizing from 700 plus down to zero in two years I recognize the odor.

    • Avatar

      “Another thought provoking column?” Was that meant as a joke? Matt has been writing the same column for at least a decade. Whose thoughts are provoked by reading the same old whining BS week after week? And throw in sidekick PattyKay Liley and you have no original thoughts emanating from FS since fans pelted full beer cans at Jeff Gordon. It’s called preaching to the faithful and it accomplishes nothing.

      If you have nothing new to bring to the party, Matt, please just leave. You can even have a Victory Tour like DW did!

  2. Avatar

    And who brought Dr. Deming to Japan? General Douglas MacArthur as part of post-war reconstruction.

    As far as Toyota Camrys rolling off ships… the Camry is built in Toyota’s largest manufacturing facility in the world at Georgetown KY. The nearest body of water is the North Fork of Elkhorn Creek and though it will support canoes and kayaks, sea-going vessels are a bit of a stretch. Not saying Camrys aren’t railed or trucked elsewhere for sea shipping but they aren’t being built overseas and shipped in as implied.

    • Avatar

      Exactly right about MacArtur bringing Dr. Deming to Japan. Where his work was embraced while we who had used it enthusiastically in WW2 fell into the trap of building mediocre products for a public that was willing to accept them. Until something better came along.
      Lots of books written about this.

  3. Avatar

    Random thoughts:

    First time I saw a Toyota truck with a “3” sticker on it was at IRP back in mid 90s. A bunch of us considered it heresy to do so.

    Probably the best place to get young people interested in racing is the local short track or drag strip. The cars actually look, run, and largely are stock cars.

    When I win the lottery, among my first purchases will be a 1971 Hemicuda. I think the last one went at auction for $3.5M.

    Libertarian car columnist Eric Peters has a great read on how the federales have taken the element of design away from, um, car designers. Google “Why Do They All Look The Same?”.

    I think Matt has mentioned it before, but, young people don’t work on cars cuz there’s not a lot that can be done with ’em nowadays. Hell I gapped the plugs on my Vega station wagon with the pull tab of a beer can. That ol GM engine sucked more than stormy daniels but it tought me how to keep a POS running instead of throwing it away. Today everything is computer controlled so instead of jetting a carb, you get a CANBUS flash.

  4. Avatar

    Okay, here’s an alternate opinion: While I agree the excitement of new car reveals is long over, to me that’s a separate issue. The racing at the Cup level currently isn’t very good and this new aero configuration will improve the racing. Taken to its extreme, we don’t want Cup racing to become like Formula One; while their cars are amazing technological marvels – the racing stinks. NASCAR has always been more like a spec series. But instead of claiming that vehicle equality will result in “luck” determining the winner – I feel that this will put the drivers back in to the equation. Case in point would be Allmendinger’s performance in the All Star Race. His equipment is inferior to the top teams, but by taking the high line and keeping his momentum up, by a DRIVING technique, he was highly competitive.

    I want to see drivers as the determining factors, not the invisible and expensive engineers back at the race shop. You want to cut costs? Let NASCAR manufacture all the cars and the teams show up a day early to have a car assigned to them, wrap them and then race them. Guess what, the Kyle Busches and Kevin Harvicks would still rise to the top – based on their DRIVING talent.

    Finally, consider the smaller, independent teams. In the past, if you put forth enough effort and had a good enough engine, smaller teams could be competitive and even win a race here and there. The new aero package may allow this to happen once again. Perhaps I’m on an island, but I want to see talented drivers actually passing one another, I want to see driver personalities and controversies. I do have brand loyalty, but for the good of the sport, putting the drivers back in control of their outcomes looks like a good change! Compare this year’s Xfinity race at Indy to the Cup race the following day. One was a 2, 3 or 4-wide exciting race with multiple passes throughout the field, the other was largely a single file, follow-the-leader, aero-push , cookie-cutter race. Exciting racing is what will lead to the sport’s resurgence.

  5. Avatar

    One of the perks of working as a car doctor at Ford dealerships during the 70s through mid 90s was the early arrival of the new car models and driving them before the general public. I remember the 428 Cobra Jet Torinos and the 429 Tunnel Ports (i’was surprised when they came back with tread on the rear tires) and owning one of the first cars with electronic ignition. You got to hear about teething problems on new models but my favourite was the new model Corvette assembly line that had to be shut down because the dash assembly was too wide to fit.

  6. Avatar

    Benn a Nascar fan since 1956, but this nascrap is about to totally turn me off!!

  7. Avatar

    Maybe get rid of the matched aero packages and go back to requiring the race cars to look more like the cars at the dealership. Make the greenhouse match the production car exactly and require a closer resemblance for everything else. If the cars at least look more like Fords, Chevys, and Toyotas maybe that will spark a little more interest and brand rivalry that used to make things exciting.

  8. Avatar

    I hate any rule or policy that increases the crapshoot factor of who wins. I want the team that showed up with the best car on any given week to win not some random winner based on who circumstances favored. Of course luck will always be a factor in any endeavor but in my mind it’s the sanctioning body that sets the rules job to mitigate the luck factor as much as possible. NASCAR is doing the exact opposite, increasing luck’s influence on who wins.
    It might be the straw the breaks the camel’s back for a lot of fans.

  9. Avatar

    One of the biggest problems is the increased focus on “winning the championship”. Part of what makes going to the local tracks is there are a lot of racers show up not competing for the championship. There are there to win a race that night period. Some show up mid summer after they get their ‘money together’ with real fast cars, others ‘track hop’ looking for a good purse. Its real race to race completion. Even the ‘engine claim’ rule in IMSA modified make the whole experience a hoot!!

    NASCAR has become more like wrestling (not the contrived finishes part but..) where a bunch of “house cars” showing up to put on a show, with the ring masters trying like hell to make drama out of tires, bumps, restarts, pit stops, burnouts…every thing but the race .

    Maybe NASCAR needs to be more like Golf. With a true feeder series, where at some point, bottom 10 are out, and top 10 from the Feeder Series move up. Everybody using same clubs (cars) that are within strict, easy to measure specs that prevent overspending. (The prevent overspending part is easier said than done. engine claiming?)

    Anyway the EAST/WEST NASCAR-> ARCA-> Camping World-> Busch -> Cup racing ladder with separate (think FedEx Cup) elimination events at year end would be great entertainment. Add drama at the top for the win, drama at the bottom to move down…

    Add the race exemptions for previous winners or even promotional provisional starters. Think Casey Kahne running ARCA for a race.

    Headlines:
    If Danica doesn’t finish higher than 14 this week she will be moving down to Busch Series along with, Cassill, McDowell and 7 others.”

    “Hunter Nememechek has EARNED a place in Cup Series for next year”

    Its fun to dream..

    • Avatar

      I agree… winning the “championship” gets way too much emphasis. With a few distinct exceptions, what we remember at the end of the season is the few races that were exciting, not who won the convoluted championship. When the racing is good, that’s what we talk about around the watercooler on Monday morning, not who scored the most points, stage points, or playoff points. Call me a relic; call me what you will…

    • Avatar

      Danica? Gotcha! Thought I’d seen this before somewhere! Let’s keep it relevant! She’s gone! You’re not the first we’ve seen this from!

  10. Avatar

    too much for my brain to remember, different cars for different tracks. use to have plate track and short track and road course track cars.

    i can’t remember the last time i watched a race from pre-race to post race.

    oh how i remember waiting for that sunday newspaper in september that held all those glossy car brochures by the manufacturers introducing their new models for the year. looking at the cool cars and crazy colors. now all cars look the same, just throw a blanket over them.

    i’m still amazed at how empty the stands were at vegas for the cup race. guess everyone was underneath the stands trying to stay out of the hot sun.

    hype this coming weekend will be jr in the xfinity race. yawh.

  11. Avatar

    Just one person’s opinion but those were the glory days of Nascar. When we still believed that there was a difference between a Ford and a Chevy, or a Dodge. Favorite drivers were ok, but it was most important that your brand one.
    Somehow in the age of “parity” it doesn’t seem as special. Let others be distracted by playoffs and other shiny objects I don’t care. I seldom watch anymore, and haven’t watched a whole race since before the stage nonsense started, but what little I care is only about what brand comes in first.

    • Avatar

      Somewhere between Dale Sr. and Winston leaving NASCAR HAS SLOWLY BEEN DYING . With Brain France’s help.

    • Avatar

      Brand loyalty in 2018? You really are in a time warp. I drive a Ford, and cheer for a Toyota driver and a Chevy driver. The Ford drivers are pigs. Would I cheer for a golfer because he used a certain brand of clubs or balls? No, that would be stupid and cheering for an auto brand when they are all essentially the same anyway is also stupid. And BTW, Toyota saved the U.S. auto industry by forcing them to build high quality cars at reasonable prices. Nobody among the old geezers ever talks about that!

      And Matt is older than prehistoric. He writes his columns in hieroglyphics. But old doesn’t equal smart.

      • Avatar

        And the beauty of it is that its my time warp. No asking for volunteers to climb aboard. Everyone is entitled to one.

        BTW: Toyota didn’t force the other brands to do anything. They had to improve for self preservation. They would have been very happy to continue to sell you cars with defective ignition switches, or cars that caught fire if rear ended. The marketplace always dictates winners and losers. Happens in everything.