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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Headed Out to Pasture 

It would seem the generation(s) that came after mine haven’t embraced the automobile with the rabid obsession of me and my contemporaries. I have several nieces and nephews who, though in their mid-to late 20s, still don’t have a car … or a driver’s license for that matter. I got my learner’s permit the day I turned 16 and took my driver’s test with a thoroughly panicky looking State Trooper riding shotgun in my ’70 Mustang Mach One 428 Cobra Jet. 

One of the reasons people often give for the declining popularity of NASCAR racing is the Millennials’ apathy toward (or even outright contempt for) cars. There are exceptions to every rule. One of my nephews works as a mechanic and has his mom’s yard full of project cars and motorcycles, spare engines, etc.

NASCAR’s response to declining enthusiasm among younger folks has seemed a bit curious to me. They’re building pavilions and picnic areas all with free, reliable and ultra-fast wi-fi access. Given the volume of a pack of race cars being driven in anger on the other side of a chain-link fence, I’d think possessing a cell phone at a stock car race would be as useless as tits on a warthog.

What are these new young, relentlessly hip, environmentally sensitive potential fans going to text their friends after the Uber drops them off anyway? “You won’t believe what they charged for a ticket to this race! It’s too hot, the beer is ridiculously overpriced, and the cars are way too loud. The people sitting in the row behind me are wearing George Wallace for President T-shirts!” We the people hold these truths to be self-evident. No woman can be too pretty, no beer can be too cold, no car can be too fast, and no rock and roll can be too loud. If I want a reliable, free wi-fi connection, I can run down the street to the 7-11. As long as I remember my phone, which I seldom do.  

Thus, it was likely only people who graduated high school in the late ’60s to ’70s who got a little misty-eyed when Chevrolet announced the Chevy Camaro will soon be taken out behind the barn and dispatched with a single shot. Yet the end is not quite nigh. The Camaro will be produced up to and through 2023, at which point the once proud nameplate will not be replaced.

Why? This generation’s Camaro is largely based on the Cadillac ATS, CTS, and perhaps some other GM cars with names that look like they resulted from an industrial accident at the alphabet soup factory. Last year’s redesign drew less than unanimous praise with a front end that looked like it was designed by Astro-Boy. Sales for 2018 Camaros plummeted to about 51,000 units. Worse yet, the Camaro’s perennial rival — the Mustang — saw its sales surging. Even the Dodge Challenger outsold the Camaro last year, and if you saw the price sticker on one of those, you’d assume it was in Italian lira at Fiat’s request.

While the redesign didn’t do the Camaro any favors, admittedly it was never really a good looking car since being reintroduced in 2009 after a seven-year hiatus. The roof on the current generation Camaro looks like it’s been chopped several inches, leaving the car with gun-slit outward visibility. I felt claustrophobic riding in a friend’s 2017 model. The Camaro may or may not be ugly, but it certainly doesn’t look like a classic ’67-’69 model Camaro nor the long-lived second generation Camaro that lasted from 70.5 to 1981. The Mustang pays clear tribute to the War Ponies that came before it and the new Challenger is the spitting image of its spiritual ancestors. The Challenger and the Mustang both sell. Go figure.

For this year at least, and presumably for the next few, the Mustang and the Camaro are running as entrants in the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series. If they are not faithful reproductions of their street counterparts as one might assume in a series that races “stock cars,” at least they are both coupes with available high performance V8 engines, manual transmissions and rear wheel drive like the cars that race on Sundays.

Toyota has waded into the fray with their Supra, which is in fact rear wheel drive (unlike the Camry that preceded it) but comes from the factory with an in-line six cylinder turbocharged engine it shares with some BMWs. The NASCAR Supra looks almost nothing like its street counterpart, and that’s to its very great benefit. It seems that Toyota hires all the GM stylists prone to ghastly visages and confused body lines when they get laid off from GM. At least it’s easy to tell the three makes apart again, which hasn’t always been the case. Viewed from the rear, if it appears to have three tail lights per side (it’s actually a decal), it’s a Mustang. If it looks like the rear tail lamps have two buck teeth reverse lamps, it’s a Camaro. If it makes you feel somewhat nauseous, it’s a Toyota. 

As you might have deduced, I’m a Mustang fan. Besides that Mach One, which was my first car, a 1970 Boss 302 alternated with a Buick GS as my daily drivers in college. My first new car was an ’82 Mustang GT, which I used to taunt drivers of similar era Camaros and Trans Ams to purple-faced humiliation. If you had a new Mustang GT in 1982, there weren’t many cars that could keep up with you even though those Mustangs stickered under $10,000 optioned out the wazoo. It’s been a very long time. 

As a car guy, I’ve owned some Camaros as well. I had a ’67 that I built into a race car, a ’69 I built into a hot rod and an ’84 L69 Z28 I bought new when my Mustang got stolen. That was the worst damn car I’ve ever owned, bar none, and I’ve owned a bunch of them. That car rode like a buckboard, you could time it’s acceleration with a sundial, it was absolutely lethal in the wet with the standard Goodyear Eagle GTs tires, and it got the sort of fuel mileage that had Arabs standing on overpasses waving and shouting in joy when you drove by. Overall, it felt like that car had been assembled in a first grade sandbox by the stupidest kids there. It was in the shop constantly. 

So yeah, I prefer the Mustang, but I have a lot of respect for the older Camaros. You go to the local drag strip and almost half the cars there will either be Camaros or the Camaro’s bucktooth, lazy-eyed little sister, the Nova. It’s interesting for me to have Mustangs and Camaros out there battling for NASCAR supremacy, even if right now the Toyota teams are responding “neither of the above” most weeks.

Previously, the best racing involving Mustangs and Camaros occurred in the SCCA Trans-Am Series, particularly in 1969. It was all-out war, no quarter asked and none given. The bias ply (as in not radial) tires of the era squealed and smoked constantly. Mark Donahue took top honors in his Camaro Z28 in ’69, but Rufus Parnelli Jones took home the big prize in 1970 at the wheel of a Boss 302. Back in that era, Ford was spending like they hated the stuff on auto racing, wanting to dominate everywhere from Daytona to Darlington and from the Circuit De La Sarthe to impromptu stop light drag races out in the Darkness on the Edge of Town. They called it the “Total Performance Campaign,” and they won damn near everywhere they entered.

Chevy — and all of GM officially — did not back any auto racing at all in the era. But they managed to send some big checks, exotic new parts they’d developed and helpful advice under the radar for the most part. Sure, Chevy shoehorned some 427 Rat engines into ’69 Camaros right from the factory, but you had to know somebody, accept the fact there was no warranty on the car and pay through the nose to get one back in ’69. Down the street you could waltz right into the Ford agency and order up a 428 Super Cobra Jet Mustang-based land missile as easily as you could whistle Dixie. 

Like the song goes, “The good old days might not return, and rocks might melt, and the sea might burn.” One has to wonder whatever happened to the automakers’ long time slogan about winning races on Sunday, selling cars on Monday. They’ve got a few years to work out the details, so perhaps Chevy might come up with some new model that NASCAR will approve for use in the Cup Series. But do you think they’ll bother? There’s so little correlation between the cars on dealership floors and what’s raced in NASCAR these days that they can’t even use that old saw “racing improves the breed.” It may just be that sporty (or otherwise) two-door cars are about to become a relic of the past.

The lusty roar of a big V8 engine has been the soundtrack of my life, but nowadays even performance cars are trending toward smaller displacement engines and turbochargers. Manual transmissions are becoming as archaic as blubber burning light fixtures and Betamax videotapes. Ford has in fact announced that it’s getting out of making cars altogether with the exception of the Mustang. Everything else on the showroom floor will be either a crossover or an SUV, in sizes ranging from obscene to gargantuan to tiny to so small you’ll expect to see a troupe of clowns leap out of one at a traffic light to scare the dickens out of kids. And Ford has been GM’s nemesis for so many decades now, so how will GM respond to Ford’s radically downsized new lineup? My guess is they meet fire with fire. 

If GM were to pull out of NASCAR racing, would fans accept a two-make Cup series with just Ford and Toyota? Will NASCAR change the rules to favor cars more closely related to their street counterparts, and even if they did, which makes might sign on to participate? How would fans welcome them? Is there a place for hybrid electrical motor power plants supplementing (if not all out replacing) fossil-fuel-powered entrants?

All I’ll say is I hope such a change doesn’t occur within my lifetime. A Hyundai Tucumcari Crossover with a 1.0 Liter turbocharged hybrid-powered box on wheels parked in victory lane at the Daytona 500? Say it ain’t so, Joe. 

About the author

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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8 thoughts on “Beside the Rising Tide: Headed Out to Pasture ”

  1. Your Camaro unfortunately has to meet the arbitrary standards for efficiency & safety imposed by the federales. Libertarian car guy Eric Peters (formerly of the Washington Times) has an excellent article on this phenomenon at https://www.ericpetersautos.com/2018/08/09/why-do-they-all-look-the-same/

    My first car was a very used 75 Vega. Ahem…not a chick magnet. It was perfect for keeping work clothes, fishin rod(s), tackle, and anything you can dream up. It was especially perfect for a dumbass teen -not a lot of power but could be worked on enough to keep it roadworthy. The handbrake in the center console was very useful & fun on back country gravel roads. Pretty sure it was built in the now defunct Lordstown, Ohio plant.

    When I win the powerball my first purchases will include a 71 Hemi Cuda and an 87 Buick GNX. And a North American B-25 Mitchell. And a Marion dragline & an Erie steam shovel to keep it company.

  2. I can’t say I’m surprised, nor do I blame the younger generations for NOT embracing the automobile. All the fun has been taken out of it. Driving most places these days is not fun, it’s a PITA and feels more like a chore. And with the current pricing of automobiles (well, anything one might WANT to drive) plus insurance, it’s a very expensive chore. Stoplights and heavy traffic render useless anything more than that 1.0T hybrid box. Lazy-boy seats and some kind of distraction from being held hostage at every intersection trumps power and handling characteristics. Safety devices to protect you from morons looking at their phone instead of the road matter more than 0-60 times. So yeah, I get why kids are not excited about driving. I grew up as a car loving guy, and I don’t even like driving much anymore.

    It’s unfortunate… with today’s technology and manufacturer’s ability to create and produce the fastest, best handling, safest, most efficient cars ever in the history of the automobile, it comes at a time when interest and most people’s ability to enjoy such vehicles are waning. The cars are not the problem, it’s the environment we have in which to operate them that is the problem.

  3. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why kids are NOT chomping at the bit to get drivers license and join the world. Its the 1st step to independence.

  4. i could not wait to get my driver’s license. of course that was a long time ago. it was what every 16 yr old did on their birthday. visit dmv, take written and driving test and come home with a new license. i didn’t get a car til i bought one when i was 18.

    it just amazes me how kids today don’t want license. but i guess if you have a parent who can do everything, or take uber/lyft (i guess kids can take them), why bother. they don’t explore the real world.

    i wonder once they have the driverless cars figured out if a racing series will start for that type of vehicle?

    i hate driving now. roads here in atlanta are so crowded. i just love taking 2 hrs to go 24 miles when i leave work at 4 pm. getting onto 285 is like pulling into mall parking lot the day after thanksgiving, slammed full. i often wonder if there will come a time when no other vehicle will be able to be on the road. i know one night last week, i think it was friday, the traffic reporter was giving a report for 75/85 going through atlanta downtown. they made comment “don’t even bother” nothing was moving.

  5. It is interesting that Chevies were way behind Ford & Toyota until word leaked out that the Camaro is on its last legs. Then comes Chicagoland & the Hendrick-powered Chevy armada has the rest of the field covered? Very curious, indeed!

    In the latter stages of BZF’s reign of terror, the drunken dynastic dummy kept hinting that “A new manufacturer is coming to NASCAR soon! This would be the cure-all for NASCAR’s woes & the good times of packed stands & high TV ratings will return.” But this was all BZF’s Vicodin-fueled fantasy. The one guy that hinted at rejoining NASCAR was then-FCA’s head man who dropped dead not long after having a liquid dinner party with BZF.

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