It’s been well documented that among many teams and competitors, the Next Gen car enforced by NASCAR for 2022 is unsafe and needs to be overhauled, perhaps even replaced, before the 2023 season. I probably don’t have to tell you this, but complaints about cars NASCAR legislated in the past are nothing new — I’m not sure if any one of them received universal acceptance.
But in this case, gripes about the Next Gen car come after several incidents and a few severe injuries that have garnered questions about its safety. For example, there have been numerous failed tire and wheel incidents which have created questions about the effectiveness of the new 18-inch aluminum wheel with the center single lug nut.
However, perhaps the loudest and strongest vocal concerns have come after a series of crashes drivers claimed were more painful because of the car’s solid structure, particularly in the rear. Corey LaJoie, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, all involved in serious accidents (and in Harvick’s case, fire) have been outspoken with their concerns.
As you know, just recently Denny Hamlin has expressed the harshest condemnation of the Next Gen car, suggesting it needs a complete redesign. He also questioned the quality of NASCAR’s leadership.
Now, you know as well as I do that any suggestion that NASCAR’s leadership needs an overhaul is almost as old as the sanctioning body itself. And, though it may be for far different reasons and circumstances, any complaint about a NASCAR-mandated car is nothing new at all.
Take the 1981 season, for example.
Before that campaign began, NASCAR decreed that the wheelbase for its Grand National cars be reduced from 110 inches to 105 inches. There were no new wheels and certainly no reduction in the number of lug nuts. No change in rear suspension. No sequential transmission.
None of that stuff, just the loss of five inches on the wheelbase.
But did that little change created a mess.
NASCAR President Bill France Jr. had made it known for years (as far back as 1977) that a change was coming. Detroit was moving steadily to smaller vehicles, and he said the sanctioning body was going to have to do the same. At the end of the 1980 season, NASCAR released a list of cars that would be eligible for 1981. Several new models were included, among them the Mercury Cougar, Oldsmobile Cutlass, Buick Regal, Ford Granada and Pontiac’s Grand Prix and LeMans.
Teams began testing the new car at Daytona immediately after the end of the 1980 season. It was quickly discovered there were serious problems. The smaller car was so difficult to handle it was dangerous. In a five-day test session, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip were so shaken neither could hold back their condemnation.
“The car is not handling as well as it should,” Allison said. “I would have liked to draft with Darrell, but that car was so shaky I didn’t even want a seagull next to me.”
“Detroit is going to go broke with these little critters and I don’t want to have anything to do with them,” Waltrip said. “They are fast, but they lack the right handling characteristics.”
Later in the month, Richard Childress brought a Pontiac Grand Prix to Daytona to be driven by Modified star Greg Sacks. During only the third lap, Sacks lost control of the car off the fourth turn. It slid into the inside guard rail and flipped and flipped violently down the pavement.
Sacks suffered a broken collarbone, facial cuts and minor head injuries (today, no head injury is considered minor).
In 1981, such an injury-causing incident increased the grumbling about the new car. It’s been pretty much the same today, right?
No less talent than Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson complained about the smaller car’s inability to handle properly. It was Yarborough who suggested things would improve if NASCAR required larger rear spoilers. Which it did — but not quickly and not without so many changes and adaptations that frustrated competitors suggested a leadership change … again.
As mentioned, there were different reasons and circumstances between 1981 and today. But in actuality, it’s really the same controversy.
It took some time and effort, but NASCAR resolved it 41 years ago.
It’s going to have to do so now. That should quiet the talk about leadership. Well, almost, anyway.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.