In 1949, the first season of what is now called the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was held. Red Byron won two of his six starts to take the inaugural champoinship in a fresh-from-the-showroom Oldsmobile. Sixty years later, Jimmie Johnson won the 2009 edition of the same championship in a car that was in no way comparable to the Chevrolet Impala SS it represented. So, what happened, and what's been done to change that?
In the beginning, NASCAR was almost entirely made up of family teams and owner-drivers. They worked for nobody but themselves and usually had a full time job on the side. They bought their race cars from showrooms and often drove them to and from the track. In 1952, things changed.
Hudson Joins The Fray
The comapny that would later become part of AMC was the first to realize the power of factory support to a private team, and their professional engineers helped build better and faster road cars to be raced. In 1952, Hudson supported teams combined to win 27 of the 34 races on the NASCAR Grand National schedule. Just four years removed from the formation of the series, Hudson had set in motion the end of the "strictly stock" era of stock car racing.
Chevrolet Ramps Up The Game With Fuel Injection
Hudson's move to create a factory support division for their stock car teams may have bought them early dominance, but by 1955 their program had ended. The sport was ready for a new era of domination, and Chevrolet seeked to be the one leading it.
They were the first to realize they could change a small amount of production cars to make better racing cars, and they released a limited number of 1957 Chevrolet 150s powered by the "Black Widow" fuel injected small block. These cars absolutely dominated what was then known as the Grand National scene in 1957, with Buck Baker winning the championship, along with 10 races, in his self-owned Chevrolet.
By the end of the season, NASCAR founder and president Bill France Sr decided he'd had enough, and he banned fuel injection from the sport. However, while the "Black Widow" was dead, the idea behind it was anything but. Over the next nine years, all of the sport's manufacturers got to developming NASCAR specific engines, culminating in Plymouth's legendary 1964 426 "Hemi". Factory support had evolved from funding and personnel to creating wholly new cars expressly for the purpose of homologating engines for the sport.
Ford Brings About The NASCAR Specific Frame
Originally, NASCAR only allowed full sized sedans and coupes to run, but in 1966, Ford decided that it wanted to run the midsized Fairlane. The problem? The Fairlane was not only midsized, but built as a unibody car. The old Galaxie was body-on-frame, as were all of the other cars being raced in the series at the time.
NASCAR, for whatever reason, decided they didn't want this, and they told Ford that the Fairlane could be run only if a specific-to-NASCAR frame was built underneath it. With that, the Fairlane had both a bespoke frame and a specially designed engine. Thus, the Ford Fairlane stock car no longer shared anything important but the body with the stock Ford Fairlane.
Ford, Mercury, Plymouth And Dodge Bring Aerodynamics Into The Sport
With the major factories now entirely dictating what was raced by private teams, it was only a matter of time before the cars began changing for them in the same way that the engines had.
It all started off rather innocently in 1968, when Dodge decided to try to reduce the drag produced by the new Charger. They created the Charger 500, which was identical to the stock Charger save a fully flat rear window in the place of the stock tunneled design and a 1968 Coronet grill replacing the stock unit. The proper 500 cars were produced and it began racing.
However, Ford escalated the game by producing the Ford Torino Talladega and Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II. With a full fastback design and a specifically engineered low drag grille, these twins were far more successful than the Charger 500, and the Mopar contingent decided that the only reasonable course of action was to step up their game.
The end result was 1969's wing clad Charger Daytona and it's more evolved cousin the Plymouth Superbird, which debuted in 1970. With an open wheel style nosecone, an even more elongated rear window design and the legendary three foot wing, the Charger Daytona was the absolute pinnacle of NASCAR engineering during the stock body era.
By 1971, the so-called "aero cars" were banned, and NASCAR had returned to bodies that resembled more pedestrian cars. However, lessons were learned that could never be unlearned, and when the old cars returned, they returned with logical aerodynamic advances such as small spoilers and air dams.
The 358 Takes Hold
With the oil crisis looming, the big three finally gave up on their escalating war of spending, and the factory backed NASCAR programs were over. With them went the specially designed 426-428 cubic inch engines and the big block homologation specials that brought them into the sport.
From 1971 to 1973, the 358 cubic inch engine restriction that is still used to this day was introduced. As road cars go slower, stock cars stayed fast thanks to these specifically designed NASCAR engines. The series followed the precedent that was set with Chevrolet's fuel injected small block and Ford's unibody Fairlane, and for the third time, NASCAR ignored the march of progress and stuck with it's carbeurated V8s even as production cars slowly moved into fuel injected V6s and inline fours.
The 110 Inch Car And The End Of The Stock Body
In 1981, the idea of stock cars in stock car racing officially died, for that is the year in which the 110 inch wheelbase car retroactively known as "generation 4" was introduced.
As midsize cars got smaller, the original mandate for a 115 inch wheelbase was no longer easy to meet. Most midsized American coupes of the day were between 105 and 108 inches, and NASCAR decided it was time for a change. Instead of simply allowing these new bodies at between 105 and 108 inches, NASCAR mandated a new car with a specific 110 inch wheelbase. This was clearly bigger than any production wheelbase at the time, so specially designed NASCAR bodies were constructed by manufacturers and teams to fit with the size of the new car.
At this point, headlights and tail lights were no longer removed or covered up. They were simply never there in the first place, and for the first time decals represented the headlights instead of covering them up. Only the greenhouse, hood and decklid needed to hold the same dimensions as the production cars. It was clear to all that these were no longer stock cars.
While the cars were rather uninspiring visually (mostly thanks to the not-so-impressive midsize coupes of the 80s), the racing was better than it had ever been, and with the emergnece of drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott, the 80s were considered by many to be the golden age of NASCAR racing.
GM Brings Back The Aero Car
GM had a speed problem in 1985, and it didn't take long for the teams to realize that it came down to aerodynamics. The Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix were clearly lacking in pace thanks to their poorly designed rear windows, and Ford's more aerodynamic Thunderbird was the benefactor.
To fix the issue, GM made an "aero car" in the same way Ford and Dodge did in 1969. Knowing that the roof was the only thing that really mattered aerodynamically, they created the Chevrolet Monte Carlo Aerocoupe and the Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2. The only differences were in the rear glass and decklid designs, but it was enough to again become competitive with Ford until the arrival of their new car and, more importantly, it cost almost nothing to create.
NASCAR never had to ban the Aerocoupe because it only ran for two years, but what replaced it was far more worrying for the sport.
GM Brings A FWD Knife To A RWD Gunfight
GM saw the writing on the wall. They knew by 1988 that the only way to stay competitive in the midsize segment was to create a FWD, V6 powered car, and the Lumina was just that.
With the introduction of the Lumina, NASCAR stock cars now didn't even share the general idea of their production counterparts. For now the fourth time, NASCAR ignored the developments of production cars in the design of their racing cars, and while the world went FWD, NASCAR stayed RWD.
At this point, the midsized coupes available in showrooms were unibody cars with fuel injected V6 engines powering the front wheels. Stock cars were body-on-frame cars with carbureted V8s powering the rear wheels. There was still more than a passing resemblance between the two visually, but it was clear that NASCAR was never again going to be a sport for truly stock cars.
The Car Of Tomorrow Removes Brand Identity
The 110 inch car essentially raced for three decades, but by the end of it's life it was far more contorted than ever before, becoming what NASCAR has posthumously named the "Generation 4" stock car. Thanks to a particularly bubble shaped Taurus, it was no longer required to share any dimensions with the cars it was supposed to represent. Furthermore, it had proven too unsafe for modern time, and in 2007, it was replaced by what NASCAR called the Car of Tomorrow, or "COT".
The COT body was the same for all four manufacturers, a rather ugly combination of a generic looking center section designed to look like literally any midsized sedan, an out of place wing and a visible splitter section that held a grille. The only difference between a Ford, a Chevrolet, a Toyota and a Dodge? the decals on the front and the back.
By 2011, it had changed to sport a spoiler in place of the wing, an air dam to cover the splitter and a slightly different (but still nearly identical) nose shape for each of the four manufacturers, and in 2012, fuel injection was introduced to the long standing 358 cubic inch V8 formula. This still wasn't enough, and between the generic design and aerodynamics that created what many considered rather boring racing on the intermediate tracks, the COT was soon replaced.
Generation 6: Back To Basics
NASCAR quickly realized that production cars are no longer befitting of motor racing on ovals with any level of modifications, and stepping back to stock bodies on modified frames wasn't possible either thanks to the massively different dimensions between cars. Thus, they decided to allow manufacturers to design a bespoke body that represented their production cars in every way, with modifications allowed everywhere but in greenhouse dimensions, decklid shape and fender flaring.
The cars that were designed by the manufacturers were then "aero matched", compared in a wind tunnel to ensure that they will have similar abilities and drawbacks on every track run, to ensure that the new cars didn't spark a spending war between teams. What NASCAR ended up with is what is now known as "Generation 6".
In reality, it's just a new body on a slightly modified "COT" frame, but the new body will effect racing on almost every track on the schedule. With higher downforce and lower drag, the car will be faster on intermediate tracks while also allowing for easier passing. With bumpers that don't line up and smaller spoilers, the car will remove the idea of "bump drafting" on superspeedways like Daytona. Finally, thanks to the massive spoilers, the car will be faster on short tracks and road courses, though it ultimately won't change the style of the racing on those tracks.
The three factories supporting teams in the series (as Dodge left for 2013 despite designing a car for the new regulations) are happier than anyone else, as their stock cars once again actually look like the cars they sell long before the decals go on. In that essence, we've returned to the beginning of "Generation 3", but we've done it with much better looking cars.
Ford, in particular, is very happy with what they've developed for the Roush-Fenway Racing team (and it's many subsequent satellite and customer teams), and they've created a video showing a transformation from their 2013 Fusion road car to their 2013 Fusion race car.