Friday, September 14, 2012

The Death Of NASCAR As We Knew It

by Andrea L. Algar
Motorheads Performance

The death of NASCAR? "You must be kidding," you're thinking. NASCAR attendance is at all-time highs, and the sport still appears to be widely popular. Let's look at why many are mourning the loss of true stock car racing as we knew it.

Guy and I were always ready to enjoy a good NASCAR race. We’ve attended several, and rooted for the Chevy teams back in the days when NASCAR was still a true American Stock Car event.  That all changed several years back when Toyota Racing entered the field and changed NASCAR forever. Now we’ve had EFI shoved down our throats, and it’s making many fans gag. But maybe not for the reasons you're thinking!

Most long time fans are disheartened. Many are so unhappy with the change that they’ve abandoned the sport altogether. My husband and business partner, Guy Algar, is one of the die-hard old fashioned guys who is unhappy with the changes that have taken hold at NASCAR. We haven’t watched a race, or been to one, for years. Some would argue that it is just a keeping in time with changes that are happening because of the shift to global marketing (yak yak yak) since the introduction and explosion of the Internet (more yak yak yak).  To the younger generation of motorheads, the history of stock car racing and NASCAR is not well known or appreciated. To many men and women, like us, who are in their 50’s (and those older), we mourn over the loss of this history.

Stock Car Oval Raceway
 NASCAR is an acronym for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The creation of NASCAR is generally credited to Bill France Sr, a mechanic who was originally from Washington, D.C. who had relocated to Daytona Beach, Florida in 1935. The story of why and how is a complex and amazing one which is for another day. Stock car racing was already a popular sport, but there was little organization, and most races were local or regional events held on dirt tracks.

The short of the story on NASCAR's start is that Bill France Sr. was always fascinated by cars. Shortly after arriving in Florida and doing mechanic work there, he drove a race on Daytona's hard-packed sand, and shortly thereafter fell into promoting a race for the City of Daytona. This is thought to be the beginning of his ideas for racing. Apparently, France's original ideas for NASCAR were to race three distinctly different classes of cars (Strictly Stock, Modified Stock Cars and Roadsters). But, following the war, and following that we clearly saw was the audience preference, it is very clear that the vision changed to strictly stock cars all the way. He felt that the fans would want to purchase the cars that they saw winning the races, and I believe that it was this insight that really made NASCAR as big and as popular to the American fans it was designed for. By 1956 NASCAR really came into it's own, and was gaining momentum, credibility and huge numbers of fans, holding 56 events on 11 paved tracks. Clearly by 1958 NASCAR had become a national movement.

The Hollywood version of stock car racing is one of prohibition-era bootleg whiskey drivers or modern day rebels who were skilled in outrunning the law (think 'Smokey and the Bandit' of the 1970's). Yes, these drivers were so skilled that they were destined to become noticed by the race car owners and scouts, and were drafted into the sport. This is probably another reason why NASCAR has jokingly been referred to as a "redneck" sport. Whatever the reason for our love of "reckless" young men driving insanely fast cars becoming such a passion throughout America, part of that fascination was that the cars that were being driven on the tracks were ones what you could actually go out and purchase to drive yourself! This was the allure that helped fuel the tremendous success of the American car manufacturers, and it's one of the reasons that NASCAR is dead for so many die-hard fans.

In the early days, NASCAR vehicles were actual stock cars which were wrenched on by the guys that drove them. Even when you hit the big times, a car owner had a handful for a “crew” at best or even if at all. You had a single toolbox that held everything you needed to tune, repair and maintain your car, and many times the driver was in on the wrenching.

Back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, fans were in love with the cars. There was nothing like attending a race where you stood at the fence hearing and feeling the pure power thundering in your chest as the Chevy’s, Fords and Mopars screamed by. Most fans had their favorite car, as opposed to today’s obsession with their favorite driver. Because of our love for the cars themselves, while it’s possible to appreciate the technology of the newer cars, it’s not as possible to feel the same kind of passion for the cars themselves. Most everyone will agree that they in no way resemble, or are, “stock” cars. With this year’s decision to allow EFI, they have taken yet another step further away from “stock” than ever before.

Sometime by 1972 or so, stock cars lost the “stock”. The 1970's was a decade that started the great decline of the American made muscle car, and most every car made for that matter. We were hit hard with gasoline rationing in the mid 1970's and American car manufacturers scaled down both in size and power. While NASCAR and other forms of racing continued, changes were being made that changed things forever.

Many traditionalists have turned to drag racing for the adrenaline-pumping thrill of watching “real” cars. Note the extreme popularity of nostalgia racing at the strips nationwide (bracket racing, pro-stock and more). In the 1960’s, you could walk into a showroom and actually purchase the same type of car you read about in the hot rod magazines or were lucky enough to watch in person at the stock car races! Compare this to the current batch of NASCAR vehicles, which are basically all the same bodies, with the same engines, and utilizing decals for headlights, doors and grills, and where everything is regulated from the cam to the height of the manifold.

With the new EFI systems being able to monitor everything about the engine from computers, and with the degree of differences so small they are immeasurable, the cars truly are "exactly the same". Yes, this makes the playing field extraordinarily even, but it forces you to pick one driver over the other, as this is increasingly where the race is won. In the old days, you were able to take preference one car over the next because you believed that it was a better setup, a stronger engine, more torque…in other words, you developed an appreciation for the car itself. This is where true gear heads were born and it fueled our dreams. The cars used production bumpers, grille, glass and even the trim and interiors. Young boys couldn’t wait for the next issue of Hot Rod and other magazines to hit the racks so they could follow (and drool over) the latest and greatest rides to hit the asphalt.

So, WHY has NASCAR decided to go with EFI? It was very interesting to research this and find that it began back in 2003 when the engineering director at Dodge Motorsports realized that there were carburetor issues that needed addressing. What John Fernandez found was that the carburetor experts were all gone. The last generation responsible for carburetion advances were all retired or dead, and with electronic fuel injection having taken hold by the 1990’s, the knowledge seemingly died with them, as the newer generation of racing engineers and technicians had been captivated by EFI. Teams had to call in the retirees to help, but with their numbers dwindling and their ages ever increasing, NASCAR made the bold decision to allow EFI.

In true NASCAR fashion of wanting everything fair and even, they’ve decided on a basic, proprietary EFI system which you’ll never see outside NASCAR, and never be able to buy. An Austin, Texas based chip manufacturer, Freescale, and McLaren Electronic Systems teamed up to provide the boxes, which are all the same for each and every racing team. Yes, the teams program their own ECU’s, and can tune and map themselves, but NASCAR monitors everything to ensure that everyone adheres to the same play-fair rules, and they retain control over the boxes. The configurations that NASCAR has determined allow the engine to behave the same as a single-plane, single Holley setup, which allows the same restrictor-plate system which NASCAR uses to limit speeds on the big tracks like Talladega and Daytona.

Plymouth Superbird and Hemi-powered cars were the last of the power that had dominated NASCAR and made stock car racing the super sport that created generations of young men who discovered the need for speed. We’re sad to see this era disappear, but we’re determined to share our knowledge and inspire those from today’s youth who pour over their dad’s or granddad's collection of old hot rodding magazines and get the same thrill that inspires them to own and enjoy their own piece of American stock car history.

REFERENCES:
factexpert.com - NASCAR Facts

NOTE FROM AUTHOR:
Of course this article is my opinion of what may be happening with NASCAR fans. Many don't feel there's anything wrong with cheering their favorite driver on to victory, and perhaps there is not. I just miss the excitement and anticipating of what new power strategy would be revealed in a team's quest to make their car king of the track. I'm just not that thrilled with the concept of idolizing a single person. It's usually more complex than that. Watch for my upcoming article on the history of NASCAR including links to some of the sports most incredible races...and some of the most incredible wrecks! - Andrea

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Andrea L. Algar is co-owner of a classic car performance and restoration design shop in Leesville, Texas. Motorheads Performance specializes in repairs, maintenance, performance upgrades and restorative work on cars and trucks from the 1920’s through 1970’s. Her husband Guy L. Algar is a Mechanical Engineer with over 25 years experience. He holds 5 ASE Certifications from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and has been working on old cars and trucks for over 37 years. Together they share their passion for old cars and trucks with other enthusiasts from around the country.
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