NASCAR has become boring for one big reason. It has completely lost the stock car narrative.
There are two especially colorful bits of culture that inform the birth of NASCAR. The first is that the sport was full of guys who built their skills—driving and turning the wrench—running moonshine. The second is that the sport started really taking off at the beach. The first big races in Daytona used the beach as one straightaway and the beach road as the other.
So in the very earliest races, it was common to drive to the track, tape up the headlights, roll down the windows, slap a number on, and go. “Run whatcha brung.” They really were “stock” cars, hence the term “stock car racing.” You made a race car out of something that was initially sold at a dealership.
Now of course, there was performance-oriented tweaking from the beginning. And as safety regulations came on board, the cars started changing in some bigger ways. You can’t purchase a grocery-getter at the Ford store with a full roll cage and five-point racing harness. But the bodies kept large strands of recognizable DNA common to both the street and the track all the way through my childhood. Do you remember the Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe?
The slanted front was common to all Monte Carlo SSs of this generation. What made it an Aerocoupe was that extended and slanted backlight. This car came about because the Ford Thunderbird was eating the Monte Carlo’s lunch aerodynamically on the racetrack. NASCAR required that any car body run in the series had to be available for sale to the public.
That term “stock car” making a bit more sense now? Hard to believe looking at the formless blobs of today, isn’t it?
Of course, said formless blobs haven’t a single nut or bolt in common with their ostensible street counterparts today. They’re also all essentially identical to each other, with only the tiniest bodywork details differing from one make to another. And here we have NASCAR’s problem.
Primarily in the pursuit of safety, NASCAR has allowed its very spirit to be overwhelmed. Today’s NASCAR is formula racing, when it was founded specifically not to be formula racing.
The term racing formula is usually applied to open-wheel series, but I think it applies here. It is the set of regulations with which a car must comply to compete. In today’s NASCAR, every millimeter of the car is regulated, with hundreds of pages of requirements. The pre-race and post-race inspections are beyond rigorous; the violations, frequently absurd-sounding.
The problem with NASCAR’s formula is not necessarily that it has one, but how it has come about. IndyCar and F1 formulae are intended from inception to produce dedicated race cars. However, NASCAR has a set of regulations it applies to race cars that are spiritually descended from cars that were not dedicated race cars, but were instead turned into race cars.
So it’s formula racing, but it’s a formula that generates a primitive race car. Pushrods. Recirculating ball steering. Ton and a half of curb weight. Handling? Yeah, sort of. Sometimes NASCAR apologists will try to zing me by saying their cars are harder to drive than IndyCars. I’ve never understood why that’s supposed to be such a devastating point. Yeah, they’re hard to drive. It’d be tough to drive a dump truck that way too. What’s the difference?
So what’s to be done? Well, I have an interesting answer, but it seems I’m long. I didn’t know I was headed for a Part III, but I am. Watch for it. (And that really will be it.)