Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Like Harry Hogge said, "There's nothing stock about a stock car."

“They ought to do it like the old days—just weld a roll bar in a stock vehicle and let the best car win!”

You hear that from people all the time. “There’s nothing stock about a stock car.” “Why do they even bother to call them Fords and Chevys?” And on. And on.

Back in the early days of NASCAR, stock cars really were just that—stock. Competitors would often drive their race car to the track, participate in the event, and drive it to work the next day. The biggest modification may have been removing the hubcaps.

But it wasn’t all perfect in stock car land. Drivers regularly suffered serious injuries and death. The cars were difficult to handle at speed. And even at that, they weren’t going as fast as the risks may indicate. Sure, those old news reels of the early days of NASCAR are great to watch now, but let’s consider what America’s number-one motorsport would be like if it followed the same formula today.

Assuming NASCAR could even regulate the technical aspects of a modern computer-controlled, technologically-advanced vehicle, it would be hard to imagine the close, fast racing we have today.

If Jeff Gordon’s DuPont Impala were actually stock, it would be a front-wheel-drive, fuel-injected, 216-hp V6-powered four-door with standard keyless entry and anti-lock brakes. And although it would work beautifully for driving in the snow or taking the kids to soccer practice, it would make a fairly inadequate mode of transportation on the high-banks of Talladega. It would push horribly in the turns, it would be incapable of reaching speeds anywhere near what we see now, and in spite of all the safety devices, taking a header into the wall would be infinitely more devastating. Drivers would probably do less bump drafting, however, once they figured out that the airbags would deploy and render the car inoperable. They would get a courtesy call from OnStar, though.

The fact is, cars are better than they were 30-40 years ago. They last longer without any major overhauls, they are safer, and they get better fuel mileage. But for the most part, they do not make great race cars.

This might explain why a NASCAR stock car still has roots to the past.

People may wish stock cars were still factory fresh, but if they really long for the way things used to be, they should take a closer look at what’s actually on the track. Looking at it objectively, a Sprint Cup car may be the best-performing out-and-out muscle car ever made. Cranking out some 900-hp from a big V8 engine turning the back wheels, these monsters recall and improve upon everything people loved about even the best Hemi ‘Cuda or COPO Camaro from the glory days of the muscle car. A honkin’ four-barrel carburetor (soon to be converted to fuel injection under new NASCAR rules), a four-speed manual transmission, and a healthy appetite for high-octane leaded gasoline are about as retro as a car can get.

The difference is that these cars are not only fast in a straight line, but they do a number of other things well. All these years of tweaking, working, and learning have resulted in a car that handles well in spite of its not-insignificant (in race car terms) weight. They can handle 400-600 miles of non-stop punishment and rarely experience a mechanical failure. And most of all, they’re safe.

NASCAR’s current Sprint Cup car has taken some criticism because all the bodies look the same, and the high-narrow stance doesn’t scream “RACE CAR!” But they have taken some licks on the track that very well could have injured or killed drivers who instead walked away without a scratch. Sure, racing would be pretty boring if there was no chance that someone could hit the wall or take out another driver. No one likes to admit that they watch for the wrecks, but if the chance wasn’t there, the excitement level would go down significantly. But if drivers were regularly injured or killed as a result of these crashes, not only would people stop watching, but it would be irresponsible to even keep doing it. These safer cars, ugly or not, allow that high-level of excitement without the harsh consequences.

It is unlikely that we’ll ever see a pure stock car racing series again in our lifetimes. Today’s cars are so refined for street use, they just don’t translate well to the track. Amenities, technology, and comfort do not provide the speed and safety required in racing. And the qualities that make a race car safe and fast are not desirable to most new car buyers. To that end, we just have to “settle” with the most advanced, reliable vehicles in history sitting in our garages, while the most precise, fire-breathing muscle cars in history battle it out on the track.

The slideshow below contains pictures of stock street vehicles from the factory, paired up with similar shots of a NASCAR Sprint Cup, Nationwide, or Camping World Truck Series vehicle. Pictures provided by GM, Ford Chrysler, Toyota, and NASCAR Media.  It’s an enjoyable comparison of just how un-stock a stock car really is, and why each type of vehicle is best suited for its intended duty.

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