Six generations of NASCAR cars
I keep hearing "Gen 6" this and "Gen 6" that, and I keep thinking of all those Gens that weren't called Gens.
NASCAR's technological turn back toward -- or at least in the general direction of -- its roots, hopefully with more racy cars, even safer, that look like "stock cars" are supposed to, has a hip designation, the Generation 6 car.
But I can't help thinking that if you said
"Gen 1" to the boys who drove those cars, they'd have asked if she was good-looking.
"Gen 2" to that group, they'd have thought you meant one of Junior Johnson's mules.
Here at the dawn of Gen 6, with a vast and unknown new day ahead, let's review the impacts of what NASCAR now designates in retrospect as Generations 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.
But let's not do it chronologically (yawn). Let's rate them.
Worst: Gen 4, 1992-2006
This was the era that stripped all semblance of "stock" from "stock car racing." The cars got completely out of hand.
Where previous cars at least bore the silhouettes of production cars, NASCAR in Gen 4 let manufacturers run wild, designing prototypes bearing virtually no resemblance to the street models they were named for.
I know, I know: This period was NASCAR's steepest growth curve. But NASCAR rose to the pinnacle of its popularity not because of those cars, but in spite of those cars. The new fans were just hungry for something different in sports, some beatin' and bangin' and risk-takin', regardless of design or brand identification.
And they were hungry for alternative sports stars -- the plainspoken Dale Earnhardt on the one end of demographics, the polished Jeff Gordon on the other. One master NASCAR promoter told me at the time, "All our fans want inside a race car is a hero."
They should have stuck to that.
But Gen 4 cars were as aerodynamically sensitive as any prototype sports car ever fielded at Le Mans. One little bump on a fender and a driver's day was done. Earnhardt used to say that if he could clone himself and race against himself in an old Monte Carlo from the 1970s versus a new Monte Carlo, he'd win in the old one every time. He would beat on the new one and "rough it up" until it became aerodynamically dysfunctional, while the tougher old one motored on.
In distorted retrospect, some fans think they had brand identification in Gen 4. All I know is, without the logos and a micrometer, you couldn't tell one make from another.
And it was in a Gen 4 car that Earnhardt died at Daytona in 2001, beginning NASCAR's slippage from peak popularity.
Best: Gen 2, 1967-1980
Now granted, this is where I came in, to cover NASCAR in 1974. But there are myriad other reasons I consider this the Greatest Generation of Cup cars.
NASCAR had finally given up on stock chassis, and allowed modified ones for much better racing. Yet in body design, the cars looked very much like their showroom namesakes.
This was the era of Richard Petty's Dodge Charger that looked exactly like a street Dodge Charger, of David Pearson's Mercury Cougar that looked like one, of Cale Yarborough's spittin' image Oldsmobiles, and the rise -- in those oafish-looking but great-handling Monte Carlos -- of brash young Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.
The cars were relatively safe -- compared to some generations that would evolve, such as the aforementioned Gen 4 -- because the drivers had so much room inside, and big steel bumpers dissipated energy, and strong roll cages held through horrific crashes.
This was the last era when you had to run the bodywork your manufacturer sold in showrooms. In 1978, Dodge came out with a boxy street design, the Magnum, that was aerodynamically awful. NASCAR told Petty, "tough." It was up to the manufacturer to bring a design that would race well. No leeway given on bodywork. So Petty was forced to make a milestone change to Chevrolet then later to Pontiac.
This was in stark contrast to what was to come with Gen 4 in the '90s, when, for marketing purposes, Ford, for example, was allowed to field a prototype Taurus that looked virtually nothing like a street Taurus.
Most underrated: Gen 5, 2007-2012
This one, heralded the Car of Tomorrow, never had a chance with the public. Just as soon as Tony Stewart dubbed the COT "the flying brick" during testing in 2007, it was all over. The fans would never accept it. It just didn't look right.
The uniform design and common templates convinced fans they were losing brand identification. Actually, manufacturers' engineers told me privately they'd rather have at least all the big stickers -- the red bowties and blue ovals -- than the just-as-anonymous Gen 4 cars that didn't look like anything on the street either.
The COT, now filed away in history under the less painful term Gen 5, was vastly safer -- wider, roomier, with cocoon-like survival cells as seats -- than anything before. And it was much tougher than the prissy Gen 4 de facto prototypes. In a throwback to Gen 2, drivers could slam and bang and keep on trucking, even at Daytona and Talladega, with the thick-skinned COT.
With the COT, the spectacular could be safe -- drivers walked away from the "big ones" at Daytona and Talladega, emboldening them to risk more spectacular wrecks, such as Kyle Busch's wild ride as he narrowly lost to Tony Stewart at Daytona in July of 2009.
Now, this underrated car will sleep, hopefully in peace, as Gen 5.
Most overrated: Gen 1, 1948-1966
There's a lot of lore out of this era, but also a lot of tragedy, and not a lot of great racing. Races often were won by multiple-lap margins. The notion of "Strictly Stock" just couldn't last.
NASCAR's official summary of the rules for this era stipulates "strictly stock frame and body." Yeah, well, what about burning out the bodies in open fields, or soaking them in acid, to make them lighter -- and weaker?
Many cars were actually bought off showroom floors and raced. The doors actually opened and closed, but were strapped shut for racing.
The deadliest stock component was the gas tank, and after Roberts was engulfed in flame at Charlotte in '64, and died six weeks later, NASCAR went to work with Goodyear to create a flexible bladder inside a vastly stronger "fuel cell."
Henceforth, doors would be welded shut and roll bars would be expanded into much stronger "roll cages." After it was suspected that Weatherly died because his head went through the driver's side window and hit a wall at Riverside, Calif., NASCAR began designing the first of the window nets that you still see on the driver's side today.
The best that can be said of Gen 1 now is that it was a start -- the only start available, with the technology of the time.
Most dazzling: Gen 3, 1981-1991
In its last attempt before now to make Cup cars more closely resemble showroom cars, NASCAR mandated a reduction of wheel base to 110 inches in 1981, reflecting the smaller production cars of the time.
And Gen 3 produced everything from bulldozers to rocket ships -- from Earnhardt's highly reinforced Chevrolets that allowed him to beat on competitors without suffering much damage to his own car, to the storied Ford Thunderbirds that turned Bill Elliott into NASCAR's sheer speed king.
Waltrip won three championships for Junior Johnson in Gen 3 cars. Earnhardt won four of his seven titles, in four out of five years, in this era.
These were the cars that necessitated restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega. In 1987 at Talladega, Elliott set what remains the NASCAR qualifying record of 212.809 mph. But soon into the race, Bobby Allison's car went airborne and nearly went into the main grandstands. And that was the last unrestricted race on either of the two giant tracks. NASCAR mandated smaller carburetors for the rest of that season, and in 1988 required the restrictor plates that to this day stifle the racing but cause the jammed-up packs that fans love.
So if Gen 3 was so wonderful, why did NASCAR abandon it? In a word, Detroit. The manufacturers pushed for drastic changes that turned showroom cars that were by no means natural-born race cars -- e.g., Ford Taurus -- into trumped-up race cars. That's so dealerships could sell the brands.
Most critical: Gen 6, 2013-
NASCAR heard the relentless howling of the fans to get some brand identity back after the generic-looking COT. And NASCAR heard the complaints that the racing too often got strung out at the "intermediate tracks" of 1.5 and 2 miles.
But NASCAR kept, indeed improved upon, the safety of the COT.
With Gen 6, NASCAR gives back some identity to the Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota brands. And with the downforce cut nearly in half from the Gen 5 cars, making Gen 6 harder to handle, NASCAR is trying to place the racing back in the hands of the drivers who can drive, and crew chiefs who can create "mechanical downforce" with chassis work.
The aim is to improve the midrace competition on intermediate tracks, and bring back "pack racing" full force, as opposed to two-car tandems, at Daytona and Talladega.
Gen 6 is critical, to rekindle the fans' interest and end their long, if self-imposed, malaise over the Gen 5 COT. Gen 6 may not bring back the peak attendance and TV ratings of the turn of this millennium.
But it might get NASCAR off the slippery slope.