NASCAR currently has plenty of problems, one of which being attendance and TV ratings. What is causing people to stop watching the races though? One problem could be the actual product on the track and what the major issues with NASCAR’s current car is. Throughout NASCAR’s history, they have had 6 different generations of cars. From the tradition stock car of gen 1 to the modern car used in gen 6, a lot has changed and not all for the better.
Gen 4 – the Peak
1992-2006, the gen 4 experienced the height of NASCAR racing and is thought of by a lot of fans to have been the best option ever used. Unfortunately, in 2001 the world of NASCAR suffered its worst tragedy yet through the death of racing legend and fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt. While it was a horrible tragedy, there were a few measures that could have been taken to prevent this from happening. During the race, Dale chose to wear an open-face helmet, refused the HANS-device which kept the head in place and never stopped to fix his broken seatbelt. Certain appropriate safety measures have since been implemented such as requirements on helmets, HANS-devices, seatbelt safety and most importantly, safer barriers. Unfortunately, NASCAR felt the cars needed to be changed to increase safety as well.
Gen 5 – the Downfall
In 2007, NASCAR introduced gen 5, “the car of tomorrow.” The adjustable rear wing was invented to reduce blow overs by disturbed turbulent air. Blow overs were a huge safety hazard for drivers because wind would get under the car and send the driver flying through the air. Initially, the gen 5 car fixed neither of these problems so they continued to lower the cars. Their final solution to this problem came in 2007 when they introduced the concept of coil binding, which eliminated the importance of the car height. They did this by sealing off the front of the car which took away from the down force.
Gen 6 – the Modern Disaster
By 2013, they introduced gen 6, stating they would, “put the stock back in stock car racing.” This couldn’t have been further from the truth. In 2015, they added the tapered spacer which limited the horsepower of the cars. With the tapered spacer combined with limiting the down force, it only limited the top speed on the straightaways but sped up the cars on the corners. By lowering the rear spoiler, NASCAR was attempting to eliminate down force and intern forced teams to focus on side force instead.
Make no mistake, side force is the worst thing to happen to racing and is the main issue with the cars today.
Essentially, with side force, a car is able to take the turns hard and even if the car gets lose, the force hitting the sides will help keep it straight. By lowering the spoilers, a clean stream of air that would normally go over the car and hit the rear spoiler was now less likely to hit because of the smaller spoiler. This down force that is normally created, not only helps the car gain speed but also allows cars behind it to get a greater drag. With the wild air flow that should be hitting the spoiler, it makes it almost impossible to get close to the car in front. This unfortunately is the main reason bumper driver isn’t as common in today’s racing. Not surpassingly, drivers are also upset about the current design. Brad Keselowski mentioned after spinning out in the Quaker State 400 last year,
“It is time for the sport to design a new car that is worthy of where this sport deserves to be and the show it deserves to put on for its fans.”
X3 – A New Hope
Towards the end of 2015, Richard Childress Racing was testing the X3 car that seemed to have resolved this issue. It eliminated side force by engineering the car to be equal in the front and back as well as left and right which would keep it straight around corners. At the front, they created a bulge, making it impossible to seal off which would allow for greater down force. By eliminating side force, the air flows easier over the car which would allow clean air for the car behind. Although the testing of the car appeared to be a success, the problem with the X3 car was the architecture of the gen 6. It didn’t allow for the changes necessary to be made for the X3. It was build wide and for speed so there wasn’t much you could change about it.
For a more enjoyable race, it has to be hard to pass. With cars that are built specifically for speed, it is much easier to pass someone if you have the faster car. This style of racing eliminates the driver’s abilities and relies almost entirely on how the car is build. It should be more difficult to make a pass because it’s hard to clear someone.
“My car was good, so I had fun,” said Kyle Larson after his 2017 Quaker State 400 win. “I could see how it was probably frustrating for other people…For sure it was hard to pass at times.”
There are undoubtedly many factors when trying to solve the NASCAR viewership problem. An obviously factor that deserves a majority of the blame for the current state is the person in charge, Brian France. France has clearly lost touch with the NASCAR audience, assuming he ever was in touch to begin with. There are many things he has to do to regain the trust of the die-hard racing fan base, none of which he has been able to do yet. One thing France can do however that would be a major step in the right direction is just improve the on-track product back to the glory days these motor heads remember. He may not ever understand his fan’s culture but he can at least make the racing great again. Even with the retirement of legendary drivers, there are still plenty of great ones left with many more outstanding new talents coming to the forefront. We all just want consistently fun races to watch again and that is going to require better cars.