TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The future of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing was on display Wednesday at Talladega Superspeedway. And it looked a lot like the past.
After several years of trotting out a generically designed car that did not truly differentiate between a Ford and a Chevrolet and a Toyota and a Dodge, NASCAR officials have decided to return somewhat to the times when the cars that were driven on the track looked a lot like the ones on the showroom floor at your local dealership. The popular slogan back then was, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday," as manufacturers competed to turn racing success into increased sales.
"Two decades ago everybody had their own unique cars," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition and racing development. "Much of the sheet metal was out of the box from the factories and the dealerships, and you built them in a way to get your advantages however you could. You saw quite a menu of spoiler sizes and nose changes and a constant leapfrogging of technology to get an advantage. One car would run good at Michigan and then wouldn't run good at Daytona.
But following the death of Dale Earnhardt in a racing accident at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR made the perfectly understandable step of working to improve driver safety. The result was the introduction in 2007 of a new vehicle dubbed the "Car of Tomorrow." Without question, the COT accomplished many of NASCAR's goals of creating a more stable cocoon around the driver. In recent years we have seen drivers simply walk away from hard contact that in the past might have resulted in serious injury and possibly even death.
In doing so, however, NASCAR also stripped away the individuality of the various models. Suddenly, Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet looked identical to Carl Edwards' Ford. One of the original purposes of the manufacturers' involvement in the sport, to promote their specific brand of vehicles, was gone.
Many race fans were upset with this change. NASCAR has long had hard-core fans who are loyal to a certain manufacturer. Ford supporters loved to say that their car stood for "First On Race Day." Chevy followers shot back by taking the slogan, "Have you driven a Ford lately," and turning it into "Have you outdriven a Ford lately." This back-and-forth battle between fans was one of the things that made NASCAR so popular, and the COT eliminated that element of the sport.
"When you listened to the fans over the years, they voiced their opinion that we were getting away from the 'stock' in stock car racing," said Pemberton.
Well, beginning next season, NASCAR will attempt to bring back the good ol' days with new cars that more closely resemble the types of vehicles they are named for. The three different cars -- a Ford Fusion, a Chevrolet SS and a Toyota Camry -- were put on the track at Talladega on Wednesday for the first of several test sessions that will take place in advance of their official debut in next year's season-opening Daytona 500.
"When the new car came along, it got to be very generic," said Pemberton. "We achieved many of our goals with a safer car, and we're proud of that. But the car got to be pretty generic with the manufacturers, and they were less engaged then. We kind of got away from some of the details on the way the cars looked, and it was more about a level playing field."
Seven Sprint Cup drivers took part in Wednesday's day-long test session: Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne and Juan Pablo Montoya drove the Chevy SS; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Sam Hornish Jr. drove the Ford Fusion; and Brian Vickers and Joey Logano in the Toyota Camry. The initial reaction from two of the drivers was extremely positive.
"The coolest thing is just the identity of the racecars," Stenhouse said. "The fans right now really just pull for a team and a driver. Now that we have some characteristics back in the racecar, I think they're going to be back pulling for manufacturers. Everybody has really done a great job to make that possible. I think it's going to get the fans excited, and that's what we're here to do. The identity of the car is what we're pushing, and I think the fans are going to be as excited as they have been in a long time to see these cars on the track at Daytona.
Kahne agreed. "These cars are neat. It's a new, fresh look," he said. "It resembles the manufacturer's car, which is great for the fans."
Kahne indicated there could be another benefit to the new cars. One of the unintended consequences of the COT was that in making the cars so equal, they became extremely stable and it was much more difficult to pass. Drivers could make a mistake and instead of spinning out or losing speed, the car simply wobbled briefly and then kept going. The result all too often in recent years has been a procession of cars circling the track in a straight line, with long stretch of boring green-flag runs and precious little passing. Kahne said the new car is not as easy to handle, which should put more of the emphasis back into actual driving ability rather than just holding onto the steering wheel.
"I feel like this is going to create much more excitement," Kahne said. "It's going to be way easier to wreck in this car. Not in a bad way. But if you get messed up, if one car darts in front of you, there's going to be a wreck. This car is much dicier and moves around a lot more than the other car. That creates great racing. It's the runs that you can get with this car, the way we can move around and pass cars in front of us. The car we have right now I don't feel like you can really do that near as much.
"So I think we're definitely making improvements. We're going in the right direction. That's great from a driver's standpoint because we're going to be able to race and pass more, and it's awesome from a fan's standpoint because they're going to get a much better show."
The new car also might bring back some of the old-style creativity that teams used to employ in the garage to gain an edge, as well as some of the grumbling that used to occur when the teams associated with one manufacturer felt like another manufacturer had an unfair advantage. "Win on Sunday, complain on Monday," it was called back in the day. It caused headaches for NASCAR officials, but it also gave fans something to talk about to stir up interest and even passion for the sport, an element that has definitely dissipated in recent years.
"There will be teams and manufacturers that will work on their cars to gain an advantage," Pemberton said. "It will be a chore for us because the cars will be harder to inspect. We know that going in. We know that teams will put forth their best efforts to gain any advantage they can. But we understand that the look of this car is important, and it's worth the effort to police it in the garage area."
Just like they used to do back in the good ol' days.