Showmanship and Stability the key to NASCAR success

Although the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has been an exclusively post-war development on the racing scene in the United States, it now holds a position of strength as one of the healthiest racing formulae in the World. In Europe, saloon-car racing has enjoyed great popularity over the past twenty years, but there has always been an underlying awareness that its role is that of a supporting formula, taking second place to the major single-seater and sports-car categories. By contrast, NASCAR, developing as it did from the multitude of small regional divisions at the start of the 1950s, has enjoyed a basic strength in its own right from its formative years.

Now it stands in its current buoyant situation, sustaining a 30-race Grand National Championship with full fields and crowded grandstands. What is more, the organisers rightfully feel sufficiently confident about the spectator appeal of near-200-m.p.h. “stock cars” to base one day’s racing round a single event. With no frills, unnecessary embellishments and tedious supporting races on the same day, Daytona’s recently hosted 500-mile classic attracted a record crowd of 120,000 people on race day. The previous three days were given over to various events for junior NASCAR categories in addition to the final round of the all-Chevrolet Camaro International Road Race of Champions, a splendid event finally won by Bobby Unser from A.J. Foyt in a side-by-side finish, but the Sunday was wholly given over to the 500 in a manner which Motor Sport has long advocated for World Championship Grand Prix races. A fully fledged 500-mile race with a packed grid offered those American enthusiasts splendid value for money. We finished the day glad to have made the trip to confirm just how spectacular it all was.

Outwardly resembling off-the-shelf production cars, NASCAR saloons are in fact every bit as specialised and highly developed as any European single-seater. Close scrutiny of the Roger Penske-owned Coca Cola American Motors Matador, currently the most successful NASCAR car of 1975 with a win at Riverside, a win in its I25-mile preliminary heat at Daytona and second place in the 500-mile classic to its credit, revealed a standard of preparation and attention to detail which aspiring European teams could well take note of. The very fact that all the leading NASCAR machines are so strikingly similar in their construction bears witness to both firm and sensible regulations formulated by the governing body, and to the difficulty any one team faces in gaining an appreciable advantage over its rivals. A sensible and well-reasoned attitude to safety governs the fundamental design of the NASCAR racing saloon.

Penske has been running a NASCAR Grand National machine ever since the summer of 1972. Then, what was ostensibly a Matador from the outside was in fact a car built round a Holman and Moody frame, utilising Ford-based suspension and transmission: in fact it only retained the Matador’s engine and bodyshell. But this was a “short cut” to get the car running that season, the current Penske car owing much more of its design and construction to the present team and American Motors. The very fact that Penske was in a position to get his car running so quickly back in 1972 highlights the similarity and interchangeability of components between the various competing cars. There are some very specific requirements for NASCAR success and nobody who intends to win strays very far outside those prescribed limits.

The regulations governing the basic roll cage round which the cars must be built are substantial to say the least. Not only are provisions made for a rectangular roof hoop (to prevent the car’s pressed steel roof from collapsing over any part of the passenger compartment) but the engine compartment and the boot enjoy similar protection: the latter area housing the 22-gallon fuel cell. Down either side of the car at sill level there must be a 2 in. by 3 in. steel box channel section to ensure that the floor panel will not distort in 200-m.p.h. accidents. The doors must be backed by a maze of steel rails on each side of the car to protect the driver himself from a sideways impact. The subframe on which the engine and front suspension are carried must conform to certain specified limits, as must the mounting for the driver’s seat, safety harness and the integral fire extinguisher.

Lastly, as NASCAR Grand National saloons have their doors welded up, access to the cockpit is gained by the driver climbing through the window space which, naturally, has no glass or plastic. In consequence, whilst a degree of gymnastic ability may be required to climb into the car, it has been known for people to fly out of wayward racing cars with far greater ease, and a tough catch net is fixed on the driver’s side. This regulation also helps to stop the driver being injured by flying debris from another accident, but was primarily developed as a result of Richard Petty being partially thrown out of his car a few years ago, fortunately without serious injury.

Engine regulations have changed markedly over the past few years, a swing away from Detroit’s large-capacity units not only a reflection of the car industry’s progression away from such uneconomical engines, but also NASCAR’S desire to fend off any criticism of motor racing. Originally limited to a 7.1-litre maximum, NASCAR’s principal method of effecting a restriction on an engine’s power output has been by limiting the size of its carburetter. Back in 1973 the larger engines were restricted by means of a sleeve which was inserted into the carburetter to restrict the engine’s breathing. The latest regulations virtually oblige all competitors to use the NASCAR-approved four-barrel Holley Series 4500 carburetter. In stark contrast to the days of the mid-1960s when some very special factory-built hemispherical heads found their way into particular machines, which then easily out-classed the regular “stock block” machines, this state of affairs gave some evenly balanced racing with 6, 7 and 7.1-litre cars all winning races.

Further carburation restrictions were imposed on the big block engines during 1974, so now all the competitive machines are powered by units of around 6-litres. As the Penske Matador team has been concentrating on this unit for almost three years now, the situation resolved itself largely in their favour.

The 6-litre American Motors V8, developing around 520 b.h.p. at 7,000 r.p.m., is religiously prepared to meet the tight NASCAR regulations, which ensure that the cost of participating does not become astronomic for the private entrant. Whilst the cost of consistent success is clearly very high, there are a good number of well-prepared and privately-owned NASCAR saloons which have not bankrupted their teams to build up. Apart from polishing and balancing, the cylinder block and cylinder head must remain virtually unchanged from the production engine upon which “recognition of the type has been granted”, to quote the NASCAR regulations. Camshafts are free, although roller bearings are not admissible, and there is no restriction on pistons.

The Matador uses a four-speed Borg-Warner T-10 gearbox driving through a Schiefer competition clutch. Complete with Girling ventilated disc brakes all round, it is the exception rather than the rule amongst NASCAR Grand National machines and the Matador was at a distinct advantage round Riverside.

The power units tend to be pretty reliable, which is just as well when you are contending with 500 miles of flat-out motor racing on a partially banked circuit. But not every track on the NASCAR Championship programme includes a banked section and, unlike Daytona and Talladega, not every circuit is a flat-out blind. In consequence, many of the leading teams have two specially tailored cars for use on widely varying circuit configurations. Ultimate adhesion with just a touch of oversteer is preferable on circuits like Daytona, where the rate of the right front springs on the Matador is between 2,600 and 2,800 lb. A European racing saloon is unlikely to exceed 500 lb. rate springs. In fact the spring rates tend to vary all round on the car set up for the banked circuits, various critical adjustments catering for driver preference or handling suitability.

Responsibility for the basic frame of the NASCAR Matador lies in the hands of former star driver Banjo Matthews, himself a Daytona front runner some ten years ago. Matthews not only builds up chassis frames for the Penske team, but also for David Pearson, the triple Grand National Champion, whose Purolator Mercury is generally reckoned to be amongst the fastest two or three cars currently competing on the NASCAR scene. Once the Matador body has been assembled round its frame, great attention is paid to reducing the drag on the body shape, the team even going to the effort of making fairings on the forward-facing wrap-round rear bumper on the car. Matthews and Penske don’t always go quite to the lengths that the Petty team has been in the past, lacquering the whole body after transfers have been applied, before painstakingly rubbing the whole finish down by hand to ensure a slippery profile!

Whilst power and straight-line speed are the prime assets of a NASCAR saloon, the ability of its driver to use a slipstream, or “draft” as the Americans refer to it, is of paramount importance. Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, Donnie Allison, A. J. Foyt, David Pearson and Penske’s driver Bobby Allison, all experienced hands on the banked circuits of North America, have developed the ability to make the most of a slipstream. Drop back too far from a bunch and you’ll never catch them again; get to the front of a queue and, as likely as not, you’ll find yourself “run down” on the final lap. This year’s Daytona 500 provided a classic example of “drafting” as David Pearson’s Mercury, running on its own out in the lead during the race’s closing stages, was being caught by eventual winner Benny Parsons who allowed Richard Petty’s Dodge to “tow” him up towards the Mercury. Petty was several laps down after making some unscheduled pit stops, but the way in which he teamed up with the Chevrolets of Parsons and Ramo Stott in one big nose-to-tail bunch strikingly drove home the advantage of a “draft”. Further, in the supporting International Race of Champions final, the Penske-prepared Chevrolet Camaros driven by Fittipaldi, Unser and Foyt, (which had never topped 165 m.p.h. running individually) ran as a bunch of three, when they were actually timed at 171 m.p.h. at one point on the circuit.

Once a race is under way, the emphasis in NASCAR racing falls fairly and squarely on team work. You can have the best driver, the best car with the fastest and most reliable engine, but you will not stand a chance of success unless your pit work is up to scratch. With NASCAR limiting fuel capacity to 22 gallons, a 500-mile race is going to call for several pit stops to replenish the tanks as well as replacing sorely over-worked tyres after some twenty laps or so punishment on the banking. With such competition, a fumbled pit stop can drop a car from contesting the lead, to half a lap down as the fastest cars lap the 2.5-mile Daytona oval in around 55 sec. Small wonder then that the art of pit work has been honed to a high level by the Woods brothers, the Petty team and Penske’s men. Short-wave radio communication is used between car and pits by most teams, thus enabling the driver to tell his team manager exactly what he wants doing to the car, half a lap before he arrives in front of the pits. During the preliminary 125-mile race at Daytona, Allison came in for refuelling and two right-hand tyres: his mechanics carried out the work in just over 18 sec. No sooner had he accelerated back into the race than he realised that the replacement tyres were badly out of balance. By the radio he managed to advise Penske that he would be coming in again on the next lap, and the second set of tyres were replaced in a similarly short space of time.

Luckily, Allison’s two pit stops were both made while the yellow light was on. NASCAR rules tend to err towards the scrupulous when it comes to deciding just what condition the track surface must be in during a race. An accident quite naturally brings out the pace car onto the circuit whilst the debris is cleared away, but even a blown engine or a car depositing oil can bring about the same result. During the course of a 500-mile race it can be fairly assumed that the yellow lights will be on several times, on some occasions for many laps at a time, so experienced drivers make it their technique to stay in the race for as long as possible, hoping to end each stint and come in when a yellow light comes on. Then the trick is never to be in the pits when the pace car comes past, otherwise the driver concerned loses that lap. Even when the pace car is out on the circuit some seasoned campaigners prefer to stay in line, crawling round in formation behind it for as long as possible, trying to time their pit stops just before the green light flashes on again so that they can re-enter the race proper with full tanks and fresh tyres.

Detail preparation is the key to fast pit work. Having calculated to the last tyre just how much rubber the Matador would use during the 500, not only did the Penske crew have their tyres ready and waiting, they also had the securing nuts stuck on their holes with a tacky glue-like mixture. When Allison’s car screeched to a standstill in front of them there was no time wasted in carefully placing all four nuts on their studs before the power-driven wrench was brought into action. Once the wheel was presented up to the hub, the nuts held in position over their appropriate studs once the old wheel had been detached. The nuts which had been holding on the old wheel were scattered all over the pit lane, but the leading teams reckon to save somewhere in the region of ten seconds on each stop by this sliver of detail planning. With the limit on six men at any one time in front of the pit wall working on the car, Penske himself occupied that fleeting 18 sec. by cleaning Allison’s screen with a neatly contrived sponge, mounted on the end of a pole, allowing the team boss to stay behind the pit wall while effectively working on his car.

Once the pit stop is completed, critically chosen 2nd and 3rd gears are imperative to dispatch the car down the pit lane and back into the race with the minimum of delay. NASCAR racing demands that everyone connected with a specific team should perform their tasks with flawless efficiency not to ensure their driver wins the race, but to ensure that he has the chance of winning the race. Almost predictably, a certain degree of rule-bending takes place. A leading driver recalls Daytona entrant Smokey Yunick getting so annoyed with scrutineers who were trying to measure the capacity of his car’s fuel tank that he actually drove the car away. One small thing: the fuel tank had already been detached from the car for examination!

Other neat ploys for fuel conservation have included storing extra petrol within the tubes of the roll cage, as well as boosting the car’s weight by the temporary expedient of filling the tyres up with water, prior to pushing the car out to the pits. Once the underweight car was ready to go in the pit lane, the wheels were changed and the driver started the race as if nothing had happened. However, such blatant cheating is the exception rather than the rule, most infringements designed to achieve just a slight advantage which will not attract too much attention towards the car concerned.

On the driver front, 1975 looks as though it will be more open than most. Richard Petty is the man whose name has become synonymous with both NASCAR success and victory in the Daytona 500, but he started this season rather badly. His STP Dodge had a skirmish with the wall in the opening race at Riverside, California, and the reigning Grand National Champion could only limp home in ninth place. At Daytona he contested the lead in the early stages, only to have a head gasket begin to blow, which needed a series of pit stops to top up the engine’s water level, eventually finishing seventh. Bobby Allison, who started the 1974 season with a privately-owned Chevrolet Chevelles, before taking his Coca Cola backing across to the Penske team towards the end of the year, opened 1975 on a high note with his Riverside win and then finished second at Daytona. The team were rather disappointed, feeling that a slight ignition malfunction cost them the race.

Many NASCAR pundits predict that the combination of Bobby Allison and the lithe Matador could be the fastest and most successful combination of the 1975 season, but in order to dovetail with the team’s other racing commitments in both USAC and Formula One, the team is running only 17 of the 30 Grand National events. David Pearson obviously competes with Petty as another co-favourite for the Grand National Championship, a last-minute slip at Daytona costing him his first 500 victory at the Florida circuit. Donnie Allison, Bobby’s younger brother, gained pole position at Daytona in his privately financed Chevrolet. Cale Yarborough must also be a threat in his Chevrolet, prepared by 1960 Daytona winner Junior Johnson. USAC stars A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford are both planning a limited NASCAR season to rustle up some more intense competition.

On reflection, the success of NASCAR in its current form must to a great extent be attributed to the benevolently dictatorial attitude of its administration. Bill France was the man who welded the whole Association together from a mass of disjointed constituents a quarter of a century ago. NASCAR has never been handicapped by supporting a large number of consultants and committees to which it is necessary to refer any problems. France and his son Bill junior, who took over control from his retiring father some three years ago, have always believed in simple lines of communication and decisions, speedily reached, in the interest of the sport as a whole. Individuals may carp occasionally, but in general the system works very well and there are few dissatisfied parties at the end of the day. Perhaps most of all, NASCAR racing remains a real spectator sport, relatively uncluttered by politics and uninfluenced by a selection of pressure groups working from within. Motor racing is NASCAR’s business, right the way down from senior administrators to the lowliest mechanic. They believe sincerely in what they are doing, fully appreciate that their responsibility is to the spectator, and put on a thoroughly worthwhile show which is justly rewarded by high attendance figures. Above all, NASCAR saloon racing remains a spectacle, something which many other forms of motor racing have long since ceased to be.—A.H.