A look at the NASCAR stockers
In the grand scheme of international motor racing, saloon car racing has never figured very prominently by comparison with Formula One for instance, for it lacks the glamour and prestige of the premier class. In America however, it is a completely different situation for NASCAR’s (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) Grand National stock car series ranks in importance with other top forms of racing; USAC/Indy, SCCA road racing or even the World Championship events in America, in terms of cornmercial involvement as well as in terms of spectator count and mass media coverage on radio, television and in the press.
In its twenty-fifth year, NASCAR Inc. is big business and, what is more important, NASCAR and everyone involved knows that motor racing is big business from the super star drivers and their teams to race track promoters and sponsors. In effect, NASCAR runs like a benevolent dictatorship originally under the founding President Bill France and since last year under his son Bill France Jr. NASCAR runs like a family business with the France family holding key positions. Decisions are made in the best interests of the family whose twenty-five years of growth which began with a hard struggle has matured into prosperity.
There is no haggling over rules or shilly-shallying over decisions, the NASCAR hierarchy makes them, they are passed down, adopted, enforced and occasionally bent but always for the good of the organisation.
Twenty-five years ago stock car racing in America was an amazing mass of small regional operations with no uniformity of rules and plenty of fast buck promoters who might just disappear with the prize money before the racing was over. Out of this maze, Big Bill France forged NASCAR which today in its premier league, there are several lesser grades leading up to Grand National, has a 31-race series with posted awards of over $2.5-million. With the sponsorship of Winston cigarettes the championship points fund is over $600,000. In 1972 two drivers, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty, won over $200,000 each. Not had for a couple of saloon racers.
The success of Grand National stock car racing is based on two things: close competition which is fostered by the rules which may be updated when necessary, even in the middle of a season, and strong public identification with the stock-bodied racing cars which at a distance look just like the ones that the average man can buy for his own use. As a result, thousands of stock car fans can identify directly with racing heroes such as Richard Petty in his Dodge or Bobby Allison in his Chevrolet benefiting the race promoter who can sell lots of seats in his grandstand as well as the sponsors of Petty (STP) and Allison (Coca Cola) who can sell more of their product and all the while NASCAR becomes stronger and stronger.
Although a Grand National car may look like a normal passenger car, that is where the resemblance ends for in fact the stock car racer is a healthy, husky, pure-bred competition machine the best of which would do proud the craftsmanship of any top Formula One team. Within the basic body shell of a standard American production saloon a stout roll cage is fitted. The roll cage is mandatory for safety reasons but in fact it serves the additional purpose of greatly increasing the torsional rigidity of the car, thus greatly increasing the efficiency of the suspension. The suspension itself is a variation of the basic American passenger car layout, A-frames at the front and a solid rear axle. All components are of course heavy duty, either hand-made by each car builder or bought from a supplier. Several years ago when the major manufacturers (Ford and Chrysler) were involved in stock car racing, much work was done in the design and production of heavy duty stock car racing components and these items are still available, Ford stock for Fords and Mercurys from Holman and Moody and Chrysler stock for Plymouths and Dodges from Petty Enterprises. In recent years, Bobby Allison has established a line of Chevrolet-based components. In addition a company called Frankland Engineering supplies brake and suspension components.
As a result of the sources of supply, Grand National cars until recently were either Ford or Chrysler under the surface of their stock bodies. For instance, Roger Penske’s American Motors Matador began life as a Ford under the surface using a Holman and Moody Ford type frame and roll cage, Ford suspension, brakes and drive train but retaining the Matador body and engine. This was done by Penske as an expedient to get into racing fast but, over the winter of 1972-73, the Matador was substantially reworked and it is now more a Penske car under the surface. Until the development of Bobby Allison’s business, all Chevrolets were basically Fords under the surface using Chevrolet bodies and engines. Some of them are still interesting hybrids such as Junior Johnson’s car driven by Cale Yarborough which uses a Ford-style front suspension and Chevrolet-style rear suspension.
It is in the area of engine restrictions that NASCAR is able to level competition in order to put on a good show for the racing fans. Capacity is limited to 7.1-litres using a stock block with considerable freedom in modification of the engine. The vital control factor is carburation which is limited to a few approved types and sizes of four-barrel carburetter while engines are handicapped by a sleeve which fits within the carburetter according to capacity of the engine and the degree of sophistication of the basic engine. When the factories were in stock car racing some very fancy hemispherical combustion chamber units were developed which easily ran away from the normal production cylinder head models but they are all equalised fairly now. The result is that Grand National events are being won by all types of engines from the normal design 6-litre Penske Matador driven by Mark Donohue at Riverside, to Richard Petty’s 7-litre “Hemi-Head” Dodge in the Daytona 500 to David Pearson in the Wood Brothers 7.1-litre “Boss” (hemi-head) Purolator Mercury in the Atlanta 500 and Cale Yarborough in Junior Johnson’s 7-litre “Porcupine” (semi-herni) Chevrolet in the Bristol 500—four different engine types in four different races. The net result in terms of performance is that the old unrestricted breathing rules permitted Cale Yarborough in a 7.1-litre “Boss” Mercury to set an all-time qualifying record for the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway tri-oval at over 194 m.p.h. in 1969 while the pole speed for the 1973 Daytona 500 was only 185 m.p.h. set by Buddy Baker in a 7-litre “Hemi” Dodge. In 1969 unrestricted engines were producing approximately 650 horsepower while this season the output is more like 550, but the racing is better.
One final and important feature of the carburetter sleeves is to increase engine life and reduce expensive blow-ups, an important factor in a class of racing which has only one works entry, the Penske Matador.
The Grand National Calendar has three distinctly different types of circuits; the high-banked, high-speed superspeedway ovals like Daytona and Talladega, the short ovals of less than a mile in length and two road races a year at Riverside, California using the short sports car course. The better financed teams will build special cars for each type of track and for some they even have several categories within each category. The K & K Insurance team which races Dodges prepared by chief mechanic Harry Hyde, one of the most highly respected men in the business, has five cars, one of them just for Daytona and Talladega. Interestingly many teams use their short track cars or the basic set-up preferred on the short tracks for running the Riverside road course.
Speed in NASCAR is a product of two factors, horsepower and aerodynamics. Horsepower results for the continuous development of engines while the aerodynamic pursuit involves an exercise within severely limited parameters. NASCAR requires the use of stock bodies and because of some unbelievable cheating in the past has developed an elaborate method of checking bodies during technical inspection. In addition, a front spoiler measuring no more than four inches by three feet and a rear boot spoiler no more than three inches high by the width of the car is permitted. Years ago, it was found that in order to reduce the inherent front end lift found in American passenger cars travelling at over twice their normally intended speed, the ideal solution was to lower the car as close as possible to the ground and rake the body so that it was lower at the front than the rear in order to try and prevent air from passing under the car by spilling it over the top instead. Since the rules are so restrictive the ultimate aerodynamic action became that of assembly of the body panels so that it was perfect with no gaps between the doors and fenders letting the airflow over the car become disturbed. The masters of this form of preparation are the aforementioned Harry Hyde and Richard Petty’s team. The latest Petty trick is to cover his car with several coats of hand-rubbed lacquer after the trade stickers identifying his various sponsors have been applied so that the final race ready surface of the car is super slippery and naturally the car is always highly polished.
With straightforward suspension systems, an important tuning aid for ultimate handling is the use of the front and rear spoilers. The usual method is to use the maximum front spoiler permitted by the rules and then balance the handling using as little rear spoiler as possible.
NASCAR racing is show business developed to a very high degree. Through years of well executed public relations and advertising, NASCAR drivers have become superstars who can draw crowds on the strength of their names alone. Their fame is so widespread that the likes of Petty, Allison, Yarborough, Baker and Pearson are known even outside the south-eastern region of the United States where Grand National racing is strongest.
The races themselves fall into predictable patterns. Because the cars are limited to a maximum fuel tank size of 22 US gallons, maximum range is less than 100 miles, depending on the speed of the track. As a result, even the shortest championship event requires several pit stops. This necessity of making pit stops plus the use of the pace car to slow the field, causing it to close up behind the leader during an accident situation, means that the race itself becomes a series of short sprint contests. Provided a driver can remain on the same lap as the leader he is a potential winner for the odds are very high that an accident will close up the field and anyone who makes it into the last portion of the race may challenge for the win. In fact, many shrewd drivers pace themselves in order to run their fastest at the finish and NASCAR races frequently end in close finishes with mere feet separating several cars after 500 miles of racing.
Stock car racing is a stadiurn sport in which the majority of spectators watch the action from grandstands located on the pits straightway. In most cases those fans who can see the pit action can also view almost the entire racetrack so that a passing duel on the back straightway is not lost on the paying customer. Because the pits are in view ot most of the paying public, the pit stops for fuel and tyres become an important part of the show. The acknowledged pit stop experts are the famous Wood Brothers who among their long list of achievements include a share in Jim Clark’s Lotus-Ford win at Indianapolis in 1965. Imported especially for the occasion by Ford, the Wood Brothers astounded the Indy establishment with their efficiency and faultless speed. In NASCAR they consistently change two tyres and add 20 gallons of fuel from two churns in less than 20 sec. and can change all four tyres and add fuel in less than 40 sec. The Wood Brothers crew, consisting of three brothers and two cousins, have been working together for years and have developed numerous subtleties in technique from the choreography of their every movement to the way they remove and replace the wheels which are fitted with four nuts. In March during the Atlanta 500 they performed a routine two-tyre and fuel stop in less than 15 sec. Their driver, David Pearson, won the race, perhaps because he was the fastest that day but also perhaps because the time he gained in the pits permitted him to run his car just a little easier while his opposition overstressed their cars
An important part of the history of NASCAR is the fact that many of the drivers got their first experience at fast driving by hauling illicit liquor on the back-roads of the south-east with Federal agents on their tails. The souped-up liquor runners of the Forties and Fifties became the NASCAR stars, a notable example being Junior Johnson who is now retired as a driver but continues as one of the shrewdest car owners in the business. Perhaps because of the presence of some basic larceny plus the extremely tight restrictions in the NASCAR rule book it is necessary to be able to cheat to win in NASCAR. In the past the cheating was blatant but now it is very subtle and sophisticated and there is an inherent degree of fairness because everybody is doing it and it is only possible to get away with so much before the all-powerful NASCAR Technical Inspector catches up with the offender.
Some of the famous fiddles of the past include Smokey Yunick’s 7/8th-scale car which was not discovered until it crashed. Yunick also mastered a hidden fuel tank which meant that his drivers could always go a little farther on a tank of gas, until he was caught. For the most part, cheating in NASCAR is used to give just a little bit of an advantage because a big advantage will be noticed while a little one can be just enough to make the difference between winning and finishing second.
Like other forms of racing, the car is all important in stock car racing. A super driver in a mediocre car does not stand a chance against a so-so driver in a super car so that a lot of time and money is spent on preparing the cars. It takes a very special car to run at over 180 m.p.h. for mile after mile on a track like Daytona. Slipstreaming is important and a winning car must be capable of running in another’s wake without overheating or without losing its handling ability. Races have been won or lost because a driver was not able to run in his opponent’s draught, as the slipstream is known in NASCAR terms. In one recent race, the challenger was able to run right up to his opponent’s bumper in the slipstream, but when he pulled out to pass the turbulent air which spreads in a vee-shape from the front of the leading car like the wake of a boat, completely upset the challenger and he was forced to drop back, losing the race.
The thundering thirty-car fields of 3,800 lb. stock cars running on their pace lap is a sight to stir any racing enthusiast but it falls short of the exciting multi-car slipstream battles which make NASCAR Grand National racing the success that it is. No description, however, can equal actually seeing a good stock car race.—F.D.S.