In the post-war '50s, stock...
In the post-war '50s, stock car racing became a very popular sport. Beach racing at Daytona preceded the speedway, which was built in 1958 and held its first race the following year.
The early history of circle track racing taught us valuable lessons. Almost as soon as we had developed an affordable mode of surface transportation called the automobile, we also began racing them in a circle. The most exciting part, and what would eventually propel circle track racing into the big time, was the enthusiasm about this new form of entertainment.
Men (and even women) wanted to go fast and compete. Spectators were willing to pay to see the contests. Promoters were all too eager to take the money. All of the necessary ingredients were there to ensure that circle track racing would not only endure as an entertainment industry, but eventually grow to compete with the likes of other outdoor sports such as baseball and football.
In the post-World War II era, America was full of men who had advanced mechanical training, a la the armed services, who had been forced to curtail their youth for the war's sake. The risks involved in auto racing paled in comparison to, say, flying a B-17 on bombing raids over Germany, fighting the enemy in the Pacific theater, and just plain being a soldier at war.
As the troops returned and society in the United States got back to normal, circle track racing resumed. If we take a look at the period between 1950 and 1980, we see a pattern starting to emerge.
Circle track racing, as well as hot rodding in general, began to be organized and grow in distinct pockets around the U.S. We had custom hot rods, drag racing, and land-speed record attempts out in the West, centered mostly in and around California. Indy Car, Sprint Cars, and Midget racing grew out of the Indianapolis area. Modified racing was very popular throughout New England and the Northeast. Stock car racing around the Midwest prospered in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, and gained popularity all along the Eastern Seaboard. After many attempts to organize the drivers and teams into a controlled group, NASCAR succeeded where many others had failed.
Early stock cars were just...
Early stock cars were just that: showroom stock automobiles with numbers painted on. Note the towbar bracket welded to the front bumper. The cars were often flat-towed to and from the racetrack.
There were other pockets of racing around the country besides those mentioned and all combined to represent a sizeable economic group. New tracks were built as many more individuals answered the call to become racers.
As the "stock" automotive parts showed their performance and durability shortcomings, the racers' need for speed was the catalyst for the racing aftermarket industry to be born. Innovative entrepreneurs established businesses and began manufacturing parts for hot rodders and circle track race teams. Racers were very willing to display stickers for their favorite performance companies. Names such as Moon, Hurst, Perfect Circle, Simpson, STP, Champion, and Airlift were just a few of the many companies that contributed to the sport of racing and thereby benefited from the exposure that circle track racing produced.
The cars themselves received a great amount of exposure, and the manufacturers benefited from increased sales. Early '50s circle track cars included Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Lincolns, Mercurys, and Hudsons. Ford, Pontiac, and Chevrolet got more involved from 1955 on.
Throughout the '60s, Ford, with its Ford and Mercury brands, battled it out with General Motors and its Chevrolet and Pontiac cars.
Chrysler cars were less involved successfully during the early '60s, but once the Hemi-head engines got going, they began to show their strength. As we look at the progression of the sport, we see major changes in all three areas of technology--racetracks, engines, and cars.
Richard Petty (43) and Curtis...
Richard Petty (43) and Curtis Turner (47) go at it on the newly paved track in Bristol, Tennessee, in July 1966.
From late 1950 to 1980, many racetracks were being paved. By that time, stock car racing was attracting money from many sources, therefore funding improvements for the larger racetracks, dirt and asphalt. Better maintenance, new grandstands, and nicer facilities all made the racing adventure more enjoyable for the fans and the racers.
The primary powerplants evolved into V-8 overhead valve engines using four-barrel carburetors, trick aftermarket intake manifolds, more durable valvetrain components, high lift/duration cams, high-compression pistons, stronger connecting rods, and more efficient exhaust systems. These were very exciting times for engine development.
Every ounce of horsepower was sought, and internal combustion technology grew faster than the top engineers in Detroit could have possibly imagined. Racers and racing parts manufacturers pioneered many of the most significant advancements in performance engine design.
At various times between 1955 and 1980, different makes of production engines were superior as far as horsepower was concerned. Eventually, each innovation was incorporated into all makes of engines. By 1980, most stock car powerplants of the same cubic-inch displacement were very close to the same horsepower.
The Cars The cars themselves underwent an evolution. Aerodynamics and suspension design improvements caused certain makes of stock cars to gain an advantage. Soon, the competing automakers went to work refining the aero efficiency of their cars as well as the suspension components so that they would be equally as competitive.
The fastback rear-window design...
The fastback rear-window design was incorporated into the Ford Torino and the Dodge seen here in the 1969 Daytona 500. Handling was an issue. Note the difference in steering between the two cars.
In the late '60s and '70s, stock cars racing in the NASCAR Grand National Division, regardless of make, had incorporated the "fastback" rear-window design, as well as the front- and rear-spoiler configurations. The shapes of the cars, just as with the designs of the engines, were becoming "standardized" to a great extent. Chassis setup and design became important in determining how fast a car would go. Handling was quickly becoming an issue.
Short track stock car racing was more or less an offshoot of the big-time stock car racing. Throughout stock car racing history, racers in general were considered celebrities, and many of them were interested in circle track racing because of that aspect of the sport. Where else could a person of any economic background go to be seen and admired by thousands of race fans? That is still a major attraction for modern-day racers and their crews.
As the popularity of the sport continued to grow and the technical aspect became more and more important, engineers and leading crew chiefs sought out the answers to handling problems.
From the '60s into the late '80s and early '90s, automotive engineers and stock car teams did much research.
Racers wanted to know more about vehicle dynamics and how that knowledge could be used to improve chassis performance. For information, they turned to the automakers. Beginning in the '40s, engineers began to study chassis dynamics. Most major developments related to automotive dynamics have taken place since, and an accelerated research program was started in 1952 that continued into the late '80s.
In 1970, Dodge released a...
In 1970, Dodge released a news photo labeling the winged stock cars as "High Wing Safety--The New Look in Stock Car Racing." Performance was the true reason for the rear-wing design. In the 1970 Daytona 500, six of the first eight starters were winged cars.
Engineers studied the properties associated with the cornering forces that exerted themselves on the front double A-arm suspensions, the rear straight-axle suspension, the tires, etc. The company that contributed the bulk of the support for this research was General Motors.
A key meeting in 1952 between a group of GM engineers and a group of aircraft engineers led to a series of research contracts. The idea was to apply techniques that had been used in aircraft design to the production automobile.
To make a long story short, a great amount of effort went into research and development of the automotive chassis and the dynamics associated with cornering. A book was written in the early '90s by some of the participants and was subsequently published by SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers) in 1995. The preface of that book states: "The purpose of this book is to make available to the racing community, and race engineers in particular, an understandable summary of vehicle dynamics technology as it has developed over the last 60 years."
All the while, racers themselves were doing research. At the short-track level of stock car racing, many innovative participants were "inventing" novel approaches to chassis design and setup.
The Daytona 500 became the most attended and most prestigious stock car race in the United States. Every February since the early '70s, many short track racers would flock to Daytona for Speedweeks. Along with the big NASCAR races being held at the Daytona track came, too, a series of nightly races preceding the 500 at an asphalt racetrack called New Smyrna Speedway.
Dirt racers also came to Daytona and raced Midget and Sprint Cars at the old Memorial Stadium. In later years, those races would be held at the Barberville Speedway, now known as Volusia County Speedway.
Taking a page from the superspeedways,...
Taking a page from the superspeedways, wings were tried on short track cars. Cars in competition during Florida Speedweeks races took an "anything goes" attitude and a winner was often copied by the next night.
The teams that came to race represented most of the major stock car "cells" around the country. Drivers from the Midwest, Virginia and the Carolinas, New England, and throughout the Southeast came together. What resulted was not only some very good racing, but also a sharing of information and technology. If any one team showed up with a distinct advantage, soon everyone was making use of it.
Because New Smyrna Speedway and Barberville were somewhat outlaw tracks with few rules, innovation ran rampant. One major reason why the rules were the way they were was because so many different types of cars came to race from sections of the country that imposed different rules. To establish strict rules unique to these racetracks would have been unfair to all concerned. Everyone would have to change something about their cars if there were special rules. These annual events did more for the advancement of short track technology on a national level than any other one thing.
As circle track racing moved into the '90s, we saw a sharp division in the class system for short track stock cars. We also saw the emergence of small, fabricated, "entry-level" cars.
On the dirt tracks, we now have several different groups of cars. The strictly "stock" classes are divided between the larger sedans with V-8 motors and the later model compact cars with mostly four-cylinder engines. These smaller cars can be either front- or rear-wheel drive. The Late Model cars usually have stock front suspensions that are mated to a fabricated main chassis and rear clip. The Super Late Model cars used in the dirt touring series have complete fabricated chassis. The modified classes include the IMCA-type of stock clip chassis cars as well as some that are again totally fabricated chassis.
Asphalt short track cars are similar in division to the dirt chassis in that the "stock" classes have completely stock chassis that can be the large sedans or the four-cylinder compact cars. The Late Model cars usually have a stock clip front end mated to a fabricated rear clip. The Super Late Model asphalt cars include most touring Late Model classes and are built as totally fabricated chassis. Modified classes include IMCA types of stock clip front cars as well as the touring Modifieds of the New England area.
NASCAR's premier divisions--Craftsman Truck, Busch, and Winston Cup--have rules in place that establish strict control over the designs of chassis that are totally fabricated. The front end is based on a '70s-era stock double A-arm conventional big spring suspension system that uses drag-link steering. The rear suspension is called a "truck-arm" system because it is basically a copy of a 1964 Chevy truck rear suspension.
NASCAR has standardized the...
NASCAR has standardized the design of the Winston Cup cars. Teams can no longer innovate unique chassis designs to improve handling.
Whatever the make or class of stock car, the racer's quest is to find that perfect setup that will be fast and consistent enough to win races. For many years, and for the most part into the '90s, the only way a racer could find that perfect setup was by trial and error.
As we entered the '90s, engine technology reached a point where a racer could build his engine with an abundant assortment of parts at a reasonable price. Labor is the high cost in engine building, so if a team had the expertise in engine assembly, a lot of money could be saved.
Many top teams of the early '90s chose not to build their own, but to buy their engines and race cars pre-built. They relied upon the builders to know what was the best design, and there was a lot of competition among car builders. The engine part of that came out OK, but with the limited amount of knowledge available about stock car dynamics, the chassis designs were usually much different from one another, and the performance was hit or miss.
As we came into the late '90s and the 2000s, a significant change in both of the areas of engine and chassis technology were beginning to take shape. In part III of this series, we will tell you why.