Published Jan/Feb 2006

By AAA Natiional

It all started with post-World War II races on the famed Daytona Beach course in the late 1940s.

William Henry Getty “Big Bill” France had been promoting races on the beach city’s course, a combination of hard-packed sand and the parallel state highway, since the late 1930s. However, France had an idea of racing the cars that people actually drove on the street — family sedans fresh off the showroom floor. It was with this in mind that France created the National Association for Stock Car Racing — NASCAR.

Races involving cars like those everyday Americans were driving seemed a natural. Unfortunately, in the post-war years of the late 1940s, there was a shortage of new cars. U.S. auto manufacturers were still gearing back up in the aftermath of World War II. France knew that new cars being beat up on a racetrack while spectators were driving timeworn jalopies wouldn’t sit well with most. That’s why “modified” cars — pre-war coupes that still occupied the American roadways and racetracks — were the initial vehicles of NASCAR racing. By 1949, however, France decided it was time to revisit the idea of racing new stock cars.

Other than tweaking and tuning of the engine, little could be done to these early stock cars. Front, back, and side glass windows remained intact. Ropes and aircraft harnesses were used as seat belts. Roll bars were neither required nor usually installed. Due to the rough-surfaced dirt tracks that were predominant in the early days of the sport, competitors were allowed to reinforce their wheels to prevent lug nuts from pulling through the rims. This was the only modification allowed.

In the early years of NASCAR, racing did not require a huge investment. Due to the lack of modification that could be done to “strictly stock” cars, the car could be raced for very little more than the cost of the car. In some instances, rental cars were actually used as race cars by drivers who didn’t have a steady car deal.

For a number of years, strictly stock car racing thrived, garnering legions of fans. But the intensity of competition necessitated more extensive modifications. While many of these were implemented in the interest of safety, manufacturers found that there were ways to integrate high-performance parts into their mainstream street cars that would make them more competitive on the race track.

One of the first major changes in race car development came in 1953. In response to an epidemic of failures to hubs, axles, and other suspension pieces, Oldsmobile, Lincoln, and Hudson car companies introduced “severe usage” kits, primarily composed of suspension parts.

Chevrolet soon followed with its introduction of the 355-cubic-inch “small block” V8 engine — seen by many as one of the most significant developments in the history of stock car racing. So significant was this new design that this engine, with very minor changes, is still in use by General Motors’ race teams across the country.

Automobile manufacturers had gradually realized that to sell new cars, it certainly helped to win races. The popular saying was “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

The “superspeedway boom” era of the early 1960s had dawned, and with it, more complex structural components were developed. For decades, success on a racetrack could be predicted by whichever driver had the most power under the hood. With the proliferation of superspeedways, manufacturers began to pay more attention to aerodynamics.

Starting with what were once stock cars, the factories began to tweak the bodywork to gain an aerodynamic edge. Now the shape of cars — honed in $2,000-an-hour wind tunnels designed for the aircraft industry — became just as important as horsepower. The wind-tunnel result usually generated a nip here, a tuck there, or maybe just a hint of a curve someplace else.

NASCAR increased its control over the shape of its cars and began to get serious about aerodynamics. “Aerodynamic parity” is the standard for NASCAR today. Racing teams refer to it as “common body templates.” While each vehicle template is unique, the appearance and size of the cars are all very similar.

After more than a half-century of history, NASCAR race cars have grown far from their showroom origins. Today’s Nextel Cup race cars have evolved to sophisticated race chassis covered by common steel body panels. These template racers are differentiated by subtle nose and tail treatments approved by NASCAR made for Dodge, Ford, and GM brands. While you may be able to find a Chevy Monte Carlo at your local dealership, it has little in common with the 780-plus horsepower, 200 mph Nextel Cup cars that tear up the track. No matter, even today, automotive brand loyalty in NASCAR thrives. Avid fans cling to the concept that within each production-line car lies the soul of a heart-pumping racer.

Above: Curtis Turner (26) and Joe Weatherly (12) finished one-two 14 times in NASCAR convertible division races in 1956. Turner won 22 races and Weatherly won five.

Below: Joe Weatherly in his 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible race car at Daytona Beach.Courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Before You Go
The Great American Race returns to Daytona International Speedway Feb. 19, 2006 for another heart-pounding, edge of your seat, 500 miles of racing. Don't miss your chance to be at the DAYTONA 500.

For Daytona tickets, click here.
AAA is the “official auto club” at all 12 tracks owned or operated by the International Speedway Corporation, which host NASCAR Nextel Cup Series events. AAA helps to sponsor events and provides roadside assistance services to fans during weekends at the tracks.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

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