DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. NASCARs Car of Tomorrow is a thing of the past.
Designed primarily to improve driver safety after the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, the car has been kicked to the curb, left in the rearview mirror and turned into scrap metal.
The redesigned replacements at least so far are a huge hit with drivers, owners, auto manufacturers and fans.
The new cars, dubbed Generation 6, look considerably closer to the ones sold on showroom floors. Its NASCARs way of putting the stock back in stock-car racing and possibly making the cars stars once again.
It matters because its the image we portray, defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. I wear a fire suit with a helmet and a full seat around me. You cant see me. What you are seeing is this car going around the racetrack and the sponsors and the car construction, styling, etc. So that is what you see as a fan or as an ambassador of the sport. Absolutely it matters.
Cars used to be as iconic as drivers in NASCAR.
In the mid-1950s, racecars virtually were indistinguishable from production vehicles. Sure, they had some rudimentary safety equipment and numbers on the doors, but they often still had license plates and working headlights.
Against other real production cars, the very first Chrysler 300 was dominant. That set the stage for the next five decades of racing.
Fireball Roberts and his No. 22 black and gold Pontiac Catalina were mainstays in Victory Lane in the early 60s. Richard Pettys blue Dodge Charger was a series staple.
The Charger became so important to Petty that NASCAR extended the cars eligibility through the 1977 season, an unprecedented move for the sanctioning body. And few have forgotten Bill Elliotts sleek Ford Thunderbird or Earnhardts stylish Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS in the late 1980s.
People want that kind of connection with the car theyre driving, NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi said.
NASCAR hasnt had that in years.
The CoT debuted in 2007 after extension research and development. The drivers seat moved more toward the center of the car, which was longer and wider.
The result was a boxy car that was indistinguishable from make to make; NASCAR needed just one template to check every car during inspections. Maybe more troubling was that it was considerably less racy than its predecessor.
Drivers hated it, fans ripped it, and NASCAR officials dismissed the backlash while continuously pointing to the cars safety record.
It was something thats never happened in history, where manufacturers were basically treated like mushrooms kept in the dark and under a pile a crap by the organizing bodies, said Lee White, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. Now its an opportunity for the manufacturers to become front and center.
With Chevrolet leading the way and fellow manufactures Ford and Toyota gladly following its lead, the auto giants demanded change. By some accounts, Chevy even threatened to leave NASCAR if the on-track cars didnt become more relevant.
NASCAR listened, then allowed the three manufacturers to develop unique versions of the Gen-6 car. That led to cars that closely resemble the Chevrolet SS, the Ford Fusion and the Toyota Camry.
Grills and body lines are similar. Silhouettes are within millimeters of their showroom counterparts.
This is stock-car racing, said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America. Everything is supposed to be stock or at least as close as you can get to stock. NASCAR knew it. The manufacturers knew. The fans knew it. Everyone could feel things were off. Were trying to appeal to a whole new generation of people, and when the cars not relevant, it gets really hard because everyone starts aging. We did this as much for the sport as we did for the brand.
Still, the ol win on Sunday, sell on Monday mantra is what automakers really would like to get back to.
Its been a long time coming, and its finally here, said NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, who owns car dealerships across the country. Ive never seen this much energy about the car. We have the drivers as stars, and we used to have the cars as stars. Now I think weve got them both again, and I think thats the neatest part of this deal.
Feedback has been purely positive after two tests in January and through the first few days of Speedweeks.
Still, complete results wont really be known until the car makes its debut at superspeedways, short tracks and the all-important 1½-mile ovals.
The previous car was the ugliest car of all time, driver Jamie McMurray said. I thought it was horrible. I think this is the best looking car weve ever been in. ... Its cool that we have some brand identity. If youre a Chevy fan, you have something to pull for. Before, the cars just had different decals on them. They are actually different now, which is cool.
And NASCAR isnt done making the racecars more closely mimic those on the streets.
The sanctioning body moved to ethanol-blended fuel in 2011 and then replaced carburetors with fuel-injection systems last year. Electronic power steering and glass dashboards could be next.
Its our job to bring racing to fans in a format they can understand, thats relevant and not based on the past but on the future, Reuss said.