With the 2009 season at a close, and Daytona just over a month away, I thought this might be a good time for an evolutionary look at the "stock car" through history. So, here is the first installment in a series entitled, NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport .
A stock car, in the original sense of the term, described an automobile that has not been modified from its original factory configuration. Later, the term stock car came to mean any production-based automobile used in racing. This term is used to differentiate such a car from a racecar, a special, custom-built car designed only for racing purposes.
The cars have adopted larger spoilers so that the air passes smoothly over the car to provide a larger downforce over the back of the vehicle to prevent the car from flipping over. All cars have this spoiler.
When NASCAR was first formed by Bill France, Sr. in 1948 to regulate stock car racing in the U.S., there was a requirement that any car entered be made entirely of parts available to the general public through automobile dealers. Additionally, the cars had to be models that had sold more than 500 units to the public. This is referred to as "homologation."
In NASCAR's early years, the cars were so "stock" that it was commonplace for the drivers to drive themselves to the competitions in the car that they were going to run in the race.
While automobile engine technology had remained fairly stagnant in World War II, advanced aircraft piston engine development had provided a great deal of available data, and NASCAR was formed just as some the improved technology was about to become available in production cars.
Before NASCAR was founded in the 1920s, moonshine runners during the prohibition era would often have to outrun the authorities. To do so, they had to upgrade their vehicles and eventually started getting together with fellow runners and making runs together.
They would challenge one another and eventually progressed to organized events in the early 1930s. The main problems racers faced was the lack of a unified set of rules among the different tracks, and that the racers could not race at different tracks because it was not legal for them to do so.
When Bill France saw this problem, he set up a meeting at the Streamline Hotel in order to form an organization that would unify the rules. From this meeting NASCAR was founded in 1948.
The 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket V-8 with a displacement of 303 cu.in. is widely recognized as the first postwar modern overhead valve (OHV) engine to become available to the public, though all the major manufacturers were also in the process of modernizing their engine designs.
The Oldsmobile was an immediate success in 1949 and 1950, and all the automobile manufacturers could not help noticing that its victories resulted in noticeably higher sales of the Oldsmobile 88 to the buying public. The motto of the day became "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday."
However, in spite of the fact that several competing engines were more advanced, the aerodynamic and low-slung Hudson Hornet managed to win in 1951, 1952, and 1953 with a 308 cu.in. (5.0 L) inline six-cylinder that used an old-style flathead engine, proving there was more to winning than just a more powerful engine.
Cars were typically either driven to the track or "flat-towed" behind pick-ups and family sedans. Other than tweaking and tuning of the engine, nothing could be done to these early Strictly Stock cars (sort of like NASCAR mandates today, isn't it?). The window glass front, back and sides was intact. Ropes and aircraft harnesses were used as seat belts. Roll bars—which were mandated in 1952—were neither required nor often installed.
One thing the strictly stock designation encouraged was a great diversity of manufacturers on the track (exactly the opposite of today's homogeneous tendencies). The first official Strictly Stock Division race had nine makes come to the line, including Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, Ford, Hudson, Kaiser, Lincoln, Mercury and Oldsmobile.
Some of the biggest problems were tire, wheel, and suspension failures brought on by stresses that were atypical of normal road use. These concerns brought about some "not-so-stock" inventions, such as one detailed by two-time Grand National (forerunner of Winston Cup) champion Tim Flock.
He described a trap door in the floorboard of his race car that he could open with a chain to check right front tire wear, "When the white cord was showing, we had about one or two laps left before the tire would blow," said Flock of the 'early-warning system.'
Due to the rough-surfaced dirt tracks that were predominant in the early days of the sport, the only modification that was allowed was a reinforcing steel plate on the right front wheel to prevent lug nuts from pulling through the rims on conventional wheels. Otherwise, racing stock cars in the early days of the sport was very much a seat of the pants endeavor.
But, it was the ingenuity and the indomitable spirit of these early racers that made NASCAR what it is today. Just think of what NASCAR might be like today, if some of the rules, which currently govern the sport, were turned back to those employed in the 1940s and '50s.
While there is much to be said for the modern safety efforts of NASCAR, there is also something about nine different makes and model of cars, employing the ingenuity and imagination of mechanics and crew chiefs and letting them all cut loose in a battle for supremacy. Can you smell the octane, yet?
* Many thanks to wikipedia, about.com, and NASCAR.com for some of the data for this article .