The Cars and Fans through the Generations
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a warm welcome as well to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR related today, wherever he or she might be. Some time ago, several of us here on Race Fans Forever were discussing the generations of cars as set by NASCAR and the generations of fans that coincided with each.
The question was posed whether anyone could explain why the generations of cars evolved from one to the next, and did that evolution correspond with the fans of that time? Well, that didn’t sound too difficult a task, as I’ve been around for all of them. Sometimes, there is an advantage to being a Senior Citizen you know.
In the first four generations, the way the factories built cars was directly influenced by the fans of the day, who of course, were the same folks that were buying the cars rolling off the assembly lines. I’ve done a simple breakdown of the car generations as delineated by NASCAR and I believe they are pretty spot-on with where the breaks came. I have merely added a bit about why the breaks came at any particular time.
Stated quite simply, there was always a direct correlation between what the buyers wanted and what the factories built. That part is simple economics. For decades, NASCAR followed suit and raced what the factories built; for those first four generations, all was well and the sport of stock car racing grew almost exponentially. Read on and you’ll see the patterns as they developed, broken down by generations of both cars and fans.
Gen-1 – The Cars… The "Strictly Stock” cars back in the beginning. Cars of the 1950s, with drivers such as Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Red Byron, Lloyd Seay, the Flock brothers and a host of others. Cars included many makes and models no longer available today... Hudson, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Chrysler, Studebaker, Buick, Nash and more. Every auto maker wanted to race in the 1950s.
Gen-1 - The Fans… I can speak loud and clear for my generation. The biggest influence by FAR was the end of WWII. After the invasion of Pearl Harbor, almost all the factories in America, no matter what they had manufactured before, were retooled to serve the "War effort" and the huge automobile industry was no different. Throughout the years we were at war, there were NO new cars built in America.
Once the war ended, the baby boom beat the new car boom by a few years because humans didn't have to retool before manufacturing. Hey, it's true!
When new cars started rolling off the assembly lines again, it was a mania much bigger than Pong or Cabbage Patch Dolls and the like. The latest X-Box is pale in comparison to a brand spanking new Hudson Hornet, Kaiser, DeSoto or anything else that hadn't been owned and driven by anyone else. By the mid-50s, the automobile was KING! The parallel between new autos and stock car racing cannot be overlooked or denied.
As teenagers, we lived for a driver's license. It was a rite of passage, and the gateway to adulthood and independence. And yes, we were independent at a much earlier age, even without the seemingly mandatory college diploma of today. The war was over and we were anxious to grow up and take our place in that bright new world we'd inherited from the "Greatest Generation." We took that place driving in those beautiful, super-long, super-sleek automobiles that came in matching colors, inside and out. They are still, to my eye, the most stunning cars ever made, and make is not a factor; they were all beautiful!
Gen-2 – The Cars… Moving to the mid-1960s and well into the 1970s, these were the big cars, with the big engines, most notably the Chrysler Hemi and the Ford 427. These are the boats we old-school fans love to remember… the “Muscle Cars.” This was when the car-makers first began to pay attention to aerodynamics, but had a long way to go. Drivers of this era included Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough, again with many, many more.
Gen-2 – The Fans… If there is a discernible dividing line between these fans and those of the 1950s, it is probably right around the middle of the 1960s. The early baby-boomers were growing up, and like my generation before them, continued the romance with the automobile.
(Mind you, we are speaking of race fans, and for the most part they stood apart from the “Age of Aquarius”, “Tune in; turn on; drop out” and the “Summer of Love” crowd of the same demographic)
In response, the cars grew larger, added a bit more curve to the design as aerodynamics improved year by year, and were decidedly much faster. Like a teen-age boy growing to manhood, the cars grew muscles, without a doubt. Out on the race track, speed records fell like raindrops in a thunderstorm. Drag racing, much of which had been conducted on the street when I was a teen, moved to a more controlled environment and speed was King everywhere.
Gen-3 – The Cars… These were the smaller wheel-based cars of the 1980s... the ones that in the beginning proved over and over that they could fly, which is not a good thing, to be sure. Behind their steering wheels were drivers named Bill Elliott, Harry Gant, Alan Kulwicki, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and the rest of their competition.
Gen-3 – The Fans… These were in large part the offspring of my generation, almost grown and not so much in need of an automobile as we had been. They had adoring parents, willing to chauffeur them to wherever they needed to be. Still, there was that fascination with mechanics and speed. The cars had grown more compact by demand, as the gas crisis of the mid-70s crippled the nation and brought about gas rationing in some areas. Gas, when one could get it, shot up to an unheard $1.25 a gallon in some markets, and Detroit had to listen or lose their sales to the smaller and more gas-friendly European and Eastern cars.
Fortunately for stock car racing, this was also the dawn of the Television era, as NASCAR was introduced to an entire nation and warmly received by a large portion of it. Even those that had never seen a race were fascinated with this “new” sport. Life and racing were good in the 1980s.
Gen-4 – The Cars… These would be the yet smaller cars of the 1990s, which had by then lost much of their stock appearance in the racing versions, and were decidedly race cars, no longer resembling the cars in our driveways. This was the Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton era, though overlapped by drivers from the earlier decade like Earnhardt and Wallace along with newcomers with names like Kenseth, Johnson and Newman.
Gen-4 – The Fans… Despite the fact that the cars no longer pretended to be “Strictly Stock”, which in truth they never quite were, the fans of the 1990s were still fascinated with stock car racing, and could relate to everything their parents and/or grandparents told them about the “Good ol’ days.” This generation, like those before it, went racing with those elders in their families and a good time was had by all. NASCAR from the beginning marketed itself as a “Family sport” and it was, in more than one way. Families went racing together as fans. Families went racing together as drivers, passing the racing gene down from one generation to the next. Families such as the Allisons, the Bakers, the Pettys, the Earnhardts and hundreds more participated in the sport, with father racing son, brother racing brother and assorted other combinations of uncles, nephews, daughters, nieces and sisters. NASCAR had come fully of age in the decade of the 90s, and into the new millennium. NASCAR racing stood as the #2 watched sport in America, and life was good.
Gen-5 – The cars… This was the age of the “Car of Tomorrow.”(COT) In the wake of a rash of on-track deaths in 2000 and 2001, this generation brought with it many safety features, both in the car and on the track. But... and it's a really big but... the COT, victim of severe scrutiny by NASCAR, produced cars that were identical in every detail that could be controlled. It had a wing instead of a spoiler and it had an ugly front splitter, held on with equally ugly braces. It was fat and squat in appearance. “Squat COT! Beautiful... it was not!” It lost fan support almost from the day it rolled out for competition in 2007. It lost manufacturer support as well, as no one could tell what make of car they were seeing... the only difference being the headlight decals.
Between the car itself, the mandating of HANS restraints and the installation of SAFER barriers at all NASCAR tracks where Cup cars run, racing was safer than before, but the racing itself, for lack of a better word, pretty much stunk. The term "Aero push" has come to be dreaded by all race fans, and the drivers are none too fond of it either. It means that even though car 2 in line might be much faster, it is unable to pull out and around car 1 in line without being sucked into the side of said car. In short, it makes passing almost an impossibility. Six years of that was more than enough.
Gen-5 - The Fans… This is a generation that saw wholesale changes brought about in what seems in retrospect like an instant, to the steady, static sport that had been so loved by every generation before. As we entered the new millennium, this generation saw Dale Earnhardt, the actual “Face of the sport” die on the Daytona track at the end of the Daytona 500 in 2001. A short two years later, they bade farewell to R.J. Reynolds, which had been in place as Series sponsor since before many of them were born. As a very bitter icing on the cake, Bill France Jr. was forced into retirement as he fought vainly that “battle with cancer” and as with so many others, the disease won in the end.
There was NASCAR, the number 2 sport in the nation, without its biggest star, without its over 30-year sponsor and its leader stricken down by a cruel disease. If ever there were a time for a steady hand at the helm of that good ship NASCAR, it was then. Enter Brian France! At the very moment when the sport needed Robert Young from “Father Know Best” instead it got Keith Richards, the most stoned member of the “Rolling Stones.” Anyone following this generation never had a chance. Stock car racing as we knew it for 5 generations was for all practical purposes, dead and gone.
Gen-6 – The Cars… Perhaps we should call this one the “Car of Today”… or maybe not. It came to be in answer to the factory complaints that no one could tell one make from another when the COT was on the track. Dodge had already bowed out of the NASCAR scene and it was whispered that at least one of the big American makers threatened to do so as well if the cars weren’t made to reflect the $millions spent on designing and developing them as brand specific. NASCAR had to listen, and at the beginning of 2013, just six short years after the Squat COT was the new kid on the block, rolled out Generation-6. It was different in appearance, from its predecessor and also from each of its contemporaries. A fan could actually tell the difference between Ford, Chevy and Toyota by looking very closely at small details. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better looking. The next question: “Could it race?” To date, the answer to that one is “No!”
What follows is an excerpt taken from an article I wrote about this car when it was first introduced. It had yet to be race-tested, but it was the prettier sister to the COT, to be sure.
When I look at the Camry, with the grille area split by the Toyota insignia, the car appears to me to have flared nostrils, much like a horse will demonstrate when snorting. With my half-Arab, that usually indicated that he'd had about enough of whatever I was doing to him... or that a fly had bitten him. In short, the Camry shows attitude!
The Chevy front view is very different. No split grille on this one, and it "almost" appears to be smiling, save for those upturned corners behind the headlights. Those give it a classic "mean" look that the Monte Carlos passed down to the SS, closely resembling the upturned corners on the domino mask worn by "Cat Woman." If the Toyota has attitude, the Chevy is Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean.”
Looking the Ford Fusion straight in the eye, one doesn't get quite the same feeling. The other two look threatening, while the Fusion looks confident. I see in this one that Smiley with the sunglasses that just oozes confidence, giving the impression that he is standing with hands on hips, looking down at you while delivering the message, "Don't mess with me!"
Gen-6 – The Fans… This one gets a bit tricky for someone my age. A large number of today’s “new fans” are the age of my grandchildren, and a generation unlike any this senior citizen has ever encountered. They are, for want of a better description, “plugged in.” They walk and even drive… those that do… with an “earbud” in one or both ears, listening to music, narrated books, narrated school lessons and who knows what else?
They go nowhere, even to bed, without their “phone.” They are attached to it in the same manner in which I am attached to my heart. It is the core of their existence and they simply cannot function or live without it. They don’t need a radio; they have an iPod. They don’t need TV; they have a phone, or a “pad”, which is a miniature version of a computer… I think. Everywhere they go, they are accompanied by one, or more likely by both apparatuses. What they do need and cannot function without, is Wi-Fi and a place to recharge.
This is not a joke. At one Christmas, I gave my daughter, my son-in-law and my two granddaughters each portable phone chargers. I gave them other things of course, but those little chargers were the hit of the day. Remember how I explained that in my day, the automobile meant freedom to my generation? Well, to this one, freedom is a portable phone charger, so you never have to hunt for a wall plug.
Yes, I can see that marketing a 3 or 4-hour race to this bunch could present a problem. Wi-Fi at every track is a must, and maybe having portable chargers at the concession stands would be an asset. Many tracks are scrambling for the honor of having the biggest TV screen in their infield. To them I say, “Save your time and money.”
The old fans, if any still come to your track, will complain that it blocks their sight-line across or around the track. The new ones won’t even look up. There is a race on the track that they paid to see, but if they watch at all, it will be on a 4” phone screen. That phone will never leave their hands, but it won’t always be showing the race. They have the attention span of gnats and could never sit still for the duration of a stock car race without their phone to keep them tuned in to life.
A large percentage of them don’t own an automobile, and wouldn’t know how to drive it if they did. They depend on others, parents, friends or public transportation to get to places they absolutely must be. The automobile means almost nothing to them, and the idea of racing automobiles seems archaic and might even be described as “cute”, which has slowly evolved into a term of sarcasm and amused derision.
That’s all I’ve got gentle readers. Will there be a Gen-7 car? Assuredly so. Will there be a Gen-7 fan base? That is seriously debatable. To these aged eyes, it would appear that perhaps the change has gone too far; the evolution has met itself coming back and there is nothing more in which to evolve. History tells us that once the automobile took hold and flourished, our dependence on the horse quickly vanished, and today, horses are regarded solely as pets or bets, nothing more. There is an old adage that teaches, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
And now gentle readers, we recently heard for the first time, the words “Gen-seven.” Apparently, it’s in the works and will be sprung on us in perhaps a year or so. Your guess is as good as mine, but it would be reasonable to assume this is one of the “many changes”, shrouded in mystery, to come in 2020. In my dreams, I see a car with no splitter and raised up off the asphalt at least 5-inches all the way around. In my nightmare, I see another version of the same old, same old… a ground-hugging beast run with “tapered spacers”, which is NASCAR-speak for a fat restrictor plate.
As we move forward to a New Year and a new racing season, the best we can do is pray that whatever is being concocted behind closed doors is at least one giant step in the right direction. NASCAR buying ISC might look good on paper, but most of the old-timers I know were never fooled. As I’ve said several times before, if I have money in the right pocket of my Jeans and money in the left pocket too, in the end, all of it is still my money. Will that make the package more attractive to sponsors? That’s not for me to say. We’ll just leave that up to the sponsors. If what I read and hear comes to pass, I do like the idea of a profit-sharing plan between ALL entities involved, sanctioning body, track owners, team owners, teams and drivers. That will come down to the details… that place where the devil is always found. For now, I hope everyone enjoyed a very Merry Christmas and will thrive and prosper in the upcoming New Year.
I failed to find a related bit of programming for our Classic Country Closeout, so instead let’s all enjoy some memories from Sonny James, Hank Locklin, Cowboy Copas and many more at the Grand Ole Opry.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!