NASCAR has already revealed plans for the Car of Tomorrow 2.0 to debut in 2013. While few details have been released, early indications are that the car will provide more brand identity for each make competing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
The question is, with NASCAR honchos declaring a few offseasons ago that they were going to "get back to basics," would the 2013 season be the perfect time for them to live up to the meaning behind their acronym - the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing - and truly go basic by going stock?
Don't get me wrong, I personally have nothing against true, purpose-built race cars, but there is an ever-present call among many race fans - most of them automotive purists and devout enthusiasts for a particular brand - to race the real cars. That call is as strong as ever now, when it is all but impossible for die-hard fans, much less casual followers of the sport, to distinguish the four different cars with their headlight and nameplate decals removed.
As with any potential change NASCAR could make, there are pros and cons to the idea of going stock. It is hard to think of any other situation where both sides could weigh so heavily on the future of the sport.
The pros are quite obvious. "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." That was long the adage among brands competing in NASCAR's early decades, back when the model drivers like Richard Petty, Curtis Turner, and Lee Roy Yarbrough were winning races with were just about the exact same car folks could head down to their local dealership and buy themselves.
Beginning with NASCAR's first car change in 1981, when they quit running cars that matched the full-sized dimensions of the street model, that kind of brand identity faded away as the similarities between what folks saw on the street and what they saw on the race track diminished. Now, three of the manufacturers - Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota - play off NASCAR's family-oriented atmosphere by promoting their full-sized models - the Fusion, Impala, and Camry, respectively. Only Dodge, with it's Charger, runs a "high-performance" vehicle befitting of the 195 MPH-plus speeds seen at the sport's fastest tracks.
The Nationwide Series does feature Ford Mustangs in addition to Dodge's Challenger model and Ford has all but confirmed it will use the Mustang nameplate for its 2013 Cup car, but Chevrolet has refused to use it's iconic horsepower machines in NASCAR so long as uniform bodylines are the norm. Going stock and letting each brand field their own car with their own dimensions, however, would alleviate all of the Bowtie Brigade's concern and give them reason to finally put the Camaro into competition.
If Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards were actually going head to head in the same Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang you could go buy - though modified for safety and sporting coloful paint schemes and big numbers on the doors - with Brad Keselowski right behind in his Dodge Challenger and Kyle Busch lurking close in whatever Toyota's highest performance car is, it would be a win-win for fans, manufacturers, and NASCAR.
The terms "factory -backed" and "manufacturer championship" would mean something again. In recent years, factory-backed has only come into play in the Camping World Truck Series, as all but Toyota cut their backing to teams. The Manufacturer's Championship, meanwhile, has been dominated by Chevrolet in recent years not so much because they have the best car - not to say they don't - but because they have the best teams. By making each manufacturer put out the best car possible in order to succeed, it would bring back what had been a lost dimension of competition.
What's more, if NASCAR got back to a strictly-stock environment, that would mark the end of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega - speeds would be well below the threshold that NASCAR mandates the plates - and it would truly put the racing back in the driver's hands, rather than the computers of engineers where so much of what happens on track is concocted.
Every brand competing in NASCAR - even Toyota but primarily the American makes - has it's own legion of enthusiasts, many of whom refuse to follow NASCAR because of its lack of brand identity. By going stock, they could finally bring that demographic back to the track. Knowing that they could drive their Camaros to the speedway and Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon drive those same Camaros, for instance, would have those folks with the "I'd Rather Push a Chevy Than Drive a Ford!" bumper stickers salivating.
Going stock would also level the playing field and bring about the cost-lowering measures NASCAR has been seeking for years.. With no mechanical advantages to be gained through multi-million dollar investments in equipment and personnel, the possibility of smaller teams competing with - and beating - powerhouses like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush-Fenway Racing would be real. The day of the independent driver-owner, long thought to have gone extinct with the 2002 retirement of Dave Marcis, could return with a vengeance.
Finally, it would settle the debates of which contemporary drivers are the best. While a particular brand of car might hold an edge for a while the others, the drivers with the true, raw talent would rise to the top regardless of their car. Tthose who rely on technology and engineering to make them fast, meanwhile, would have a harder time.
As hard as it could be to imagine any bad that could come out of all that, cons do exist.
Chiefly, the number of folks with mechanical degrees working as chassis engineers on these race cars would find themselves on the unemployment line. Effectively, the necessary personnel on a race team would be a crew chief, a spotter, an engine tuner, and a pit crew. Granted, many engineers already have track duties on pit crews or as a spotter, and those who don't could probably find work in other, more technically-refined forms of racing like the IZOD IndyCar Series or even Formula 1. Still, the dominoes would have to stop falling somewhere, and when the music stopped, plenty of folks would be left without a chair.
Speed is another problem. Chiefly, the lack of it. As fast as a Mustang can go when turned loose on the open road, it would still look like Miss Daisy puttering along when compared to the speeds the purpose-built stockers generate. Once fans got used to the decrease in speed, it would probably be a non-factor for most. The trick is getting a notoriously impatient fanbase to wait long enough to get used to it.
Finally, there's the question of competition. There is no guarantee that going stock would make for good racing, or even decent racing. Folks who were around during the mostly-stock era of the '60s and '70s talk of races that were not much to write home about, and the statbook corroborates that. To the contrary, the purpose-built cars all those engineeers sculpt and refine with their multi-million dollar equipment are putting on terrific shows nearly every time out. For something that some fans percieve as so broken, is it worth the risk of bad racing to attempt fixing it by going stock?
Granted, the total quality of a contemporary Sprint Cup field from positions 1-43 is probably better than any the sport of auto racing has ever seen in any series, the defunct International Race of Champions nonwithstanding. There is no telling what they could do, given the opportunity to take the wheel of true stock cars in race conditions.
Whether the timing is right for such a substantial change to be made is up for debate. The final call, of course, rests with NASCAR, and the next eighteen months or so promise to be intriguing as more details of the car are revealed. Until the decisions are all made, however, it is a debate worth having.