“Ain’t nothin’ stock about a Stock Car’

This Sunday, after the drama of the Le Mans 24 Hours had left us in a stupor, the S&G snug went in to full recovery mode by diving in to an evening of entertainment from the gentlemen and lady of NASCAR.

It is widely regarded as a perversion to harbour any enthusiasm for American stock cars on this side of the Pond… but if that is the case then we are serial offenders. For this particular scribe, the journey towards fandom was completed within the space of an hour – this being the highlights of the 2004 Winn Dixie 250 from Daytona.

After a stonking race, the last lap began with any one of top 14 cars looking like a potential winner. After his team-mate spun out, and accompanied by a primal roar from the stands, the number 81 KFC-sponsored Chevrolet of America’s sweetheart, Dale Earnhardt Jr, came thumping around the top of the banking seemingly intent on taking the win.

This seemed to annoy the 00 Chevrolet of Jason Leffler, who simply moved up and put Junior in the wall close to where his seven-time Winston Cup champion father had been killed three years earlier. As a result of Leffler’s antics, it was perennial hard luck story Mike Wallace who came through to take an emotional win. Meanwhile, Dale Jr was interviewed at the scene of the crime where he reflected: ‘Did you ever get so mad you didn’t care if you won the fight or not?’

The meat of the racing footage can be found here:

Ever since that night, NASCAR has been a passion at the S&G – and one that has brought rich rewards. In an era when sports stars are coached out of any possible personality trait, NASCAR has thrived upon rivalries between drivers, teams and officials that promotes a deluge of incidents and a whole notebook full of quotes at every single race.

Even the fans have a gift for one-liners that many comedians would kill for. Recently Dale Jr’s team decided to make a last gasp tyre change which resulted in yet another disastrous tail-end result. Whoever made the call, one fan said, was ‘like a hog looking at a wristwatch’.

Then there’s the imposing figure of recently-retired triple champion Tony Stewart, who is never at a loss for words… some of them printable and all of them coated with a unique mix of wisdom, enthusiasm and battery acid. Unsurprisingly, Stewart is one of the few veterans yet to be offered a big paycheque for critiquing the races from the commentary booth.

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Tony Stewart spent nearly 20 years lambasting NASCAR, the press, his rivals, his friends… and won an army of fans for his trouble.

This week sees the 68th anniversary of the first ever NASCAR Stock Car race. The venue was the now-defunct dirt track of Charlotte Speedway, and it saw the debut of an idea dreamed up by NASCAR chairman Bill France to make the cars that raced under his banner truly representative of the cars you could buy in your local showroom.

Many of the drivers drove to the track in the cars that they intended to race. Other hotshoes turned up in the hope of wrangling a ride. Everyone was curious to see how it was all going to play out – and the result was a sensation.

One of the drivers who had arrived with helmet in hand and looking for a ride was Glenn Dunnaway, who ended up driving a Lincoln owned by a gentleman called Hubert Westmoreland. Dunaway crossed the line first and was all set to take away all the glory when it became clear that Westmoreland’s car wasn’t all that stock – having been fitted with stiffer springs for the purpose of running moonshine.

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This Lincoln was NASCAR’s first winner – and the first car found to be outside the rules.

Arguably this was the birth of that great tradition of ‘cheatin’ up’ a stock car to get the best results possible: an art for which the greatest exponents are celebrated as long and loud as any of the drivers. King of the hill in this respect is Smokey Yunick, whose black and gold cars showed a clean pair of heels to the opposition in the Sixties and early Seventies – whenever they got passed by the scrutineers, anyway.

One of Yunick’s signature moves was to build an oversize fuel tank and place a basketball in it. With the basketball inflated for inspection, the tank held the maximum permitted amount of fuel. With the basketball deflated it could carry an extra lap’s-worth.

Once, NASCAR officials pulled the fuel tank out completely during an inspection that ended up with a total of nine infringements. Yunick got in and started the car (still with no tank in it) and said: ‘Better make it ten.’ Then he cheerfully drove it back to the pits. For a detailed look at one of Yunick’s greatest cars, go here at Dailysportscar.

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Touring car racing in Europe is a direct descendent of NASCAR

Stock car racing is often depicted as a hayseed sport from the Deep South, but it inspired a similar movement in Europe: touring cars. Although the images of Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss in their Jaguars may seem far removed from contemporary NASCAR, as do today’s F3 cars with roofs, many of the NASCAR cheats have made their way across the water as well – including Smokey Yunick’s basketball and a hatchback whose loose rear windscreen acted as an early form of DRS.

More than anything, it’s the cheating that shaped NASCAR. From the ‘stock’ races of 1948-66 through two separate eras when space frame chassis were mated to stock body panels between 1967 and 1991, there was a world of invention in the workshops matched to the heroics at the wheel.

This era peaked when the movie Days of Thunder was produced by the dynamic duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who had previously brought the world Top Gun. It’s from this film – quite simply the best motor racing movie of all time – that the title of this piece is taken, which the film’s Yunick-inspired car builder Harry Hogge (played by Robert Duvall), growls at the Californian hot-shot (Tom Cruise, of course) who thinks he can walk it in Stock Cars.

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Days of Thunder saw Duvall and Cruise bring NASCAR to the masses

Days of Thunder is not high art. Nor does it have the authentic petrolhead credentials of Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix or McQueen’s Le Mans. There are no iconic tee-shirts or posters to be found, but as a piece of raw entertainment it’s from another galaxy to any other racing movie.

In real life, Days of Thunder coincided with the official abandonment of original factory-built body parts. The teams had long-since done so anyway, and the era of bullet-shaped ‘aero cars’ came to the fore from 1992 onwards.

These cars were the equivalent of Group B in rallying and the ‘gizmo’ Formula 1 cars of the early 1990s. The racing was sensational (such as the Winn Dixie 250 above), and it was only after years of soul-searching that followed the deaths of drivers such as Kenny Irwin Jr, Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt, that the safety-conscious Cars of Tomorrow appeared in 2006.

Unfortunately for NASCAR, while no effort had been spared for safety, the new cars looked awful. What’s more, the show was worse still and the fans voted with their feet. Those fans are yet to return completely, although the CoT was given its marching orders in 2013 and the current sixth generation cars have successfully combined much of the look and race-ability of the ‘aero cars’ with the best modern safety features available.

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The Generation 6 NASCAR has got the series’ mojo back

All of that rich history stemmed from a low-key race on a three-quarter mile dirt track on 19 June 1949. The endlessly quotable, rambunctious and downright spectacular world of NASCAR has gone on to create a bucket load of heroes – and anti-heroes – for millions around the world. At the S&G, it’s the best way to start a new week for 39 weeks of the year.

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F-code makes the ultimate Q-car

Very few mass-produced motor cars have packed the same ‘wow factor’ as the original Ford Thunderbird. Its styling screamed of the jet age and mankind’s love of modernity. It was the ultimate chromium plated symbol of post-war consumerism.

What it was not, however, was much of a performer. While its looks could not be faulted, the T-bird arrived just as Chevrolet showed that it had picked up a thing or two about European sports car dynamics and conjured the Corvette as a result. European sports cars were being imported to the States about as fast as the likes of Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche could pump them out of their workshops and all of these confections left Ford’s ‘personal luxury car’ looking a bit green around the gills.

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The original 1955 Thunderbird was all show, less go

Things got worse in 1956. In order to free up space in the boot – or ‘trunk’ as our trans-Atlantic cousins would have it – the spare wheel was moved up and out to stand vertically in a chintzy little case above the rear bumper.

Just as Georges Boillot discovered in the 1914 Peugeot, this did nothing to assist the car’s dynamic properties. The Thunderbird went from being a fast-looking two-seater with a performance deficit to being a slow two-seater with an unwieldy rear end. While it still looked like a million dollars, it handled like loose change and sold in pitiful numbers.

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Mounting the spare wheel vertically on the rear bumper did nothing for dynamics in 1956

That’s why, after two years, the alpha male among Ford’s so-called ‘whiz kid’ management team, Robert Macnamara, gave orders to kill the two-seat model off and replace it with a four-seater for 1958. This meant that, for 1957 only, Ford’s engineers had the opportunity to show exactly what might have been and to send the classic Thunderbird off with some genuine sporting credentials.

In 1957, Ford produced a total of 21,380 Thunderbirds. Of these, just 205 were delivered with what was known as the F-Code engine package. Soon to be whispered of in bars and at racetracks as the ‘F-bird’, Ford’s skunkworks delivered what was to be the ultimate Q-car of the 1950s.

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The recipe for F-Code took Ford’s highest performance V8 and added a thumping great supercharger

The F-Code engine was the largest of Ford’s small block V8s, the 312-cubic inch model, to which was added a McCulloch/Paxton supercharger, a hot cam, a Holley four-barrel carburetor, and unique cylinder heads, to keep the compression ratio at a reasonably sane 8.5:1. Either a three-speed manual or Ford-O-Matic transmission was available, running through a 3.56 rear axle – of which only 25 were factory fitted.

None of this muscle was ever intended to go into a showroom model: it was Ford’s super-package for NASCAR and other motor sport applications. The F-code offered a conservative 300 bhp and a still more conservative 300 lb/ft of torque which could propel the Thunderbird to 60 mph in fewer than six seconds. It ensured that the Thunderbird turned into a velociraptor that could make mincemeat of the Corvette.

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The same spec as Ford’s entries in Daytona Beach Speed Week was implanted for showroom consumption

All of this was a $340 factory option package on top of the ’57 Thunderbird’s $2,944 base price – cheap performance but putting the relatively hum-drum Ford into an exotic price bracket. That is why the volume of sales for the F-bird was so low – apparently endorsing Macnamara’s decision to kill off the two-seat car and replace it with something more family minded.

Sure enough the 1958 Ford Thunderbird, with more seats, less power and less sass, broke all records in terms of sales. Ford’s beauty became less of a show pony and more of a success and that’s fine. But if you want to buy a Ford can stir your soul, some six decades after it appeared, you need to find one of those 205 F-birds. And around $200,000 to bring it home.

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