Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: Daytona 1981 — NASCAR’s ‘New Generation’ Cars Don’t Always Perform as Desired

NASCAR’s much anticipated “Next Gen” car will make its debut in an official Cup point race in the Daytona 500. While the new car — and by “new,” I mean it’s been changed in so many ways it’s hard to count them — has had many shakedowns, tests and alterations, there is no guarantee all will go well.

I reckon you can say that every time NASCAR makes changes to cars and rules.

It was certainly true in 1981, another year in which the sanctioning body mandated a new car for the Daytona 500. The change was so small, so insignificant, that most observers shrugged it off.

The wheelbase of every model that would compete in the 1981 season lost five inches from their wheelbases, which were reduced from 115 inches to 110 inches. What difference would the loss of five inches make?

As it turned out, plenty.

Detroit had been turning out cars with 110-inch wheelbases for years. But NASCAR was slow to follow. It allowed teams to compete with older models for years.

“Eventually we will follow Detroit,” NASCAR President Bill France Jr. said in 1977. “But it order to curb expenses, we are going to allow teams use equipment they already have instead of letting new equipment become obsolete in a short time.”

By the end of the 1980 season, some teams were racing cars that were five years old. A 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo won the 1981 Winston Western 500 at Riverside. That was the last time a 115-inch wheelbase car won a NASCAR race.

Effective with the 1981 Daytona 500, all teams would be required to use the smaller 110-inch wheelbase cars. And there were plenty of them available. NASCAR approved 12 different models, made by manufacturers ranging from Buick to Oldsmobile to Pontiac.

Testing began almost immediately. Teams and Goodyear swarmed to Daytona International Speedway to conduct extensive tests. No, they were nowhere close as efficient as those held for the “Next Gen” car. They couldn’t match the technology or engineering.

But they were almost unprecedented for the time.

Bobby Allison, then with team owner Harry Ranier and Darrell Waltrip, in his first season with Junior Johnson after a bitter split with DiGard, spent five days testing together at Daytona.

All did not go well — to say the least.

“The car is very, very loose,” Allison said of his Pontiac. “All we did over four days was make it go from horrible to bad.”

“We need to go back and get the 1977 Monte Carlo,” said Waltrip, who was driving a Buick. “Detroit is spending millions building these little critters, and while they’re fast, the handling is terrible.”

And this from Dale Earnhardt, driver of Rod Osterlund’s Chevrolet: “I was nervous as hell during those tests.” Imagine something like that from a driver to be known as “The Intimidator?”

The problem with the smaller car is that it was so loose that to the drivers, it felt like the rear end wanted to turn directly into the wall. And sometimes that was just exactly what happened.

Noted Modified driver Greg Sacks came to Daytona to test for Richard Childress. On his third lap in a Pontiac, the car broke loose in the fourth turn, skidded into the infield, hit a guardrail and tumbled violently down the short chute. Sacks suffered a broken collarbone, facial cuts and a minor head injury.

Cale Yarborough, in his first year driving M.C. Anderson’s Oldsmobile, led the quest for a new rear spoiler.

“We need a lot more spoiler to keep these cars on the ground,” he said. “I’d hate to see what’s going to happen when a bunch of cars get out there and start drafting.”

Three days after qualifying and the Busch Clash, NASCAR raised the height of the rear spoilers from 2.16 to 2.50 inches.

But the carnage didn’t stop. John Anderson and Connie Saylor crashed violently in the first of two 125-mile qualifying races. Both of their cars got airborne before tumbling through the infield. Neither driver was hurt, but their cars were destroyed.

All the drivers gathered in the driver’s lounge and watched the Anderson and Saylor incidents on video tape. None of them could recall any car doing such twists and gyrations.

“These cars weigh 3,700 pounds, but when they got sideways, they looked like cardboard in the wind,” Benny Parsons said.

On the Friday before the Daytona 500, NASCAR again raised the rear spoiler height from 250 to 276 square inches.

That seemed to solve the issues — at least at Daytona.

But NASCAR had another problem.

Allison and Ranier had secretly tested a Pontiac Grand LeMans at Talladega and found it to be free of the woes other cars suffered. Allison was blazingly fast the entire time at Daytona — he won the pole and a 125-mile qualifying race — and would have won the Daytona 500 had he not had to make a late-race pit stop for gas.

For the next several races afterward, NASCAR kept lowering Allison’s rear spoiler, to the point where the car was not competitive.

That is a story for another day.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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DoninAjax

What I want to see from these “race” cars is the ability of one car to catch and pass another without any help.

Echo

You sure want a lot out of Nascar don’t you. Wonder how much Denny will push bubba !

DoninAjax

I sure don’t expect it!

Shayne

I hope the new car performs well. NASCAR has had ample time (since 2007) to come up with their car of the future. No more excuses. Great racing on the track is what I expect from NASCAR.

DoninAjax

“Expect” is the wrong word. It’s what you “want” from NA$CAR. Just sayin’, based on their MANY past attempts.

Echo

I “expect” that the 500 is going to expose once again how badly Nascar has screwed everything up. I too would love to see that splitter cut up for scrap.

irvan fan

How about getting rid of the front splitter and let more air go under the car. Maybe we could see some slingshot passes again.

Joshua William Farmer

Racing has been good for years. Young fans just want instant action as attention spans have grown shorter. Many of those “best racing years” in the 90s featured long races with the playing out NATURALLY without artificial stage breaks and “competition” cautions or DVP clocks and soublr yellow line riles and choose cones and shit. 2 rounds of qualifying, lengthy at track action and lots of souvenir options. Paint schemes fans recognized because they didn’t change each week…
Ahhhh….so….i suggest watching racing for what it’s supposed to be and was founded on. Driver skill, endurance and mechanical durability.