As a kid growing up in Maine, my favorite pastimes involved cars. My affinity for toy cars surely kept Matchbox and Hot Wheels in business, and my ability to identify vehicles based on just a passing glimpse was no doubt an example of unrecognized genius. And when it came to TV, it was racing on the weekends and anything with cars and car chases on the weekdays, like the “Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Fall Guy,” and “TJ Hooker” (in “TJ Hooker’s” case, cars and Heather Locklear). To heck with the Boston Celtics and New England Patriots – I wanted to watch Dale Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine, and Bill Elliott go around in circles 200 times.
That was back in the early 1980s, when the sport that had become NASCAR was more than 30 years old, but still offered fans a clear indication of what cars they were watching. Most viewers could decipher that Bill Elliott drove a Ford Thunderbird, not just because they knew that the #9 car was a Ford, but because they could see that it was a Thunderbird. It had the T-bird grille, the actual T-bird shape, and even the indents for the quad headlight setup – you could easily envision the transformation of your ‘Bird in the driveway to Bill’s ride, albeit with slick racing tires and a beefy roll cage. The same went for Earnhardt’s and Bodine’s Chevys, and it was even more the case in the sport’s early years, when the race car looked exactly like a production, or stock car, with taped headlights and a number painted on the doors.
Times have changed. Whereas before you could buy something that resembled a car from the track, today’s Nextel Cup racers all pretty much look the same, save for the stickers on the front and rear that are designed to mimic the styling of the production versions. Nowadays, fans know the cars based on the number and the driver or a chance glimpse at the brand badge on the grille. As a last resort for those new to the sport, or simply the brand loyal, NASCAR cars now clearly spell out what you’re looking at – Monte Carlo, Fusion, Charger, or, gulp, Camry – on the front air dam. Hard to see at 180 mph, but I digress.
Yeah, that’s right – as every NASCAR fan knows by now, Toyota has entered the heralded hall of stockcar racing with its mass-marketed family sedan. It’s not just from a visual perspective that the chasm between street car and race car has deepened. While engine power varies depending on the type of race and track, NASCAR engines regularly produce up to 800 horsepower, measure about 350 cubic inches, and can run at 9,500 rpms. These gains come from the use of carburetors versus fuel-injection systems, the lack of mufflers and catalytic converters, and unique engine components, though the blocks can usually be bought off of the shelf from your local dealer. The tradeoff for this power is a race engine that’s spent within 800 miles, gets anywhere from three to eight miles-per-gallon, and carries a replacement cost of roughly $60,000. On second thought, maybe it’s just as well that NASCAR drivers have their cars and we have ours.
Detailed on the following pages are the rides of a few of the NASCAR champions from 1985 to 2006, as well as each car’s corresponding production version, or in the case of the Ford Taurus, some thoughts on the lack of a production version.