DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Richard Petty competed in NASCAR from 1958 to 1992, long enough to have won seven championships while driving dozens of race car models. So he could not help chuckling when asked about the name of the race car being introduced this season in the Sprint Cup series.
NASCAR calls it the Gen-6, for sixth generation in the sport’s 65-year history. For Petty, the Gen-60 might have been more fitting.
“I guess they had to call it something besides the Car of the Future," he said with a laugh, “because that didn’t work too good."
The unloved Car of Tomorrow, which was introduced in 2007, was unceremoniously retired and replaced by the more marketing-friendly Gen-6. But Lee White suggested more appropriate names for the race cars that make their debut today in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“I prefer to call them the 2013 Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet SS," said White, the president of Toyota Racing Development.
Auto manufacturers and NASCAR teams made a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investment to build cars for the racetrack that look more like those on the showroom floors. In other words, they wanted to put the stock back in stock cars, making a connection to consumers that many believe was lost with the Car of Tomorrow.
One major car dealership owner is beginning to see the benefit.
“All of a sudden, we’re getting calls, ‘How can I get on the list and get an SS?’" said Rick Hendrick, the owner of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team, who has been selling cars far longer than he has been racing them in NASCAR.
Hendrick owns dozens of dealerships, including 14 that sell Chevrolets.
“Nobody called me and said they want to get on a list to get a Car of Tomorrow, I can tell you that," he said.
The Car of Tomorrow was one of the first projects at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., in the early 2000s. It was designed by NASCAR after a series of fatal crashes. Adam Petty, a grandson of Richard Petty and son of the longtime driver Kyle Petty; Kenny Irwin Jr.; and Tony Roper died in 2000. The seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500.
NASCAR has had no fatalities in its three national racing series since Earnhardt’s death. That is believed to be the longest stretch without a fatal crash in a NASCAR national series.
But the Car of Tomorrow did not look much like a race car. And it did not drive like one either.
“The COT car was just ugly," said Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion who is now a broadcaster. “That was a safe car. It’s like we went to the fair and bought these cars, didn’t want anything to happen to the people inside of them, and rightfully so, we needed to do that. But we kind of went too far.
“This car looks good," he said of the Gen-6. “It’s fast, and it’s safe."
The look of the race cars was no small matter with manufacturers. The Car of Tomorrow was a common template model — every team raced the same car no matter which manufacturer it represented. The race cars were differentiated only by decals.
Asked last month if NASCAR had moved too far from the real models, Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman and chief executive, said: “I think we did. We weren’t as in step as we are today with the manufacturers."
Conversations about replacing the Car of Tomorrow began as early as 2009, apparently at the urging of Chevrolet representatives.
“We can’t thank Chevrolet enough for having led the charge on that," Mike Helton, NASCAR’s president, said last weekend, when the new SS street car was unveiled at Daytona.
Hendrick, asked if Chevrolet had considered leaving NASCAR, replied: “I’m fairly sure they might have. If they were going to be in the sport, it had to be relevant to what we sell because they market a lot. They want to showcase their product."
The critical difference in the development of the Gen-6 was the decision by NASCAR to allow the manufacturers to mirror their own models. Although the safety features of the Car of Tomorrow were maintained, and in some ways enhanced, NASCAR engineers gave the manufacturers parameters for the race cars’ performance on the track and let them build the cars to look like showroom models.
The timing for Ford was perfect. The company was not only redesigning the Fusion, it was using that look for its foreign-sold sedan, the Mondeo. Now Ford owners around the world will have cars that look like the NASCAR model.
“This is a really big deal for us," said Jim Farley, Ford’s executive vice president for global marketing. “It’s a new generation, and it’s a big change, and we’ve made a lot of big changes to the car, to the design. We’ve gone to a global platform.
“For our Fusion, this is kind of the pace car for the new company, this race car."
The success of these cars will not be measured strictly in sales.
“The impact of NASCAR on the actual sale of cars is an indirect one," said Jesse Toprak, an auto industry analyst and former vice president at TrueCar.com, who owns a consulting firm. “It’s one of those things where it’s a bit of an intangible effort that’s really done to enhance the image of an automaker."
The success of the Gen-6 on the track has yet to be determined, although drivers have supported its introduction. The 2012 Cup champion, Brad Keselowski, was asked if there should be some skepticism about the ability to race in the new car.
“I know there’s a bunch of people that didn’t have skepticism over Manti Te’o, and look what that got them," he said, referring to the former Notre Dame football star who in recent weeks has claimed to be the victim of a hoax involving an Internet girlfriend.
“Please," Keselowski added, “be a skeptic."
Most drivers were not fans of the boxy Car of Tomorrow, and the Gen-6 was welcomed by many in the garage. Perhaps Jimmie Johnson was the only one who shed a tear when the old car was retired.
He won four of his five Cup championships in the Car of Tomorrow. Now Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, are starting over.
“I’ll race a Chevy Tahoe if you want," Knaus said. “Or a shopping cart. I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter to us."
Not surprisingly, Johnson is once again the driver to beat in NASCAR, no matter what generation race car he is driving.