DARLINGTON — With rehearsal time dwindling, the vibes remain good. Guarded optimism surrounds the cast, yet the stock-car racing fraternity wont know really know until the curtain rises and a couple of performances provide concrete answers.
Is the ballyhooed Generation 6 car the antidote to dull racing, shrinking attendance and lower television ratings?
Anyone who steps into a new experience the opening of a sports season or stage production, a change in jobs, even an addition to the family can appreciate the antsy anticipation stock car racings principals feel before the green flag drops on 2013.
There is hope. There are expectations. But fingers remain crossed.
While waiting for proof that comes with 43 cars on the track at the same time, drivers and officials sing songs of praise to the redesigned car called the Gen 6 that will be lighter, faster and bring brand identity back to the track. Gone will be the so-called Car of Tomorrow, which debuted in 2007, that made a Ford impossible to distinguish from a Chevrolet or Toyota.
We didnt know how ugly the Car of Tomorrow really was until we put one side-by-side with the Gen 6, Carl Edwards, who drives a Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing, said Tuesday at Darlington Raceway.
More downforce, more grip, more speed, more fun to drive, Martin Truex Jr., who pilots a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, added. The cool thing is, it challenges you to drive it hard and you can be more aggressive.
The drivers spent Tuesday at Darlington for a Goodyear tire test and loved the way their cars adapted to stock-car racings oldest super-speedway. Both reported far faster speeds than those in last years Bojangles Southern 500 and predicted qualifying and race records would fall by wide margins.
I glanced down and saw 193 (mph) headed into turn 3 before I had to turn my attention back to the track, Edwards said. This car is fast.
The Gen 6 car is more than two years in the making. Officials conducted countless tests in both wind tunnels and on various tracks with the aim of increasing performances that translate into more competition.
Brett Bodine, NASCARs director of competition for research and development, said producing a race car with modern style and design that has showroom appeal went into the process. Indeed, almost all of the car panels will be produced by the manufacturer.
All factors made the Gen 6 car drive better, and if they drive better, the drivers have more confidence in traffic, Bodine said. The quality of the race is whats important, and we think we will have that. Drivers want to out-drive the competition, and the new car gives them that opportunity.
There will be a learning curve, Edwards said, but officials believe less dependency on aerodynamics will increase the quality of racing, especially at the 1.5-mile tracks, and expect the tandem-drafting at Daytona and Talladega to become a thing of the past. The multi-car crash triggered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the first test at Daytona illustrated change would come.
The 2013 lineup includes the Ford Fusion, the Chevrolet SS and the Toyota Camry and restores the brand recognition that was lost with the Car of Tomorrow that focused on safety. The manufacturers bought into the changes, and Edwards said Ford officials came to an offseason promotion to urge Ford teams to work together and be one big team.
The quality of the racing determines the popularity, and sometimes (action on the track) can be dramatic, Edwards said. I hope the fans like the new car; I hope they feel the same way about it we feel in the garage.
Tuesdays tests consisted of the racers turning laps alone before returning to the pits for engineers to glean information from the tires. Nevertheless, a few hundred fans turned out, suggesting genuine curiosity about this thing called Gen 6.
The curtain rises for real next week, and the racing fraternity watches with hopes that optimism turns into reality.