When a Daytona Beach gas station owner by the name of Bill France founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in 1948, his immediate objective was to establish one set of rules for entrants in the race he was promoting. That principle -- uniform, stable regulations -- has been maintained through decades of Nascar's rise to dominance, with the so-called stock cars barely changing even as the production models they were based on evolved.
The rule book's consistency, an important factor in the sport's growth, may have outlived its usefulness. A recent burst of changes -- a switch to an E15 blend of Sunoco racing gasoline in 2011 and then to fuel injection last year -- seems to be accelerating for the 2013 season, with an entirely new specification for the racecars.
What's next -- a woman qualifying fastest for the Daytona 500?
As even the most casual observer knows by now, that is exactly what happened. Danica Patrick, who showed her mettle in open-wheel racing, will start from the pole position -- the first woman to do so in Nascar's top series -- and bring attention to a sport striving for a wider audience.
Of course that advantage assures nothing beyond the first lap: there are 42 other cars in the race, most with drivers who have more experience in slipstreaming on the steep banking, and at least 20 within three-tenths of a second of her lap time.
Still, the season for the top-level Sprint Cup cars, which gets under way on Sunday, faces a number of uncertainties. Among other factors, attendance and ratings numbers have declined, and Nascar has a major TV contract renewal coming up this year.
One of the steps aimed at reviving interest is a change involving car shapes: Nascar has gone to great lengths to promote this year's cars as the Generation Six versions, replacing the widely disliked Car of Tomorrow.
It took Nascar six years to make the change, ostensibly to cut down on slipstreaming at speeds of 190 miles per hour, but also to improve handling in general. The Gen 6 cars are 100 pounds lighter (minimum 3,300 pounds with 18 gallons of fuel) and have body shapes that more closely resemble their civilian counterparts. The cars they replace needed decals of the grilles and trim for brand identity.
With the start of the 55th annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, stock cars will continue their reign as the leading spectator attraction in American motor sports, and the 36-race Sprint Cup series is the jewel in Nascar's crown. It is something the Frances have worn well: Nascar is a family business that has propelled them into the ranks of America's wealthiest.
Aside from Nascar and a handful of other motor sports sanctioning bodies, auto racing has been since before World War I a loosely managed sport-cum-business that can be found in almost every corner of the United States -- and operated, for the most part, on a local level. At the close of 2011, according to the National Speedway Directory, racing was governed by 330 sanctioning bodies at 1,323 locations (which include 946 ovals, 223 drag strips and 88 road circuits), with the number of individual races estimated at 15,000. Roughly a quarter of them are run under Nascar sanction.
At first focused on the Southeast, the France family took advantage of network television exposure and later, on the growth of cable TV. By the late 1990s, Nascar led in popularity, and it has maintained that position with hardly any competition. Today, Nascar's main championships run on more than two dozen tracks.
The other sanctioning groups still large enough to warrant television coverage have either started their 2013 schedules or are about to: Izod Indy Car, the survivor of the open-wheel internecine warfare of the '80s and '90s, has a 19-race season starting March 24 in St. Petersburg, Fla. The National Hot Rod Association opened its 24-event card last weekend in Pomona, Calif., and the American Le Mans series, in its last year before being taken over by the France-controlled Grand-Am series, starts its 10-race calendar on March 16 with the 12 Hours of Sebring in Central Florida. Grand-Am opened the season with a 24-hour race at Daytona in late January.
Stock cars, for all their refinements, do not handle nearly as well as classic single-seater racecars. Regardless of how much they are modified from their showroom specifications, their basic shape means drivers are, in effect, pushing a brick through the atmosphere. The new cars will, Nascar hopes, cut down on drafting at tracks like Daytona, where bumper-to-bumper racing at 190 m.p.h. almost inevitably led to multicar accidents.
The uncertainty that is built into a 500-mile event where the cars are nearly identical and the engines are limited to about 450 horsepower (as opposed to 850 on shorter ovals, according to the teams) makes picking a winner a long-odds gamble. But one prediction that is reasonably safe is that the event will be close, and will be exciting.
In 2013, the favorites are Nascar winners like Jimmie Johnson, a five-time champion, Jeff Gordon (four championships) and Tony Stewart (three). All are in Chevrolets. Two of the younger drivers worth watching are the 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, 29, and 22-year-old Joey Logano. Both drive for team owner Roger Penske, who has switched from Dodge to Ford.
The chances for anyone else depend to a great degree on the support their team can provide. And support is expensive.
A Sprint Cup team can spend up to $35 million a season for each entry, which requires as many as 16 tube-frame chassis, at first glance identical but with slight variations depending on the track for which they are designed. Costs run from $150,000 to $175,000 for each bare chassis without a powertrain or sheet metal. Engine costs -- many teams lease engines -- can run from $3 million to $5 million a car for the season.autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.