NASCAR TRUCKS RACE FOR RECOGNITION
by Larry Roberts
June 13, 1997
If you're a regular reader of On Track magazine, you'll get all the latest news about Formula 3000 racing in Italy and Firestone's Indy Light series for future CART drivers, albeit a couple of weeks old.
On the other hand, the competition section of AutoWeek will give you racing news a couple of weeks earlier, but in a more abbreviated form and less eclectic (i.e. no info on international rallying).
But neither of them offer much coverage of a form of American racing whose competitors move weekly from tracks as geographically diverse as Portland on the Pacific Coast to Loudon, New Hampshire and from Homestead, Florida to Monroe, Washington. And the tracks that they compete on range from the tricky 2.5-mile road course at Watkins Glen in New York to the high-banked 1.5-mile oval at Colorado Springs, to the quarter-mile dirt track in Watsonville, California.
And the machinery that contest its NASCAR national championship are evenly matched vehicles from The Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, Chevrolet), develop 650 horsepower-plus each, and are derived from the most popular and best-selling forms of personal transportation in the United States: the full-sized, V8-powered American pickup truck. With 27 races this year, only its stablemate and better publicized NASCAR Winston Cup stock car series hold more races annually.
The idea of racing American pickups germinated in the minds of three professional off-road truck racers in 1993. They put together a truck designed for closed circuit pavement racing and showed their handiwork to NASCAR's godfather, Bill France. France liked what he saw and put his blessing on the new racing venue. In 1994, NASCAR sanctioned four demonstration races and from that point on, a new form of big-time racing was born.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that the Ford F-Series pickup and its General Motors counterpart, the Chevrolet C1500 are locked in mortal sales combat and are Numbers 1 and 2 in total number of "cars" sold in America. You may not be quite as up on the fact that the folks over at Chrysler are displaying locked-jaw determination to overthrow both in the sales arena and are slowly creeping up on these perennial favorites. Ford sees NASCAR truck racing as a showcase to keep the others in their places, but both Chevy and Dodge are just as determined to overtake their rival from Dearborn in the lucrative truck market by showing their high-speed stuff to truck-buying race fans.
But before you wannabe racers decide to buy a pickup off one of your local Big Three salesrooms and get in on the action, be aware that the trucks that race with NASCAR are no more like a new '97 F-150 than Mark Martin's Thunderbird is like the one your uncle bought during one of his "sporty" moods. They're built on the Winston Cup car "formula" of using a lion-cage chassis surrounded by a fiberglass replica of the original pickup body. The engines are only slightly de-tuned versions of the 358 cubic-inch units found in their sedan counterparts and are custom-built by the same engine builders.
And the racing is fierce on the NASCAR truck circuit. Chevy holds the maker's point lead, but in the last race at Texas Motor Speedway, the first five places were won by Ford. Dodge recently scored a victory at Odessa, Missouri, the first major NASCAR win by that company in 20 years, but Chevrolet has the most successful record so far this year.
Not long ago, the NASCAR Busch Series had been considered the stepping stone to a shot as a driver in a premiere Winston Cup car. That viewpoint is changing and not only is NASCAR truck racing becoming a showcase for aspiring champions, but for potential team owners as well. Dale Earnhardt, Ernie Irvan, Rick Childress and several other NASCAR "names" own and operate truck teams in preparation for bigger things when it comes time to retire. It's everybody's training ground.
You want to see tight, wheel to wheel racing on TV? Try the NASCAR Craftsman truck races. Racing doesn't get any tighter.