Some fans new to NASCAR may believe that the newer the car, the faster it goes. But veteran fans realize that a race should counterintuitively rely on more than just speed. Strategy and driver skill are of the utmost importance. So, the fastest NASCAR era may not be what you think.
The fastest NASCAR era occurred in the 1980s, particularly in the 1987 season. In that year, Bill Elliott set the record for the fastest lap time at Talladega with a speed of 213 mph (342 kph). But it served as NASCAR’s high water mark in speed, as NASCAR mandated restrictor plates a year later.
Below, we will dive into further detail regarding the fastest NASCAR era and what became the fastest car in NASCAR’s history. We will also explore how fast the Next Gen car is, and how its implementation transformed NASCAR from being more speed-based to a combination of speed and skill.
What Was The Fastest NASCAR Car?
The fastest NASCAR car was Bill Elliot’s 1987 Ford Thunderbird, which hit a peak speed of 213 mph (342 kph) at Talladega. While Elliott’s skill certainly helped him capture the fastest recorded lap in NASAR history, improved aerodynamics during the era also helped him accomplish the feat.
Over the years, NASCAR has learned that it is not the fastest cars that made their sport exciting, but how close the races can be. This explains why NASCAR’s specifications seem to grow stricter with each passing decade and why speed doesn’t always evolve in a linear fashion.
However, there was a time when NASCAR cars needed to get faster, so speeds increased during the Generation 1 and Generation 2 eras. You will find, just by looking at qualifying times, the steady increase in speed from 1949 until 1981, the year NASCAR dished out the Generation 3 car.
But even before Generation 3, Generation 2 saw some fast cars, like the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird that graced the track during the late 1960s. But restrictor plates and tapered spaces are big reasons why the cars of today don’t reach the same speeds as decades past.
Which Era Of NASCAR Was Fastest?
The fastest era of NASCAR was the 1980s, and the era peaked in the 1987 season. Elliott’s fastest lap marked NASCAR’s high water mark in terms of speed. Since that record-breaking time, NASCAR cars have improved, but they have yet to touch the incredible speeds seen in the 1980s.
And while NASCAR’s open-wheeled cousins at IndyCar and Formula 1 are faster, they also weigh half as much. So, it was amazing to see what those Plymouth Roadrunner Superbirds and Dodge Charger Daytonas were doing during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
As the Generation 2 era progressed, the cars grew steadily faster. For a time, the late 1970s and early 1980s were becoming NASCAR’s fastest era. However, as the Generation 3 era went on, many cars were easily traveling faster than 200 mph (322 kph). The 80s crushed records set during the Generation 2 era, many of which still stand today.
NASCAR knew they could not risk another crash like Bobby Allison’s in the 1987 Winston 500. According to the race’s commentators, the catch fence was allegedly strong enough to have done its job. But this wasn’t the case for Bobby Allison.
In other words, NASCAR knew that another wreck like that could have been disastrous for both the driver and the fans sitting close to the track. So, they implemented restrictor plates at superspeedways. But they weren’t done yet.
In 1993, NASCAR debuted the Generation 4 car. Following 2 spectacular crashes involving Rusty Wallace in one event and Johnny Benson in another, NASCAR installed roof flaps while working diligently to improve their cars’ downforce.
These roof flaps kept the cars from driving as quickly as their Generation 3 predecessors. NASCAR compensated for the drop in speed by finding ways for the cars to race more competitively. This idea was paramount for the Next Gen car too, which was unveiled in 2022.
How Fast Is The Next Gen NASCAR Car?
The Next Gen NASCAR car reached a top speed of 184 mph (296 kph) during non-drafting sessions at Daytona and an average speed of 191 mph (307 kph) during drafting sessions. Next Gen cars have more downforce and more powerful engines than their predecessors, but are usually slower than Gen 6 cars.
The car also boasts a new 5-speed sequential transmission, plus an independent rear transaxle. Gone are the dated truck arms, as are the old 15-inch steel wheels. Instead, 18-inch, single-lug nut aluminum wheels are here, plus air vents that negate the need for grille tape.
You will also find that the cars sit higher than their former models, all of which were nearly touching the track. You may also have noticed that the numbers sit closer to the front of the car to make more room for associate sponsors.
However, the Next Gen car’s speed is somewhat slower than the Generation 6’s. Initially, they may have been even slower, since NASCAR tested out an engine package that featured 550 horsepower. But with the improved downforce, this wasn’t feasible.
Next Gen’s Speed At Speedweeks
Kyle Larson won the pole for the 2022 Daytona 500, logging a speed of 181 mph (292 kph). This was 10 mph (15 kph) slower than Alex Bowman’s top speed the previous season and 2.5 seconds slower.
In 2021, 8 more drivers reached 189 mph (304 kph) during that qualifying run. Also in 2021, Quinn Houff’s initial qualifying results for the Daytona 500 ended with a time of 49.57 seconds, the 36th-fastest time, which was on par with Larson’s speed in 2022.
In mid-January 2022, Speedweeks began, and the Next Gen car graced Daytona International Speedway for the first time since September 2021. The testing comprised drafting sessions, in which the fastest cars ran at 195 mph (314 kph).
Trade-Offs Make For More Entertainment
However, the Next Gen cars were a little faster than their predecessors during test sessions at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, so there is a chance you may not see universally slower speeds.
Pure driving and racing ability puts control of the cars back into the drivers’ hands. And in the eyes of many fans, racing should account for more than just speed, but who the best driver and team is. And that can only be determined through a combination of speed, driver skill, and race strategy. The cars may be slower, but they’re no less exciting to watch.
Will NASCAR Cars Be Faster In The Future?
Whether or not NASCAR cars will be faster in the future depends on several variables. NASCAR likes close races, so speed isn’t the only important factor to consider, and so as long as the races remain exciting with the current generation of cars, they likely won’t change much.
The organization has been on the losing end of the ratings spectrum for years, and attendance has also waned. So, NASCAR’s mission was not faster cars, but a better product. Given their heavier weights, they will never reach the same speeds as Indy or Formula 1 cars.
But they can bring just as, if not a more exciting product to the track. If the product gets more exciting with the proposed closer racing and higher number of road courses, expect NASCAR to keep the speeds as they are, since they would have no reason to drive any faster.
If the ratings continue to move south or even if they stagnate, look for NASCAR to potentially find ways to increase the Next Gen car and even an eventual successor. Right now, NASCAR will wait for the data to come in and go from there.
Remedying Issues That NASCAR Faces
Not only has NASCAR been losing fan support, but they have also been losing sponsors. Watch a race from 15 seasons ago, and you will see a plethora of big-name corporations that are no longer with NASCAR.
NASCAR has worked diligently to solve these issues, which explains the Next Gen car’s design closely resembling its showroom counterparts. It also explains the higher number of road courses and even a possible street race in the future.
NASCAR further hopes that their closer races that rely more on skill and strategy than pure speed will be a turning point. And if the fans find it entertaining, we may see some rekindled interest in the sport. If that’s the case, there is no reason for NASCAR to make these cars faster.
A hybrid model could ultimately attract other manufacturers their way. More companies with their names attached to NASCAR may also give fans loyal to those brands a reason to tune in.
The fastest NASCAR era occurred in the 1980s when cars were routinely driving at 200 mph (322 kph). But the advent of restrictor plates resulted in slower cars, which is why later-generation cars don’t reach those speeds. The Next Gen car focuses even less on speed in favor of skill and strategy.