With all the technology available today, it is safe to say the first NASCAR cars were nowhere near as fast as the cars in the 21st century. However, these cars evolved quickly since their inception during the 1949 NASCAR Season. By the 1960s, their speeds drastically picked up.
The first NASCAR cars weren’t very fast, with the average speed for the 1949 Daytona Beach Road Course maxing out at 80.88 miles per hour. However, just 38 years later, Bill Elliott and his Ford Thunderbird set the all-time record with a speed of 212.809 mph at Talladega.
If you ever wondered what the first NASCAR cars were like, keep reading. We will discuss the drastic differences between the sport’s first cars as they compare to the Next Gen design. We will also reveal the average and max speed for the first NASCAR cars, just to show how different they were.
NASCAR has fielded seven generations of cars, starting with its formative days in 1949. These cars differed drastically in appearance from its Generation 2 successors. Keep moving throughout NASCAR’s ages, and you will discover no two generations of cars were exactly siblings.
They each had their unique design, some more identical to their peers than others. For example, the Generation 5 car, also known as the Car of Tomorrow (CoT), looked nothing like its Generation 4 or Generation 6 cousins.
Each new generation of cars also had different safety features. These were more basic in the first NASCAR cars.In fact, during the 1949 season, the safety features were minute before NASCAR became more stringent with them, especially from the CoT to Next Gen.
Generation 1 was used from 1949 through 1966. The first thing that jumps out at you is the fact they have doors. However, the doors were strapped, so you didn’t see drivers entering and exiting the car through them.
These cars also strongly resembled the road cars of the time. So much so that, if they were parked side-by-side, you wouldn’t notice many differences unless the stock car had a unique paint scheme, numbers, and sponsors that its street legal counterpart did not have.
You also didn’t often see sponsors on the hood. Instead, drivers and their teams opted to place the sponsors on the sides of the cars, though you would see them grace the hood in later seasons. In NASCAR’s earliest days, even paint schemes that matched the sponsors were not as common.
It was also common for drivers and teams to write out the sponsors onto either the car’s sides or the fenders, as opposed to drawing their logo on the car. While the cars were still moving billboards for their sponsors, they weren’t incredibly easy to read once the green flag waved.
Even the iconic Petty Blue was an intentional mistake, per Richard Petty. He stated that they did not have enough white paint to cover the car. So they mixed it with what remained of the blue paint and it resulted in Petty Blue. Before that, the Petty family used either white or red.
The first NASCAR cars peaked at an average speed of 160.927 mph at the 1966 Daytona 500 event. The top qualifying speed was 175.16 mph. The first NASCAR cars saw steady increases in speed between 1949 and 1966, but they were never as fast as today’s cars.
A lack of speed in the early days of sports is a common denominator throughout North America. Head over to the NFL today, and you can see 275-lb defensive linemen running a forty-yard-dash in under five seconds. While this was not unheard of decades ago, it was not as common. You can say the same for the first NASCAR cars.
In 1949, NASCAR ran its inaugural season, known then as the NASCAR Strictly Stock Series. The first race occurred at the old Charlotte Speedway (not to be confused with the Charlotte Motor Speedway), and it ran for 200 laps for a total of 150 miles. Bob Flock sat on the pole, qualifying for a top speed of 67.9 miles per hour.
A week later, the Daytona Beach Road Course Race ran at an average speed of 80.883 mph. Fast-forward to 1959 for the inaugural running of the Daytona 500, where Bob Welborn won the pole position at a top speed of 140.581 miles per hour. The average speed for the first running of the Daytona 500 was 135.21 mph, over 50 mph faster than the 1949 Daytona Beach Race.
The 1967 Daytona 500 marked the debut of Generation 2. However, the average speed of the event tanked to 146.926 mph. Despite the slower speed for the race, the Generation 2 Car held a substantially faster qualifying time, clocking in at 180.381 mph.
By 1980, the last season of the Generation 2 Car’s life cycle, the average speed at the Daytona 500 increased to 177.602 mph. Buddy Baker won the pole position for the 1980 event, scoring a top speed of 194.009 mph.
As you can see, the cars’ qualifying speed increased throughout the lifespan of each generation. When the Generation 3 Car debuted in 1981, it marked an even greater increase in the cars’ overall speed. So much so that the fastest lap in NASCAR history occurred.
The fastest NASCAR car ever driven was the Gen 3 Ford Thunderbird that Bill Elliot drove to nearly 213 mph at Talladega. Bu the fastest NASCAR car in the sport’s history is up for debate. The reason behind this stems from the use of restrictor plates and tapered spacers.
You may consider it the fastest ever, but some may not. Correlate this to the bench press in the sport of powerlifting. What is the heaviest bench press of all time? It depends if the individual considers the heaviest bench press of all-time to occur with a bench press shirt, or without one.
The individual using the shirt will always lift more weight than the one without the shirt. Therefore, some would only consider a raw bench press (no shirt), as the actual world record. You can measure the fastest NASCAR car in two ways: the fastest car overall, on any track, with no restrictor plate, and the fastest car on any track during the restrictor plate and tapered spacer era.
In 1987, Bill Elliott’s Generation 3 Ford Thunderbird set the fastest track time in NASCAR history. In fact, cutting-edge aerodynamics helped Elliott set the fastest overall time on two occasions that year.
The first came while qualifying at the Daytona International Speedway, when Elliott clocked in a qualifying speed of 210.364. The next one came just a few months later at the Talladega Superspeedway. Elliott broke his own record during qualifying, posting a max speed of 212.809 mph.
Since Elliott set the record, NASCAR mandated the use of restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega to help keep the cars from going airborne. That said, it is unlikely that any driver will break Elliott’s record. But who posted the fastest speed since the restrictor plate era began?
With restrictor plates and tapered spacers, cars cannot race as fast at Daytona and Talladega. However, it does not mean cars cannot exceed 200 mph. There are a few examples where drivers eclipsed the 200 mph barrier after 1987.
On August 15th, 2014, Jeff Gordon reached within 6.5 miles per hour of Bill Elliott’s record at Talladega. During a qualifying run, his iconic 24 car reached 206.558 mph, for a lap time of 34.857 seconds.To date, it is the fastest qualifying time in the era of restrictor plates.
Kurt Busch came close to Gordon’s feat at the Texas Motor Speedway. On November 3rd, 2017, Busch recorded a lap time of 26.877 seconds, for a maximum speed of 200.915 mph. Busch also came within four mph of the 200-mile mark at Las Vegas in March 2016.
The Next Gen Car’s speed is roughly that of the Gen 6, maxing out at around 180-190 mph. The new cars feature engines up to 670 horsepower, and they even comprise eighteen-inch tires, a three-inch increase from their previous generation.
Overall, NASCAR’s Next Gen Car is the most technologically-advanced design to grace the circuit. As you may guess, the car is also rich in new safety features, the most prominent of which is its increased downforce. Complete with a new five-speed sequential transmission, you can say these cars differ drastically from their predecessor.
One thing to remember about the Next Gen Car is that as of 2022, it is still very new. So the actual speed of this car can fluctuate throughout its lifespan, for however many years NASCAR decides to keep the design active.
Kyle Larson, the pole sitter for the 2022 Daytona 500, recorded a qualifying lap of 49.680 seconds, with a top speed of 181.159. In 2021, the final season of Gen 6, Alex Bowman sat on the pole after recording a lap time of 47.056 seconds. His speed topped out at 191.261. The average speed for the respective events, however, clocked in at 144.416 mph in 2021 and 142.295 in 2022.
So why the substantial difference in qualifying between the Gen 6 and Next Gen? Track conditions are rarely the same from year to year. Depending on the weather, tracks can influence tire grip, which can, in turn, influence speed.
The first NASCAR cars were not very fast. As cars got faster, NASCAR made changes to slow them down. The Next Gen Car is much faster than its Generation 1 ancestor, but you won’t find the Generation 7 car reaching speeds of some of its predecessors because of tapered spacers that restrict speed.