Camaros were popular in classes across the country in the '70s and '80s. Photo from SCR Ar
No question about it. The local short-track race car has seen the most changes over the last 40 years. Sure, the high-profile cars of NASCAR have changed. But it's the backbone of oval track racing in America, the local short track, that has spawned almost countless deviations of itself from the days of taking out the glass, painting on a number, and going racing.
In the mid-'60s, local short-track race cars were evolving much like NASCAR's premier division. They were both changing because racing was becoming more popular, and its technology was growing at a more uniform pace. While the top NASCAR teams were learning that street cars modified to race at higher speeds at new tracks like Atlanta and Charlotte weren't anywhere near as good-much less safe-as purpose-built race cars, the local racer was learning the very same thing at his level, but for a different reason. Short trackers all over the country evolved from building their own cars to buying complete cars, or frames, from winning racers-turned-builders-turned sellers. And as racing got more popular, it paid better. Promoters knew that the big purses attracted both racers and fans alike, and that meant more profit.
The downside was that better purses also meant racers would pay more for better and faster parts in order to win the big events. When it was not only efficient but also economical to buy instead of build cars, businesses sprouted up and flourished and the climb up the ladder away from stock began. But, unlike NASCAR, the short tracks had a way of putting the Genie back into the bottle.
This local track scene has been repeated many times over the past four decades. Photo from
After the initial popularity of stock cars in the '50s, the natural progression of short-track technology started to mimic NASCAR. But the popularity that generated interest in short-track racing created all the variations we see today. While NASCAR was limited by its own rules on cars, construction, and the specialized equipment allowed, short-track cars were not. That was because of the competition between tracks and well-defined geographical influences. As some cars were allowed to evolve, their mutations remained regional.
A good example is the pavement Modified found in the Northeast, where fields in the '70s and '80s were populated by Pintos, Gremlins, and Vegas. Originating from the pre-war coupes of the '50s that were seen at just about every track in the USA, the cars eventually became highly specialized and are now primarily found in their locale and in scattered locations in the Southeast. The same holds true for the dirt Modified from the same area. They, too, evolved from the coupes in their own special way.
In addtion to regional differences, some classes were the same from coast to coast. For example, it was almost impossible to go to a local track without seeing a group of Camaros take the green during the '70s and '80s. The ultra-popular body style even spanned classes from limited rules to "run-whatcha-brung" racing. And it didn't matter if it was dirt or pavement-Camaros ruled. Later, if you were at your local track in the early '90s-a mere 16 years ago-weren't you watching Pintos and Chevettes do battle?
The Dirt Late Model was another distinctive class. SCR coverage of that class shows the wedge or doorstop body to be all the rage nationwide in the '80s. But in an almost whiplash effect, crowds dwindled and racing costs rose. In response to this effect, more stock-appearing cars were used to give crowds something to relate to. This change also made it easier to control what was bolted onto the cars. Another action that kept the class alive involved the creation of a number of sanctioning bodies that actually worked together-at least somewhat-to make the rules more uniform and coherent. Dirt Late Models are now the most prolific division in the sport.
For two decades, these cars were often found in various classes at short tracks. Cars like
...and Vegas populated Modified fields in the Northeast in the '70s and '80s. Photos by Ph
Conversely, some classes were burning themselves out. As costs would rise in a class, savvy track promoters would bring in a low-buck class, such as Spectator Stock or Trophy Stock, to round out the program and offset their payouts. That also made for an easier entry for new racers and created new drivers, crews, and owners. Look at the classes at your local track. How often do you see 19- and 20-year-olds owning a Late Model? They are more often the ones learning the ropes with a Mini front-wheel-drive racer or Hobby Stock.
Today, the IMCA Modified is found at tracks nationwide, even when it doesn't wear the IMCA
The cost of competition was the primary reason for the creation of new classes, and one such movement by the Iowa-based IMCA proved to have enough attraction to prosper throughout the entire country. Today, the IMCA Modified is a standard, even when it doesn't wear the IMCA label. The concept was infinitely simple: a partial stock frame, easily found in a junkyard; a claiming motor to discourage spending; and 8-inch tires to make sure that a custom-built motor would be equalized on the track. It proved to be a great idea that was quickly adopted by pavement and dirt tracks alike. In fact, many say the IMCA Modified cars offer the best racing we see today. Even the Northeast Modifieds we discussed earlier have new classes based on these Modifieds, but they are built and run with smaller budgets.
Detroit has an influence on the short tracks. When they stopped making bigger cars with V-8s, race cars went to four-bangers and V-6s. Then, when rear-wheel-drive street cars fell out of favor, Detroit changed gears. We see that today with front-wheel-drive cars replacing all those early entry-level, rear-drive cars, mostly because that's what's on the street these days. Also, when a type of car is no longer found in the junkyard, you can usually count on a new division being created based on what is available. It's racing's version of supply and demand. It's easy to see what we're driving today on the track in 7 to 10 years. After all, wasn't that the original idea behind stock car racing?