NASCAR in 2020, as Predicted in 1988

Motor racing, particularly NASCAR stock car racing, is a sport that is always having to think about the future. While the athlete’s careers may be longer in pro racing than stick and ball sports, the way the “game” is played is much more prone to change in our world. Think about the amount of changes we’ve had in the last 30 years, and try to pin that thinking to what’s to come in the NEXT three decades as well. Spoiler alert: In 1988, a motorsports magazine took on that very idea.

As was passed around on Reddit a few weeks ago, an issue of Petersen’s Circle Track magazine printed in 1988 asked the big questions about what NASCAR might look like in the 21st century. While it was cool to see the cover, I couldn’t find anyone talking about what the folks at the magazine actually predicted…so I took to ebay and picked up an old copy myself. I won’t be looking back at this issue journalistically, but let’s maybe have some fun and see how their fantastical claims worked out against what we’ve ACTUALLY seen in the last 34 years.

Illustration by Duane Kuchar for Circle Track Oct. 1988

First thing’s first, we can’t escape this awesome cover. It’s clear that illustrator Duane Kuchar was having some fun by turning Charlotte Motor Speedway into some kind of Tron Ice World. Looking just beyond that however, placing the top paint schemes of the era on futuristic interpretations of long distance sports cars wasn’t too far-fetched an idea. The 21st century from a 20th century lens was nearly always allowed to get carried away, but even the most fantastic ideas in 1988 can seem commonplace today. We can see a lot of that in what’s written in the magazine.

The pits [will be] something from a Star Wars movie…Crew Chiefs monitor car and driver performances while the race is being run.

H..A. “Humpy” Wheeler predicting a typical race for the year 2000

Digging into the magazine itself, most of the futurology comes from columnists taking a stab at the future of racing from the standpoint of where they personally see it going, mostly through educated guesses. In some aspects there’s a chilling and unfortunate sense of lament that comes from the whole process. 1988 saw the last NASCAR race at the Riverside Raceway road course in California, and the final race was detailed in this issue of the magazine. While a popular race track with a healthy history and fan support, the solid gold real estate prices of Cali at the time inevitably caused a casualty to a uniquely enjoyed RIR racing track out west. Due to this and a few other factors of the time there was a great deal of discussion on the future geography of racing, and I’d like to take a closer look at that.

NASCAR in 1988 was at a bit of the same crossroad that the sport finds itself in 2022 when contemplating on the “where” to have races, particularly to the international market. In both cases everyone kind of “knew” the sport was about to cross back over new boundaries, but the place and particulars to do them was very much up in the air. Humpy Wheeler, who we’ll get more in-depth with shortly, sees drivers coming from more countries and racing disciplines. Junior Johnson wasn’t sure about international racing, but saw the value in the sport’s interest in Australia. More importantly however, most contributors to the publication saw the current NASCAR schedule as “full” and weren’t prepared to start making vast changes in that area. “We have reached the limit on the number of tracks we can run in a year’s time” states Hall of Famer Junior Johnson. “If we take on any more, then we would have to run just one race per year at a track, and I doubt that would happen.”

My, what a difference 30 years can make! In the 2022 context, having two races at the same track is seen as decadent and there’s been some public discussion on which tracks are even still “worthy” of such an effort. Moreover, the 29 race schedule in 1988 was seen at least by Junior Johnson as the limit to what could be accomplished, while still running from mid February to mid November. Looking back on it, this two race date commitment held back a lot of schedule progression that we’re only just now embracing in the current era. Taking away a Dover race for Nashville would have been unheard of, while removing a well attended Road America race for an unproven street race in Chicago may have incited a minor riot. Through the rise and fall and hopeful rise again of NASCAR in terms of public interest, having the freedom to play with the schedule like we do now gives a great deal more leverage to taking risks and making new ventures pay off. Unhampered by tradition the races we saw as exhibitions in Japan in the 90’s could very well have been full blown Cup points races if performed with this same thinking, and it’ll be exciting to see if that’s what happens in our future down the road.

I also think hell will freeze over before foreign car makers in Winston Cup competition are voluntarily welcomed by NASCAR.

C.J. Baker

From a technical standpoint, the magazine contributors can speak with the most expertise, and their thoughts on the future of the cars and powerplants was certainly the most accurate. Again, thinking about NASCAR in 1988, we were at the nexus of technical innovation meeting the limits of safety. Roof flaps were but a twinkle in the eye of car builders, and most of the rhetoric was in regards to the new restrictor plate requirements to the engines. Having to look forward from 1988 to the 21st Century could only see the speeds increasing with a hope that safety would be able to keep up.

I imagine 10 years from now we’ll be running with restrictor plates on ‘em that won’t have any holes at all…and we’ll still be goin’ 200 mph!

Robert Yates

With those valid concerns for safety, much of the conversation was to decrease power and perhaps embrace smaller engines. This sort of talk is considered “soft” in 2022 but NASCAR’s toughest character in Junior Johnson was suggesting not only V6 engines, but decreasing the cubic inches to around 250. “The smaller engines would lead to a reduction in speed at first but would allow the teams with capable people the flexibility to work on the engine to get the most out of it.”

It’s interesting to look back at the world of NASCAR before social media, before the Internet as we know it, and before opinion could be influenced by people who’ve never even seen a motor car race. It’s not that the opinions are better or even more accepted…but the public discussion can at least take place with a forward thinking approach. The changes itself to technology were extremely slow by comparison, as some ideas like independent rear suspension are only just now being implemented. But if we could have combined the free thinking atmosphere with OEM decision makers to actually accomplish these changes, NASCAR could have looked much different as we see it today.

The best part of this entire magazine was a two page article written by Humpy Wheeler, who at the time was still president and general manager of the famed Charlotte Motor Speedway. Wheeler was perhaps the best equipped for a study of the future as he wrote a separate “20 years into the future” column in 1968 that was also included in this article. Bear in mind, in that 1968 article Wheeler predicted near out of control speeds, more intelligent drivers, and larger paydays for 1988 NASCAR twenty years previous, so at least some of what the blonde Don King was foreseeing actually held water.

For the 1988 portion of the article, Wheeler takes a stab at what the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte might look like. Perhaps as a track promoter his predictions for 250,000 person crowds was a bit wishful thinking, but what Wheeler saw most was a technical advancement that we’re only just now seeing with the Next-Gen Cup car.

I believe that in 20 years Winston Cup Stock cars will combine the best characteristics of IMSA Prototype racers and drag racing Funny Cars…more exotic in design without sacrificing fender-to-fender competition.

Humpy Wheeler

The level of detail in Wheeler’s words are what I find most entertaining. Humpy makes admirable predictions that the 2000 Cup series will have multiple international drivers and “two black drivers and three females” pointing to the shift that drivers would no longer simply hail from the American Southeast. It’s a shame that Wheeler’s claim took an extra two decades to even come close to true, but it’s clear that at least some people saw this benefit during NASCAR’s rise to racing dominance.

Even the Russians are watching!

Humpy Wheeler

Perhaps what’s even more entertaining is what Wheeler got wrong. While Humpy makes accurate claims about corporate entities yielding fancier suite experiences for well heeled executives at the track, his ideas where that might end up are nothing short of fascinating, and I can only let his words speak for themself.

Holy Crap

It’s extremely hard to predict the future, even as an expert in your profession. NASCAR in 2052 is going to look a lot different of course, but we couldn’t have any idea just how or why. Typing that number “2052” seems like something from The Jetsons to me. Thinking like that comes with the fanciful, highly inaccurate thoughts of flying cars and computer grid speedways, which invites these weird projections in the first place. Still, when thinking about it for more than a moment, we have to consider just how different this sport could be. Would we still be burning fossil fuels thirty years from now? Will cars in every racing series be fully electric? Will race car driving still be a profession or will they simply be amateur semi-skilled ballast for the hyper technical advanced cars that make designers and builders the true sporting heroes? Then again, 30 years isn’t all that much when you put the human element inside it. Ty Gibbs will be in his early 50s and could have just stepped aside to yield another generation of racing from that famous sporting family. If racing’s love of legacy remains constant drivers with the last name of Logano, Harvick, or even Earnhardt could be well within the prime of their careers.

Always changing, always staying the same, that’s the only future I can predict for NASCAR…and I hope it stays with us for even more generations to come. 

Follow Matt on Twitter for all things NASCAR.

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