IT’S REALLY INTERESTING, HE SAID, how those guys drove the cars, before they learned. When NASCAR was mostly good ol’ boys drug up from dirt tracks, not polished kids born in karts. The old guys ran road courses like they ran ovals–using the corners to slow the car, backing it in like a bootlegger, then gathering up the wheel, arms and elbows, before tear-assing to the next turn and doing it all again.

This story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Road & Track.

Amazing car control, he said. And it makes sense: What would you expect from a group of dudes who see a green flag every week? Who catch 200-mph slides as often as some people go to the grocery store? Boris Said paused for a moment, looking at the car, in the paddock at Road America. He flashed a grin.

“Plus, these things are just fun, right?”

DW Burnett

So I chuckled and climbed into a 1993 NASCAR Ford Thunderbird, at one of the longest, fastest road courses in the country. More than 160 mph and a 753-hp V-8, the engine making an alto yawp not unlike the one in every single Jurassic Park movie, that moment when Enormous Bloodthirsty Dinosaur X has broken loose and your TV speakers cavitate and Oh My God She’s Coming Right for Us Start the Jeep START THE JEEP and then somebody gets eaten.

Fun may have been an understatement.

As a track device, used NASCAR stockers are more laughs than a year of Christmases. They are also relatively cheap. If you buy one, you can take it to track days or go vintage racing, where you will hold the leash of a manual-transmission, live-axle, pushrod, national-treasure throwback that wants to slide and dance like an old truck in mud. All while being something like safe, because every stock car was designed to crash at 150 mph.

We wanted to learn more about this, so we called up Said. In addition to having won the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the 24 Hours of Daytona, Said is what NASCAR calls a “road-course ringer.” He jumped into stock-car racing almost two decades ago and has since coached generations of drivers in road-course finesse, from stars of the last century to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.

Finally, we sourced our Thunderbird, a Winston Cup car with history. I strapped in to answer a few questions. The kind you will get asked if you are the type of hero to hump a 3250-pound, earthshaking southern mother of an automobile through a track day or a vintage race.

Some people think NASCAR is boring. Left turns and lunkheads.

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Those folks are pretty much just incredibly wrong.

DW Burnett

NASCAR TURNS RIGHT?

Perhaps you were not aware of this. NASCAR’s top shelf is known as Cup racing. Of the 36 races on the 2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup schedule, 34 take place at an oval track. (Tradition dictates that American ovals run counterclockwise, turning only left.) The remaining two events are road courses: the seven-turn Watkins Glen International, in New York, and the 12-turn Sonoma Raceway, in California.

At a time when big-league road racing is still relatively unknown to most of America, NASCAR’s oval preference is partly why the sport continues to draw respectable audiences and sponsor dollars. Oval tracks are more compact than road courses, which makes them easier to understand, broadcast, and spectate. Plus, there’s the appeal of sitting in a coliseum while howly-screamy engines pump noise into your face for hours. These factors are convenient for NASCAR but sad as hell for anyone who likes road racing, because a stock car is one of the funkiest devices in motorsport. On a road course, in professional hands, its DNA invariably produces an old-school show, cars drifting and bellowing while carrying the inside front wheel and sounding like a herd of mating howitzers. Nor does the word “stock” mean much. The average Cup car shares as much with a production automobile as a magazine does with a giant redwood. The body is 24-gauge sheet steel. It covers a 5.9-liter pushrod V-8, a heavy ladder frame and tubular roll structure, an A-arm front suspension, and a live rear axle. The latter, a setup found on few, if any, production cars sold in America, is located by two trailing arms and a Panhard rod, an arrangement that is itself older than dirt.

DW Burnett
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As a sanctioning body, NASCAR does not appear to trust progress. For decades, a Cup car’s front suspension has resembled that of a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle. The rear owes so much to an old pickup that the industry calls its trailing beams “truck arms.” Until recently, NASCAR required teams to use a Holley 4150-series four-barrel carburetor, partly because that device was relatively easy to police for cheating. (In a shocking update, the carb was replaced, in 2012, by Holley throttle-body fuel injection. Reactions varied, but the racing didn’t really change.)

All of this is by design. NASCAR was born in 1947. The sport’s rulebook has evolved since, but the current cars are fundamentally similar to those of decades ago. They are purposely heavy, undertired, and underbraked. Heavy steel wheels are de rigueur, as is a low-grip, 15-inch Goodyear slick. The rules ban driver aids, including anti-lock braking, telemetry during races, and traction control. Compared with an IMSA prototype, a Cup car makes as much downforce as a bag of helium. The goal is to place a premium on setup and driver skill.

Read those last few paragraphs again and tell me that you don’t want to watch a herd of pro geniuses drift-fighting cars like that around a hairy old road course like Watkins Glen.

DW Burnett

Oddly, road-race people have long made fun of stock cars. When I first started club racing, a driving-instructor friend told me that NASCAR was “a left-turn waste of time.” I remember those words often. Usually while watching a Formula 1 race where no one has pulled off any kind of heroic pass or slide, and where the pole sitter won because his aerodynamicist was an unknowable hair smarter or better funded than the other aerodynamicists on the grid.

At this year’s Sonoma Cup NASCAR race, the first 21 cars in qualifying were separated by less than a second. The winner, Kevin Harvick, started 12th. The third-place finisher, Brad Keselowski, started 23rd.

It’s a bar brawl. The cars are basically longneck bottles broken in half. And they most definitely turn right.

DW Burnett
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YOU MEAN I CAN AFFORD ONE?

If you have a full-time job, you probably have a shot. The door is opened by sheer volume, because no racing series produces cars like NASCAR. At the start of 2017, the Cup supported 36 full-time drivers. Teams can and do build separate cars for different track types—machines tailored for road courses, but also the various types of oval. Larger teams, like Hendrick or Penske, grind out new cars and bodies almost constantly. (Damage means that cars are regularly rebodied; a well-funded Cup team might produce 50 new bodies per car, per season.)

Teams often sell old cars or those that have aged outside the rulebook’s tight tolerances. And because there are generally more used stock cars than buyers, prices are remarkably low. A name-driver car with significant history could cost more than a new Porsche, but a nobody chassis with a mild engine can be had for new-Honda money. A vintage car from one of NASCAR’s feeder series is used-Honda territory. For a fast machine from a nationally broadcast pro series, that’s almost free. The 1993 Ford Thunderbird we sourced is not a nobody car. It was built by South Carolina’s Bud Moore Engineering, a legend in NASCAR circles and the shop that produced Ford’s 1970 Trans-Am championship. The car is currently owned by contributor Colin Comer and has never been restored. It was constructed for road-course use in 1993, the same year it won the Sonoma Cup race in the hands of Geoff Bodine.

Comer was kind enough to lend the car for this story. At the track, I asked him why he likes stock cars. He smiled.

“They’re soft, like a dirt-track car. Fast, safe, forgiving, you can bounce them off curbs. If a Trans-Am car is a scalpel, this is a lead-shot hammer.”

Comer’s Thunderbird currently wears one of its original Quality Care liveries; an unmuffled, 753-hp, 8800-rpm Ford 358; a four-speed, dog-clutch Jerico manual with a Hurst shifter; and a Ford nine-inch rear axle with a mechanically locking Detroit Locker differential. The front brake calipers are Brembos, and the rears are Wilwoods—real-deal road-racing hardware. They work through tires just 11.5 inches wide. A 2017 Corvette Z06 produces 100 hp less than the Thunderbird and uses rear rubber almost two inches wider.

DW Burnett

Prior to our test, Comer had the car prepped by Wisconsin race shop Valu Pro. Kyle Bauknecht, Valu Pro’s owner and a former NASCAR mechanic and fabricator, came to Road America for support.

“These cars are pretty bulletproof,” he said. “If you keep stuff maintained and greased, the consumable bits in the chassis last five or six seasons. They’re hard on brakes—you do pads every event, rotors every two.”

“Still,” Comer said, “everything is cheap. Control arms and shocks—even the best shocks in the world are $500 apiece, and you don’t have to spend anywhere near that for good ones. And with take-off Cup car parts, you can rebuild it all forever, it’s just indefinite.”

DW Burnett
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Which brings us to the most important point: To minimize component failure, top Cup teams replace parts long before they wear out. Those used bits are often sold to the public for pennies on the dollar: engines a few ponies short of competitive (yet still likely to make more than 600 hp), pallets full of spares, barely scuffed tires.

“Last year, you could buy a 358 Cup engine from Roush, on eBay, for 10 to 15 grand, ready to roll,” Comer said. “That engine probably cost them $75,000 to build.” A rebuild on a strong but “not insane” motor, Bauknecht said, is generally around $15,000.

None of which is small money. But consider it in race-car language: The closest sports-car analogue for a NASCAR stocker is probably a used Porsche 911 GT3 Cup. Several years ago, a GT3 Cup engineer I interviewed said that he told customers to prepare for “around $40,000” on an engine rebuild. And that, he said, was if he liked the guy writing the checks.

DW Burnett

WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE?

Oh, brother.

It feels like your inner five-year-old has designed a car, and that car is both extremely loud and extremely simple and stuck somewhere in North Carolina in 1974. A pet cartoon. A blessed event. A couch with a couple of Jato nozzles up the wazoo. But we’re getting ahead of the story.

The subtlety is surprising. In the 1990s, as now, on television, a NASCAR field looked banal, just flat slabs of sponsor paint. Up close, the cars are an assemblage of compound curves, obviously shaped by hand. One more reason that stock cars aren’t stock—mass-produced automobiles haven’t had handmade bodies in decades. But every panel on Comer’s Thunderbird arcs gently in a few different axes, moving air. The hood and trunk meet the fenders with paper-thin gaps. There are no doors, so you climb through the window, like The Dukes of Hazard.

With the hood up, you can see the entire front end: suspension, tidy plumbing, tires, frame. The steering drag link, as big around as a soda can. The engine, wider than you expect, and breathing through a composite airbox that feeds off the high-pressure area at the bottom of the windshield. Two giant frame tubes spear forward from the firewall, meeting the radiator and the sparse space frame under the front bumper—a reminder that stock cars above all, are built to protect driver and driveline. (NASCAR news flash: Drivers crash regularly and often hit each other on purpose.)

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DW Burnett

In the case of our test car, what you don’t see is too much of a showroom ’93 T-Bird. Maybe in the roofline, viewed on TV. Or from a hot grandstand, a beer in your hand, the car flinging around some oval at a buck-eighty.

It is entirely possible that this is the point.

Predictably, there are sponsor logos. They are shotgunned around the car in places both obvious and not, because stock-car racing has long believed in that sort of thing. Front fenders covered in supplier stickers; switch panels with fat branding; a coffee can of a Wix oil filter, its lettering legible from space. Even the front-suspension ball joints, in a place no TV camera would ever be, have a big “MOOG PROBLEM SOLVER” stamped into their heads, next to the grease nipple.

It’s probably because I don’t work on enough old American iron, but I can’t remember the last time a ball joint shouted anything at me, much less its name.

DW Burnett

But then, if those letters were small, they’d be out of place. The radiator is an aluminum skyscraper around three inches thick. Even the steering box, a power-assisted, recirculating-ball chunk, is large enough to brain an elephant. It would make a small dump truck feel inadequate. And if you stand over it while the engine lights off, an odd kind of joy filters into your body. You start daydreaming and you just want to thank the crew and the good people at Ford for all their support they gave us a great car the No. 15 Quality Care Motorcraft T-Bird ran real good today thank you God and America and also McDonald’s and the good people of the Carolinas don’t forget to drink Coke the number-one soft drink in America the Real Thing that name again is Coke WOO BURNOUTS.

In that moment, it almost hurts, loving this country—her capacity for the simultaneously great and ridiculous—so much.

The carburetor needs a throttle pump on start-up, but the V-8 whomps awake instantly, keyed from a toggle on the dash. The lope that results is a wall of baritone cannons. You don’t so much hear the cylinders with your ears as feel each one, individually, packing air into your head

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Inside, it takes a minute to adjust to the weirdness. The interior is a bunker of tubing. Visibility anywhere but forward is largely a guess. The steering wheel is inches from your chest and the size of a garbage-can lid. The nose feels a million miles away and hangs over pillow-soft tires and springs. The diff clunks and pops in the paddock, the car hopping and jerking.

DW Burnett

If you have any experience with old muscle cars, it feels familiar. Even with gentle hands, the car almost refuses to turn unless you treat the throttle like poison or get grumpy with it, little slips and slides to revector the front bumper.

The former action is nicer to the tires and generally faster, so you do it, despite the fact that the car seems to beg for sideways goofery. The wheel’s size and proximity give gobs of leverage, but it makes you move like a gangster mook in a 1950s movie—dancing hands, elbows bent into a tight vee. The steering box communicates in muted tones and really only speaks up if you rail over a huge curb, at which point the wheel sneezes out a blip of kickback. As if to say, I saw that, now I'm going back to sleep.

So you drive with your eyes and spine, hands numb, like in an old Corvette. The diff unlocks, the car rolls into the corner, the tires crouch into a set, the suspension settles, and then your right foot investigates the carburetor. A moment later, you unwind the wheel, and that foot finds the floor.

At which point the universe collapses. There is nowhere that a NASCAR 358 does not pull like hairy stinking bejesus, but it makes linear, madhouse power from 6000 to 8000 rpm. All while pumping out a high-pitched, machine-beast-howl. The transmission has dog clutches instead of synchromesh, so you can rail through an upshift without the clutch, just a hint of throttle lift. Combine that with the engine’s body-saturating noise, and the car seems caught in a perpetual, near-breathless bellow, the long shifter moving as fast as you can throw it. The dogs also mean that the lever won’t go into gear on a downshift unless you wallop out a big throttle blip. It’s easy to get right but, like the rest of the car, far from foolproof. Screw up the timing and the rear axle can start hopping, slamming around so violently that the car seems to be coming apart.

DW Burnett
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Even with all that, slowing down is the strangest part. The brakes would possibly work better as anchors if you unbolted the front calipers and threw them out the window on a chain. Stopping distances are almost comically long, and the pads fade into nonexistence—you’re laying into the pedal but the car seems to coast—if you brake near their limit for several corners in a row. The pedal is hard as stone and only slightly more possessed of feedback, especially if the pads are baked.

So braking has to be handled with a careful eye and maybe a dust of prayer. After a few laps, I talked to Boris.

“These brakes . . . that’s normal?”

“They come back if you wait a corner or two. I mean, the newer cars are much better. It’s worse in traffic, because they don’t cool as well. You just plan for it.”

He laughed, so I laughed, because it seemed like the thing to do. Then I drove the car again and laughed in every single corner, the way you do when someone says that your fly is open.

DW Burnett

Perhaps all this sounds terrible. Therein lies the central glory of the stock car: It is not. It is a riot, a viceless sweetheart of a race car that eggs you on. When I got a handle on what the Ford wanted, it bounded into corners and did this electric boom-blat out of them, squirming and writhing and generally feeling like a miniature, one-man battleship. You end up living for the stuff the car does poorly, figuring out how to work around it. You grin so hard your face cramps. It’s an encyclopedia of cliché, it’s hilarious, it’s every good-looking ounce of the American South rising up to kiss you on the mouth.

If they made stock cars with 150 hp, you could safely give them to kindergartners.

If I had even a gram less sense, I would sell my kids and kidneys to buy one for each of my friends and maybe even my dog.

Did I mention that used stock cars are cheap? Did I mention that this may be the best-kept secret in the whole blessed track-day-and-vintage-racing world?

Maybe I did. Stock cars break your head a little.

Ran real good today, she did.

Ford Motorcraft drink Coke God bless America.

1993 Ford Thunderbird Bud Moore NASCAR

Powertrain: Pushrod 16-valve 5.9 V-8

Peak Output: 753hp @ 8800 RPM, 527 lb-ft @ 6750 RPM

Transmission: 4-speed manual, RWD

Weight: 3250 lb

Top Speed: 175 mph (est)