We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series' 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.
Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We've got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.
Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.
Five worst-looking cars
In our last installment of our ESPN NASCAR 75 greatest lists, we unveiled our top-five best-looking race cars. But this is a yin-vs.-yang universe that we live and race in, which means that for every moment and item of beauty, there must also be a counterbalance of ugly.
For every Rolling Stones there is a Milli Vanilli. For every Brad Pitt there is a Mr. Bean. And for every Aston Martin DB5 driven by James Bond there is a Pontiac Aztek driven by Walter White.
So, grab ahold of that mindset of unseemliness, and proceed in reading through fingers that partially cover your eyes as we present our top- (or is it bottom-?) five worst-looking NASCAR race cars.
Honorable Mention: Junior Johnson's 1966 'Yellow Banana'
In August 1966, the Last American Hero was in the second half of his first post-driving season as a team owner when he received a call from friend and fellow Ford legend John Holman of Holman-Moody with a request and a challenge.
"He wanted me to see if I could build a car that was within the rules, but also bent the rules a little, just to see what would happen," Johnson recalled in 2010.
The result was a Ford Galaxie that didn't look like any other stock car on the grid, with a sloped nose, lowered roof and a rear end that was bent upwards and then downwards. Fred Lorenzen's ride was Holly Farms Chicken yellow, so it was nicknamed "the Banana." Angry rivals called it "Junior's Joke."
It ran one race, the Dixie 400 at Atlanta, leading 24 laps and still up front before crashing out.
Legendarily sneaky mechanic Smokey Yunick did something similar in the same race, building a 7/8th-scale Chevy Chevelle for Curtis Turner. Both cars were immediately banned by NASCAR after the race.
"My favorite part was how when they wrote that the rear end was weird looking," Johnson recalled. "I'd say, well, so is mine!"
5. 1951 Studebaker
Yes, Studebaker. Once a staple of the American road, it went out of business in 1967, but did compete in NASCAR's top series for a brief window in the early 1950s, winning three races.
Studebaker's signature victory came in Columbia, South Carolina on June 16, 1951, when Frank "Rebel" Mundy lapped a field of 34 cars that included nine (!) different auto manufacturers, from Oldsmobile and Cadillac to Hudson and even five Henry J's. Mundy's No. 23 featured chicken wire stretched across the front bumper to prevent chunks of red clay from entering the grill and a round open nose piece that looked like either the tip of a WWII torpedo or Hans Zarkov's spaceship from an old Flash Gordon movie.
4. 1978 Dodge Magnum
As stated in our last top five, it would have been very easy to fill the best-looking cars list with nothing but Richard Petty entries. If a driver starts 1,184 races over 35 years, though, they are bound to wheel some lemons, too.
After over-extending the life of the renowned but outdated Charger, Chrysler and Petty Enterprises rolled out the Dodge Magnum, a squared-off battleship with a rectangular grill that looked like a bad mustache and weird headlight covers that couldn't even be saved by "43" and "STP" decals. All the Magnum needed to become the family truckster was to extend the back window and ratchet strap Aunt Edna to the roof.
The car was so bad that Petty went winless for the first time since 1959 and abandoned it midseason for an unsupported Chevy that he paid for out of his own pocket. Not even Zoolander could have saved this Magnum.
3. 1997 Ford Taurus (prototype)
In our top-five best-looking list, we taught you about the debut of the 1995 Chevy Monte Carlo that introduced NASCAR's aero age, a decade-long never-ending festival of complaining when every team and driver whined about the advantages that the other guys had when it came to their car slipping through the air and grabbing downforce to grip the track. And that's how we ended up with the '98 Ford Taurus, the first four-door machine ever approved for the Cup Series.
The problem was, no one could figure out exactly where those passenger doors actually went on the custom-built rounded-off machine that was conjured up by Penske Racing president Don Miller, who has since admitted to fudging big time on his presentation to NASCAR as to what the new street Taurus was going to be. What we know now is that the Taurus won a ton of races and ended up being massaged into a nice-looking ride, but that first model was an egg with tires.
Also...we can all agree that the Ford Taurus ended up becoming a great stock car. But remember when they unveiled the show car for NASCAR's first ever four-door racecar...but um...was it really? #NASCAR75 pic.twitter.com/9UCALq3gAM— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) August 15, 2023
The best/worst moment was when Ford parked its newly revealed race car in Gasoline Alley during the '97 Brickyard 400 and used a tape line to mark off where those rear doors would theoretically be. Dale Earnhardt, looking over that show car at Indy, ran his finger over that tape, looked at me and groused, "My daughter is nine years old and tiny and we couldn't get her in that door if we had a crowbar and a barrel of bear grease."
2. 2006-07 'Twisted Sister' era
I hadn't intended for this list to become a cause-and-effect flowchart, but here we are. And before we go any further, you need to understand that this is the Jekyll and Hyde of racing machines. Or more accurately, Two-Face from Batman.
If you were just looking at the driver's side of these cars, they looked like an actual car. If you were standing on the other side they looked like an actual broken car. When they were on the racetrack, they looked amazing because they produced some great racing, but when they were parked in the garage, again, they looked broken.
Another random #NASCAR75 thought, opposite of my last one. How gawd awful were the "Twisted Sister" cars of the 2000s? Here's Harvick's '07 Chevy, via Reddit user SkittleCar1. As Lynda Petty said to me standing in the Petty shop "It looks wrecked and it hasn't even raced yet." pic.twitter.com/J84AcaMGVN— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) August 15, 2023
In the search for perfect aerodynamics, engineers literally reshaped one half of the car, bending the metal to best grab the air flow. They twisted the fame. See: the "Twisted Sister" nickname.
It went on for years, but the taffy machine pinnacle was '06-'07. During that time, I paid a visit to Petty Enterprises and ran into Richard's wife, Lynda. She looked at the team pushing a twisted Dodge through the shop and said, "It looks wrecked and it hasn't even raced yet."
1. The Car of Tomorrow
Perhaps my animosity toward that so-called Gen 4 car (which, according to a lot of folks on social media is an opinion that is wrong and downright blasphemous) is actually rooted in the place where it ended up taking us next: to a racing machine that has become the Lord Voldemort of NASCAR, the Car-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. For the record, the Car or Tomorrow, or CoT was a necessary evil, even if Kyle Busch (the first driver to win in the CoT) said "they suck."
All of that whining about aero needed a reset button and the Twisted Sister's cockpit had become so cramped that it was becoming unsafe. The problem was that the roomier, one-car-fits-all design shared by Ford, Chevy and Toyota made them look more like the shipping containers that actual Fords, Chevys and Toyotas were delivered in.
And then NASCAR bolted a giant carbon fiber-wing on the back that looked like something my cousin bought at a Fast & Furious fan event to try to make his Saturn Ion look cool when he cruised the Pizza Hut parking lot. Still, when the CoT was sent out to pasture in 2012, it didn't stop me from writing a semi-emotional farewell column.