The Detroit Three get down to the business of NASCAR.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Leading up to the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago - and in intense discussions ever since - the Detroit manufacturers have been dissecting their involvement in NASCAR with a fervor not seen since, well, ever. NASCAR officials got an in-person earful at The Speedway from various Detroit auto company executives in attendance. The message? The financial numbers aren't good, cutbacks are a certainty - and that means our NASCAR programs too - and we will be discussing what shape our future involvement with NASCAR will take in the coming weeks. Whether or not Brian France and Mike Helton & Co. were surprised or not is immaterial (they shouldn't have been), because NASCAR management left Indy with the realization that for the first time in memory Detroit's involvement wasn't going to be "automatic" for the foreseeable future. And it was sobering for NASCAR and its teams.
When I said everything was on the table a couple of weeks ago for these Detroit manufacturers and their NASCAR programs, I wasn't kidding, and now these discussions have taken on an even more intense urgency. National advertising, promotional support at the tracks, direct payments to teams and personal services contracts with the drivers are all being put under the microscope. But that's just the beginning, because beyond the budget cuts, the Detroit manufacturers are using the opportunity brought on by their dire financial straits to make NASCAR listen to some serious proposals.
What are these proposals? Here are the main issues that GM, Ford and Chrysler plan on discussing in the very near future with NASCAR management in meetings to be held in Detroit:
1. Brand Recognition. It's no secret that there are factions within these Detroit manufacturers who are none too pleased with NASCAR's "CoT" and the fact that literally all brand distinctiveness has been eliminated with the "spec" bodywork required in Sprint Cup. The Hot Idea? The Detroit manufacturers want their "pony" cars to be made eligible for the Sprint Cup in 2010, with stock bodywork dimensions, no less. They want more of a direct connection between what they run in NASCAR and what they sell on the street. That means putting all of the CoT safety developments within the production body dimensions of the Camaro, Mustang and Challenger, with an entry from Toyota to be determined. It also means a return to NASCAR's old days, when every race weekend's technical inspection became a forum for lobbying and intense carrying-on by the manufacturers searching for an advantage. The reality? NASCAR got wind of this idea at Indy and suggested that the Nationwide Series would be a better forum for "pony" cars, but the manufacturers have already dismissed that idea out of hand. They want their "pony" cars to have a raison d'etre, and one way to do it is to race them in NASCAR, which would do wonders to enhance their marketing programs. That's why the manufacturers want them in Sprint Cup by 2010. NASCAR, on the other hand, feels a nightmare coming on while envisioning trying to balance the manufacturers' competitiveness with each other on the track. They better get used to it.
2. Elevate the technology. This is something that NASCAR better get on board with, because the manufacturers are more than adamant about it. They're tired of NASCAR's head-in-sand approach when it comes to applying technology to Sprint Cup. On the manufacturers' wish list? Direct fuel-injection, overhead cams and alternative fuel. And that means walking away from "spec" engines too - and doing away with the common bore centers that NASCAR is requiring. And the fact that NASCAR just went to unleaded racing fuel not long ago isn't cutting it with Detroit, either. They're thinking E85 instead. The reality? NASCAR will argue that these kinds of changes will add to the cost for the teams, but that argument isn't likely to hold water with the Detroit manufacturers. NASCAR's "yester-tech" comfort zone with 60s automotive technology will have to finally be put out to pasture, if they want the Detroit manufacturers to stay interested, that is.
3. A total reevaluation of the road racing program. Right now NASCAR has two road races on their schedule, but two of the three Detroit manufacturers want to add at least two more road races to the schedule without adding to the total number of races (see the next point below). Not only that, these manufacturers want all-new cars mandated for the road races, meaning that special cars would have to be built just for the road racing events. What these cars would look like and what their specifications would be is yet to be determined, but suffice to say there's room for a radical interpretation with this aspect of Detroit's NASCAR "wish" list. The reality? One of the reasons NASCAR went to their vaunted CoT was to eliminate the need for having to build different cars for different tracks (super speedways, intermediate ovals, short tracks, road races, etc.), so this proposal is likely to meet intense pushback from NASCAR management. But then again, if cooler heads prevail in Daytona Beach, they might just realize that if the manufacturers are enthused about this then it might just be better to go with the flow, because the alternative is not looking so appealing at this point.
4. Cut the schedule. To the manufacturers this is a "no-brainer." You want to cut costs? Then cut the number of races, which will allow the manufacturers to reduce their overall expenditures. One manufacturer in particular has already suggested eliminating at least four races from the overall schedule, while adding two more road races, which means effectively cutting six existing races from the schedule. The easiest solution to get there? Do away with the double visits to certain tracks during the season. The reality? Them's fighting words in Daytona Beach. Nobody messes with their schedule and nobody tells them what to do when it comes to their tracks. We'll see about that.
5. Eliminate the truck series. The implosion of the casual-use pickup truck market in the U.S. does not bode well for NASCAR's truck series. And the fact that NASCAR hasn't been able to land a sponsor to replace Craftsman doesn't bode well for the truck series either. The Detroit manufacturers wouldn't mind if NASCAR's truck series went bye-bye. As a matter of fact, one of the manufacturers has already let it be known that they're as good as through with the truck series. The reality? NASCAR may not have much choice here.
6. Make the Nationwide Series a true driver development series. The majority of the Detroit Three want the Nationwide Series to be strictly a driver development series, which means Sprint Cup drivers wouldn't be allowed to compete. Sounds simple enough, right? The reality? NASCAR doesn't take too kindly to people telling them what they can or cannot do when it comes to a competitive aspect in one of their series, but who knows? Once NASCAR gets use to grappling with all of these other ideas from the manufacturers, this might be the easiest one to go along with.
These are the key proposals - at least the "high hard ones" anyway - that the Detroit Three plan on discussing with NASCAR in the next few weeks.
One thing you can be sure of in all of this? It's going to get very interesting from here on out.
Editor's Note: You can hear The Autoextremist in a very interesting podcast on LiveFastRacing.com (a very cool web site/motorsports talk show, by the way), in a wide-ranging interview covering the current status of the Detroit automakers and the latest on the Detroit Three and the future of their involvement with NASCAR. Peter's segment starts about 17 minutes in if you're pressed for time, and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank The Duke and Co. for having Peter on their show.
Publisher's Note: In our continuing series celebrating the "Golden Era" of American racing history, here is another image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Ford Racing Archives)
Riverside, CA, 1965. AJ Foyt in his Holman & Moody-prepared Ford in practice for the Riverside 500 NASCAR race. This is from A.J.'s web site: "In 1965, he broke his back, fractured his ankle and sustained severe chest injuries in a NASCAR stock car race on the road course at Riverside, California. The track doctor pronounced him dead at the scene but fellow driver Parnelli Jones saw movement and revived him..." A.J. entered the Daytona 500 28 times between 1963 and 1992, winning the race in 1972 in the famous No. 21 Wood Brothers Mercury. A.J. won 67 Indy Car races in his career, is one of only three drivers to win the Indy 500 four times (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977), and he remains the only driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.