Published on June 16th, 2009 | by Michael J Smith3
More Foreign Automakers May Enter NASCAR
NASCAR chief executive Brian France said he is open to more foreign automakers joining Toyota in stock car racing, which is sure to draw a mixed reaction from media members and fans.
When Toyota entered the Sprint Cup series in 2007, the majority of fans expressed outrage that a foreign automaker was allowed into NASCAR’s top series. Many felt that only American brands should be allowed to compete in the Cup series. Nowadays, I’m not sure NASCAR can afford to be so exclusive.
General Motors recently declared bankruptcy and announced that it would eliminate its Nationwide and Truck Series support. Race attendance and viewership is down. Some argue that the economic downturn is affecting NASCAR fans, who tend to be blue collar workers, more than the average American.
And, while I doubt that the sport is in serious jeopardy right now, I think that it is certainly weakening and something needs to be done. NASCAR is currently looking at every possible option to attract fans, make the races more interesting, and save money.
NASCAR banned testing earlier this year to save the teams money. It also instituted double-file restarts. It’s even considering tweaking the car-of-tomorrow to make it sportier. In doing all of this, NASCAR is proving that it is prepared to take action. It is proving the old saying, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
And foreign automakers may be one of those “desperate measures.”
If more foreign automakers were to enter the sport, it wouldn’t be tomorrow. Toyota first started meeting with NASCAR in 2001. It debuted in the Truck series in 2004. The investment to get from concept to race truck was roughly $50 million, and to move into the Cup series was another $25 million. With the price tag that high, would an automaker want to get into the sport right now, when all automakers are struggling?
Probably not, considering the COT looks nothing like a street vehicle. Of course, with NASCAR working on changing the COT, that may no longer be an issue.
According to NASCAR rules, the cars that compete in the Sprint Cup series must be built in the U.S., and be steel-bodied passenger car production sedans. The engine must be a small-block V-8 “with a minimum of 350.000 cubic inch displacement and a maximum of 358.000 cubic inch displacement.”
Some foreign automakers do not make this type of engine. Toyota didn’t. They had to spend around $40 million to develop their engine. But, they were successful. Too successful, in fact. NASCAR made them tone down the technology of their engine in 2007.
But, if Toyota can do it, there’s no reason to believe that other automakers couldn’t. Honda has been long-involved in motorsports, and is a likely automaker that would want to join stock car racing. Much like Toyota, Honda doesn’t make v8s, so they would have to develop an engine essentially from scratch. But, it’s not impossible, as we’ve seen by Toyota’s ability to develop a competitive one. My guess is they would use a smaller version of the Ridgeline in the truck series, and probably the Accord in the Sprint Cup Series.
Nissan could also have an interest. Two of their vehicles, the Altima and the Titan truck, are manufactured in America, so they could be eligible. I would be surprised, however, if they ran the Altima instead of the Maxima in the Cup series.
Hyundai is a bit of a stretch for me because they don’t make trucks, and their reputation is not built on horsepower. I think they would have the biggest uphill battle because not only would they need to develop an engine, they would have to convince a team that they can create a powerful, aka competitive, vehicle.
I also think we could see Saturn move into NASCAR, as I wrote earlier. New owner Roger Penske could help orchestrate a move to NASCAR in the future. But, like Hyundai, Saturn does not make trucks. So both would have to enter that market before they could enter the truck series. That would be quite costly.
I don’t really want luxury brands like Mercedes Benz, Lexis, BMW, or Heaven-forbid, Ferrari in NASCAR. To me these brands go against what NASCAR, and its fans, stand for. Most NASCAR fans are blue collar workers. They are not the people buying these types of cars. And introducing them into the sport would go against the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” adage.
No matter what happens with foreign automakers, I’m glad to see NASCAR is exploring every possible option to keep the sport going, and to make the racing more interesting.