The Frontstretch: Mustangs, Camaros, and Challengers, Oh My! Busch Series To Ponycars in 2009? by Vito Pugliese -- Tuesday September 18, 2007

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Mustangs, Camaros, and Challengers, Oh My! Busch Series To Ponycars in 2009?

The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday September 18, 2007

 

“The Car of Tomorrow sucks.”

No, that's not Kyle Busch's quote. It's not even Tony Stewart's.

It's mine.

I hate the Car of Tomorrow. I physically hate it. As British automotive journalist Jeremy Clarkson might say, "It is wayward, its front splitter is utter rubbish, and the rear wing is stupid." A series that once celebrated and thrived on ingenuity, differentiation, and brand identification has now devolved into a bastardized IROC series, starring the ugliest thing this side of an El Camino. While NASCAR's premier division continues to plod along, refusing to input changes to a wholly unlikable car that have been pleaded for by competitors, there was some question as to when the CoT would make its way to the “middle” division in NASCAR, the soon-to-be-former Busch Series.

It won’t.

By the grace of God, there appears to be relief on the horizon, in the form of some familiar shapes that have made their return as of late. Everything old is new again, and such is the case with the likely replacement for the existing crop of NASCAR Busch Series race cars. In 2009, that NASCAR series is rumored to be making a switch to a new breed of horsepower. No, not the Car of Tomorrow; rather, the car of yesterday - Pony cars. The reborn Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger, and Ford Mustang are the likely replacements for the current crop of cars for 2009.

For the uninitiated, Pony cars came to prominence during the muscle car heydays of the 1960's. They helped fill the gap between smaller trendy European sportscars and the full-sized Detroit iron that dominated the boulevard, drag strips, and circle tracks of the country. The Ford Mustang was the leader of the pony car revolution for 1964 (even though Plymouth's Barracuda beat it to to the showroom floor by two weeks), followed by the Chevrolet Camaro in 1967. Dodge was a little late to the game, but good things come to those who wait – the Challenger and its E-Body cousin, the redesigned Plymouth Barracuda, arrived just in time for the high-water mark of American performance in 1970.

Although the Mustang, Camaro, and Challenger aren't generally thought of as NASCAR racecars, back in the late 60's and early 70's, they were part of a racing phenomenon that actually threatened to rival NASCAR - The SCCA Trans Am Series. It was a novel idea if there ever was one: a road racing series for muscle cars. The cars that competed in 1969 and 1970 were the inspiration for the reborn retro rides of today. The Trans Am series didn't have a driver's championship per se, but was focused mainly on the manufacturers. It was a series that combined visual excitement, as well as a connection to a wildly popular series of vehicles at a time when America was hip-deep in horsepower, making for some memorable races, race cars, and race car drivers.

Now, Americans love nostalgia, and few more so than race fans. How many of them carp and whine here weekly, reminiscing about "the good ol' days?" For some, that was the early 1990's, others the mid 1980's, and for the pioneer fans who built the sport up to what it has become today, it was the late 60's and early 70's, when factory involvement in motorsports was at Def-Con One. The cars as much as the drivers were a part of the face of the sport: Big Block Fords, Mopars with 4' tall rear rudders, and running 210 mph headed into turn 3 on the backstretch at Talladega in the draft was no big deal.

That is sorely lacking today.

The Car of Tomorrow, safe as it may be, holds all of the drama and intrigue of a stale rice cake. The cars look virtually identical, save for their cheesy manufacturer-specific headlight and grille stickers, and bear even less of a resemblance to anything sitting in the rental lot at Hertz or Enterprise.

From the front splitter that seems to prevent more passing than it creates, to that Erector Set abomination stationed on the rear deck lid, it is an aerodynamic slug and mess-terpiece of engineering. I'm sorry, but a $200,000 race car shouldn't be arbitrarily belching out plumes of smoke in the middle of a turn on three wheels. With NASCAR's mandated limit on suspension travel, they stumble into a corner as if on stilts - so stiff legged that one would think the shocks are actually 42-ounce Louisville Sluggers.

It is time for a change, and what better place to start than the Cup Series’ former feeder class, the NASCAR Busch Series.

The Busch Series, which is in dire need of a new title sponsor, has seen attendance and viewership wane in recent years. A trend of smaller Busch teams being pushed out by Cup operations has resulted in Busch races looking more and more like a short Nextel Cup event. In fact, Busch Series companion races have degenerated into little more than extended Happy Hour sessions, a way for Cup drivers to make a nice chunk of change while pedaling some more die cast cars and gaudy T-shirts. While the CoT effectively squashes any sort of tangible transferable data from Saturday to Sunday, cutting down the importance of Cup drivers racing the series, a new design of car (one that is attractive), could help breathe new life into the struggling division altogether.

Aesthetics aside, a switch to this style of car would also help add some legitimacy to the "SC" in NASCAR. No, any future Ford, Chevrolet, or Dodge will not be a true "stock" car, but at least it will be based off of a car that is front engine, rear wheel drive, and comes available with the correct number of doors, cylinders, and a manual transmission. There is a good portion of the "core fan,” as well as skeptical motorsports enthusiasts, that have always been turned off at the notion of 4-door, 6-cylinder grocery-getters, having their names emblazoned on the front of what have been muscular-looking racecars (i.e. – the old Ford Taurus). When I think of memorable race cars, I think of ones that had some personality to them: Richard Petty's 1974 STP Dodge Charger. Dale Earnhardt's snarky yellow and blue 1986 Wrangler Monte Carlo SS. Mark Martin's swoopy red, white, and blue 1993 Valvoline Ford Thunderbird.

Unfortunately, I cannot get as excited over Denny Hamlin's purple 2007 Chevrolet Impala Car of Tomorrow, with a big dumb wing on the back of it.

Public reaction to the reborn pony cars so far has been resounding. A racing series that caters to them would do well to raise the interest level for both the vehicles themselves as well as the series for which they compete in. When the retro Ford Mustang debuted in 2005, even base models were selling at sticker; the Shelby Mustang is still garnering up to $10,000 over MSRP as you read this. Dodge's 2008 Challenger graced the cover of every car magazine on the planet following its public unveiling at the 2006 Detroit Autoshow. And when word came down that Chevrolet was going to resurrect the Camaro name plate which was retired in 2002, study halls across the country where churning out doodles and scale drawings of the future muscle machine.

It's one of the few things that the American automakers still do better than anyone, having the market cornered on it for the last 40 years. It's also been quite awhile since "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" meant anything. Give Blue Oval, Bow Tie, and Mopar guys a chance to fight it out over something, they'll jump at the opportunity. For Big Three manufacturers that are weighing whether or not they need to be involved in motorsports, this is just what the doctor ordered.

The Trans Am cars of the Pony car era were no less famous or memorable than those of their NASCAR counterparts of the day: Parnelli Jones and George Follmer in their Bud Moore-prepared BOSS 302 Mustangs. Mark Donahue driving the dark blue No. 6 Sunoco Camaro Z/28 for Roger Penske. Dan Gurney and Swede Savage in their Plymouth AAR ‘Cudas, and Sam Posey in his No. 77 Sublime-green Dodge Challenger T/A. Street versions were made of each of these vehicles in limited quantities to meet SCCA requirements. They were wildly popular back then, and today, prime examples of these cars can fetch up to $100,000 at the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction.

Try that 35 years from now with a Toyota Camry.

As much as the drivers are the ones that help fuel this sport, it has also been the cars and manufacturer rivalries that kept it afloat. As politically correct and watered down as the personalities have become, so have the vehicles in which they compete. With the switch to honest-to-God, actual performance cars being the basis of race cars again, it may help generate some interest and excitement into what has become quite a boring, stagnant racing series, its current point leader being a Cup driver who enjoys nearly a 1,000 point advantage over his nearest pursuer. With the onslaught of iconic American muscle cars potentially heading to the Grand National Series in 2009, that type of scenario just isn’t going to happen anymore. Both the fans, and NASCAR, stand to benefit greatly.

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Michael
09/19/2007 06:39 AM
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The “ car wars “ of the past were legendary.It’s hard to believe that we have ended up with the COT. Or a brick on top of a cinder block as it has been called. But this could be the opportunity for NASCAR to send the sport off in a great new, but old direction.The new and improved Busch series needs to reflect the real world of automobiles in the US. Along with Camaros and Mustangs, why not all the other cars everyone drives. Open the series up to Buick, Cadillac, Mercury, along with Toyota, Nissan,and Mazda. Why not Mercedes, BMW, Volvo ? And there are many others. Keep the bodies stock appearing. All of these manufacturers have V 8 engines and models that would be comparable in size to the Camaro and most of them race in series all over the world already.
Imagine the new sources of sponsorship money and manufacturer involvment.Try it in the Busch ( or whatever the name becomes ) series and see how it evolves.

John George
09/19/2007 06:51 AM
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I am all for it. I recall that back in the 1960`s or early 70`s Bobby Allison drove a Mustang in the NASCAR Sportsman division. If I am correct that eventually became the Busch Series. The Bible says nothing new under the sun and how true it is. Lets go racing.

Robert Eastman
09/19/2007 07:27 AM
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What will NASCAR do if the “New (?Busch?) Series” with Pony Cars becomes more popular than the CUP Series? It could happen, (no) thanks to the COT concept.
When the driver cannot even control his car through the corners, what kind of racing is that? STUPID!
Let’s hope that NASCAR doesn’t screw-up the beautiful retro creations coming from “Detroit” and somehow turn them into UGLY BOXES!

JP
09/19/2007 08:24 AM
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Outstanding rant! Rack him!(As those familiar with Jim Rome and The Jungle will recognize). I love the dispassionate opinions on todays aero-clones. I couldn’t agree more. Keep on shouting the truth, Vito. Maybe someone “upstairs” in NASCAR will heed your wisdom. Mike and Robert. You are both on target.

Brian France Sucks
09/19/2007 08:48 AM
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Great article, couldn’t agree more. It’s hard to get excited about Camrys, 4-door Monte Carlos, Avengers and Fusions. The COT is an abomination that should’ve been buried behind the design office next to the Chase paperwork. It has the handling characteristics of a school bus, and last time I checked, the big teams are building track specific COT’s, so it doesn’t save squat. Leave it to Brian France to screw up what his predecessors worked so hard to cultivate.

Alan Sorensen
09/19/2007 09:33 AM
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GREAT NEWS for the “BUSCH” series!

I don’t watch much Busch racing now but if they bring back the “Pony” cars-I will watch.

I cut my teeth on automotive racing during the “early days” that included Trans-Am and others. I saw and even visited with many of the drivers you mentioned as I worked as a timer and scorer for many of the events they drove.

Hoping they bring back the “PONIES”:
Al Sorensen

Dan O'Keefe
09/19/2007 09:35 AM
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by far the best nascar related article of the year…i am in complete agreement- i hate the cot and the constant talk of toyota…hopefully this comes to fruition…camaro’s, mustang’s, challenger’s- i will abandon the nextel series immediately!!!

Marty C
09/19/2007 11:32 AM
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Couldn’t agree with you more, on ever aspect of your column.

This is not the 1st time NASCAR and the “Pony Car” have been together. Back in the late ‘60s NASCAR ran Pony Cars. They were called “Baby Grands” and one of the races they ran was at midnight before the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. They ran on the road course. They were also the fill-in for the 1st race at Talladega in ’69 when the then Grand National driver’s union refused to run. They had run the day before in their own race and were held over to race again on Sunday mixed in with the few Grand Nationals that remained. Richard Brickhouse won the race in a winged Dodge Charger Daytona.

The Pony Cars and NASCAR resurfaced again in the mid ‘80s when NASCAR was considering adding street races (you read that right, STREET RACES), to the schedule. At least 2 test cars were built, one by Banjo Mathews and one by Mike Laughlin to test. Unfortunately, the plan was scrapped. Now that would have been exciting, NASCAR stockers racing through the streets of downtown hometown USA!

Chris2
09/19/2007 02:09 PM
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I totally agree..I could even see myself watching the Busch series over the Cup series given the choice. The SCCA series was pretty cool in its day with Camaros, Cuda’s and the like on the track and it would be good to see cars on teh track again that I could actually tell you which make was which. I had said when the COT was first discussed that the Cup series would pretty much become the IROC series and it seems the drivers, (as well as fans), are now voicing that issue. Great article…

scott oliver
09/19/2007 04:46 PM
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do you think brian france will read this?i would hope so,but it would fall on deaf ears.im glad im not the only person feeling this way.

Steve Cos
09/19/2007 06:44 PM
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Pony cars would be great. And they would look great for the first race. Then someone says “the mustang slopes too much as has a downforce advantage” and a change is made. Then the Camaro sits to high and theres a change. And then slowly over a couple of years you migrate to…the COT and your back to a sticker. I’ll tell you what if I was Chevy or Ford I wouldn’t waste my money on NASCAR. Why spend millions to place stickers on your car. Your better off advertising on the car like Dodge does. I still read all I can but rarely do I ever watch a race anymore. How sad.

Larry Burton
09/19/2007 08:12 PM
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You’ll never get this to happen as long as Brian France is in charge! He is from a different generation and just doesn’t get it about car makes and loyalty. That was what made Nascar, the competition between the car makes and Brian for whatever reason cannot get it. I think it would be great to see these cars in the Busch Series and Nascar might be surprised at what happens with the series with cars looking somewhat like a factory car. Heck, run them in Nextel Cup too and i’ll bet you’ll see more fans at the track and more viewers tuning in to watch races. I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating, when Nascar gets to be a Toyota Show will be the day I quit going or watching Nascar. Look at the Chase this year, you take a guy who’s led for like 22 races and put him in the chase in second place. I still think a true champion should perform for 36 races instead of 10 or 12. There is a lot of bad luck involved in racing, if you happen to lose an engine or get caught up in a wreck that’s not your fault you probably won’t win the chase. Even this out for 36 races and you have a better chance of winning it. It may not be as exciting but in my opinion basing a championship on 36 races intead of 12 is more of a true measure of a champion.

damifino
09/21/2007 07:49 PM
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Hold your horses guys. All is not as it seems in the ‘pony’ show. Yes, they will run stickers that say ‘Camaro’, ‘Mustang’, etc, but, BUT, the cars will be on the exact same COT chassis as the Cup cars and will be under common template rules. Yes, the same wheelbase, greenhouse roll bars and everything. A team running ‘Busch’ and Cup will only have to decide which body to build on a chassis for it’s intended venue. The dumbing down of our sport continues……..

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