I have tried in recent years to humor some NASCAR fans’ fantasy-based loyalty to one automobile manufacturer or another, much like I did with my children when they were young and checking under the pillow in the morning to see if that tooth had been replaced with some kind of monetary compensation. My philosophy back then was simple: “What the heck?” It never hurts anyone, you see, to have a little fun.
But unlike my young children, who understandably believed my little deceit “hook, line and sinker,” I am becoming increasingly concerned that some otherwise sane adults have become delusional as to what Chevy, Dodge and Ford are in relation to NASCAR. Apparently, there are a fairly significant number of people that have pledged allegiance to these inanimate objects and put loyalty to them ahead of real, live team owners and racecar drivers, especially in the face of an incoming invader otherwise known as the Toyota Camry.
Running the risk of becoming that smart-alecky kid in third grade that takes it upon himself to educate his fellow classmates that there is no you-know-who, let me be the one to inform you that there are no Chevys, Fords or Dodges racing in any of NASCAR’s upper-three divisions. There… I’ve said it, and it’s the truth. If you need to take a moment and compose yourself, go ahead, I’ll wait. After all, I remember how it felt when that know-it-all Johnny Scarola burst my fantasy during third-grade recess just before Christmas break.
Sure, NASCAR stock cars are often referred to by names of actual car models that you can buy at a dealership, but don’t be fooled; they aren’t first, second or even third generations of those vehicles. These race-ready vehicles have absolutely nothing in common with anything we, as car purchasers, might or might not like about a particular model or make of transportation. No matter how badly you might think so, you simply cannot buy the NASCAR-accessorized version of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Dodge Charger or Ford Fusion. They won’t let them out the door with NASCAR template-friendly body designs, window nets, roof flaps or 800-horsepower engines under the hood.
Not only do the racecars of NASCAR not resemble their supposed namesakes, the racing organization is about to take even another step away from any similarity to what might be found in a dealer’s showroom. Next year starting at Bristol, the sanctioning body will roll out the Car of Tomorrow (CoT). This next generation racecar is the most generic one ever used by the sport, designed principally by NASCAR with racing in mind, not manufacturer distinction. The car removes any remaining readily identifiable semblance of a manufacturer’s individuality… not to say that there was much left to begin with, anyways.
This writer has no complaint with NASCAR moving toward a more common template. As far as I can see, steps in that direction to date have increasingly made for better on-track competition, as any inherit advantages one race team might possess over another gets eliminated with a generic car. It’s been good for auto manufacturers, too, who spend millions to sponsor these teams; they will all now likely see their brand name in victory lane with reasonable frequency. Of course, the more their car strolls into that special winner’s circle, the more money will be plunked down in front of NASCAR officials and their TV partners for advertising and exposure.
Advertising. That is all that it is. When the driver jumps out of the racecar after a hard fought victory and enthusiastically looks into the camera, it’s not just to thank his crew. It’s to exclaim, “the John Smith Racing/Widget/Hyundai Elantra was fast today.” The driver is simply assuring that his boss and biggest sponsors get their payback for all the support that they have contributed. That’s what those companies are in it for, exposure. The driver is not saying that he is driving a Hyundai or an Elantra, and certainly not a widget.
But sometimes this illusion of what a manufacturer really is to the world of NASCAR crosses the line of innocent advertising deception and into something entirely different. And like my young children’s gullibility, there are fans that have allowed a particular manufacturer of their liking to skew reality. These fans have become blinded by slick advertising hook, line, and sinker and bought into the commercial illusion that manufactured cars and NASCAR stock cars are the same. As a result, fans once loyal and supportive of a race team or particular driver will suddenly disavow them for changing manufacturer affiliations. They will label them as being ingrates, traitors, and undoubtedly question their integrity.
Consider this hypothetical situation. Hostess Cup Cakes offers Wood Brothers Racing sponsorship dollars that far exceed what their current snack cake sponsor Little Debbie is willing to pony up. Would the Wood Brothers compromise their integrity or in some manner become lesser human beings if they accepted the more lucrative offer? At least with the gooey chocolate snack cake industry, we probably agree that business is business. If Little Debbie wants to continue to have her adorable little face emblazoning the hood of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing/Little Debbie/Ford Fusion, she’ll simply have to dig further down into her little purse; otherwise, it’s not going to happen. The scenario is no different if we were to replace snack food companies with say, soft drink, motor oil, overnight delivery, insurance, financial, tool, cell phone, pharmaceutical, home improvement warehouse, and yes, auto companies.
However, comments made last week by the head of Ford Motor Company’s racing program, Dan Davis, have made me realize just how far at least one manufacturer will go to promote the mythical automobile manufacturer loyalty sham. It was reported that Mark Martin, longtime Roush Racing/Ford driver who announced he will drive Chevrolets on a part-time basis next year, asked Mr. Davis if it would be permissible to compete in Roush’s Ford sponsored trucks during 2007 in the Craftsman Truck Series. Mr. Davis is quoted as saying, “No decision has been made from Ford’s end so far. I didn’t give him (Martin) an answer yet and we haven’t actually decided what to do yet,” Davis continued, “Maybe we need to get over the initial hurt of this whole thing and try to look at it in hard, cold business terms and that’s what I would really like to do and be unemotional about it.”
So, apparently Martin has “hurt” the Ford Motor Company. There is an inference there that Martin has done something wrong. Normally, when you hurt someone or something, you have wronged them. Well, the only thing Martin did was shop himself around for the best possible deal and take it. Of course, Mr. Davis says that “hurt” Ford. Does that make Martin a bad person? Of course it doesn’t. Martin has no further obligations to any of his sponsors beyond the terms of any legal agreements that he might be obligated to fulfill. Nor do these people sustain an obligation to him. From all apparent information, Martin is under no further obligations to Ford beyond this year, so his move is just business-related… and that is all that it should be. There is no reason to make it personal. And nobody should understand that any better than the Ford Motor Company.
For that matter, when it comes to “hurt,” as in hurting, Ford Motor Company representatives should be able to write a book on it. The company has seen its North American share of the new car market steady decline and has had to make some business decisions themselves of late. Chief among them is the elimination of 25,000-30,000 jobs nationwide. I will not even pretend to be a skilled enough writer to properly describe the tremendous amount of “hurt” that many of those thousands of families and communities dependent on those paychecks are going to suffer. But I assume that, like Martin, Ford has made this decision, as tough as it may be, because it is the right decision for them.
Auto manufacturers can be a little short on loyalty at times. Remember the big Chrysler bailout by us, the American taxpayer. Remember how we not only became enamored with Chrysler President Lee Iacocca, but also were told of the importance to America of not letting the ineptly run manufacturer fall into ruin? Well, Americans responded and gambled $1.5 billion (1980 dollars) on the great American automaker. And for sometime the gamble seemed to payoff, as Chrysler steadily grew its profits and reestablished its solvency. In fact, in 1999 the company posted record net profits of $5.2 billion.
Then, in 2000, Chrysler up and “merged,” with the German company, Daimler-Benz. In reality, Chrysler sold itself to Daimler. Chrysler’s 30 top executives received $395.8 million in cash and stocks when the merger with Daimler Benz was completed. Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton alone received a payout of $69.9 million, plus the option to cash in his 2.3 million shares of Daimler-Chrysler stock. The same executives negotiated, as a condition of the merger, $96.9 million in severance packages in the event they were fired or otherwise removed. Oh, and also in the “big sellout of 2000” Chrysler announced massive blue collar and white-collar layoffs in the U.S. totaling 26,000 jobs. Thanks for your loyalty, Americans!
And boy, has Chrysler ever messed up any hopes Ford Motor Company or General Motors, both in serious financial straits, might have had of bamboozling the American taxpayer. No way would we not have learned that auto manufacturers are not to be trusted. Right?
Rumors have been floating around for quite sometime and seem to be gaining momentum that at least one of these aforementioned companies is planning an exit from NASCAR. It’s not real hard to believe. GM has announced that they have “frozen” some employees pension plans, and are busy restructuring others. Ford, as stated earlier, is downsizing, and both companies have been hemorrhaging dollars by the tens-of-millions for several years. General Motors, likewise, has recently announced plans to eliminate 30,000 U.S. jobs and close nine plants.
Still, American manufacturers, for the best part of 40 years have believed that NASCAR is a good place to advertise and sell their product. They spend an estimated $40 million a year each in sponsorships to race teams and associated promotions, and they will continue to as long as it fits their ever-changing business objectives. And when it doesn’t, they’ll be gone… but it would not be the first time. Remember Pontiac? Remember the late ’60s? And maybe many don’t remember, but manufacturers pulled out in ’57 as well.
The bottom line is simple: some fans may soon find out that manufacturer loyalty is not only illogical, but also unreciprocated. It’s a misguided loyalty, allegiance to an object and not a human that makes the NASCAR fan more of an enigma than ever before.