NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Mustangs, Camaros & Challengers, Oh My! Busch Series to Pony Cars in 2009?

“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 CoT. 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 racecars. In 2009, that NASCAR series is rumored to be making a switch to a new breed of horsepower. No, not the CoT; 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 1960s. They helped fill the gap between smaller trendy European sports cars 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 ’60s and early ’70s 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 drivers’ 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, racecars and racecar 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 1990s, others the mid 1980s, and for the pioneer fans who built the sport up to what it has become today, it was the late ’60s and early ’70s, 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 CoT, 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 racecar 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 diecast 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 racecars, 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 CoT 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 Auto Show. 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 a while 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 racecars again, it may help generate some interest and excitement into what has become quite a boring, stagnant racing series, its current points 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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