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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Nationwide Series Hails Return of American Muscle With New Car of Tomorrow

If there is one thing that the Nationwide Series has desperately needed, it is an identity.

Once viewed as the stepping stone to NASCAR’s premiere division, the Nationwide Series had degenerated in recent years into little more than an extra practice session for Sprint Cup regulars who were pulling double duty that weekend. Today, it has become something of a high-speed parade, as engine regulations calling for a tapered spacer have removed any semblance of passing, throttle control or maneuvering, while the trickle down effect of Sprint Cup technology has failed to spill over to some of the smaller teams that were once the backbone of the junior circuit. The Car of Tomorrow may take the bulk of the criticism, but it’s clear that both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series cars, in their current configurations, are flawed machines.

But as Barack and Co. would have you believe, hope and change may be on the way.

Last year, I wrote a column heralding the rumored debut of pony cars to the Nationwide Series. It now appears that may be be coming to fruition. There will be six prototypes of the cars tested on Monday and Tuesday of this week at Richmond International Raceway. Roush Fenway Racing is bringing a pair of Ford Mustangs, while Richard Childress Racing and Johnny Davis Racing are bringing two versions of the Chevrolet Camaro. Chip Ganassi Racing will be representing the lone Dodge at the test with their Challenger, and Michael Waltrip Racing will be fielding the Toyota entry – but chances are it will garner about as much attention as they do on the street compared to the other three Woodward Avenue legends.

While the purpose of the test is to evaluate the new Nationwide CoT design, some consideration needs to be given to how the new car will work in competition – as well as returning something remotely resembling brand identity to stock car racing. Where the Sprint Cup CoT is handicapped with no downforce and little suspension travel, the Nationwide Car of Today is hobbled by a cobbled-together engine package that acts more like a restrictor plate than do the similarly equipped Craftsman Truck Series entries. While the current Nationwide car echoes the lines and construction of the Sprint Cup version that was replaced for good in 2008 with the CoT, it too will be going the way of the Edsel after Homestead in November next season, with the replacement to be rolled out in time for Speedweeks at Daytona in 2010.

For those who aren’t familiar with the lexicon, back in the mid- to late-1960s when the muscle car wars were raging in Detroit, a new breed of car emerged called pony cars. The traits of the cars were usually the same: a long hood, short deck and wide stance powered by either a high-winding small-block V-8 or a stump-pulling big-block that occupied the space between the fender-wells. The Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, Chevrolet Camaro, Mercury Cougar and Dodge Challenger were prime examples of these machines, which in recent years have made a return to the showroom with much fanfare.

While Mercury no longer manufactures a Cougar, and Plymouth stopped building ‘Cudas about the time Richard Nixon was waving good-bye from the door of Marine One, the other makes have returned to a nostalgia-fueled market that has been warmly received. Even in an era of record home foreclosures and $4 gasoline, cool never goes out of style. And for a series that has been devoid of much excitement in recent years, this was an injection that was desperately needed to keep its future afloat. Lord knows we don’t need another division comprised of boxes with headlight stickers sporting surfboards and driving around in parade formation for three hours.

No question, pony cars is an idea well worth trying. But at what cost?

There has been much concern as to how a new car would affect the Nationwide machines. With cash-strapped organizations struggling to survive, there was much consternation over something as simple as the retrofit of the mandated 18-gallon fuel cell in lieu of what had been the standard 22-gallon tank. How would an entirely new platform be received? Since the majority of teams that compete in the Nationwide ranks are owned by Sprint Cup teams – or are at least satellite operations of them – there will at least be economies of scale between the two. Whereas the current Nationwide car has a shorter wheelbase than the previous machine, the new version will use the same 110-inch wheelbase and underpinnings used on the Sprint Cup model. As if those teams didn’t have enough of an advantage already…

And then there’s the question of whether this leaves Toyota out in the cold. Does it? Kind of… but not exactly.

Since Toyota does not really have a compelling rear wheel drive muscle car in its lineup (and with the recent announcement that it is scrapping plans for a born-again Supra, it won’t anytime soon) Toyota has elected to go with the milquetoast Camry.

“NASCAR was looking for a pony car, or a car that’s different than what we have on the Cup Series,” said Laerte Zatta, Toyota program manager for the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide Series. “But we don’t have a model that is very different. The Camry, Corolla and Avalon are very similar in design, so we decided to just go with the Camry.”

While NASCAR never ran these machines in the Cup or Nationwide Series before (but did in the Grand Am Series), there was a time when Camaros and Mustangs did race to a rabid following. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the SCCA Trans Am Series was one of the greatest things going in auto racing. It had a manufacturers’ championship, but oddly enough, not a dedicated drivers’ title. Long revered for steeling the rivalries between Chevrolet and Ford – as Mark Donohue in his Penske Sunoco Z/28 Camaro went up against Bud Moore’s BOSS 302s Mustangs driven by Parnelli Jones and George Folmer – it was the best of times.

And the worst.

1970 has long since been regarded as the high-water mark for performance cars. Following that year, insurance companies put the squeeze on big cubic inch cars, and those who were able to skirt the issue with potent small blocks were subject to increased premiums. Mix in an impromptu fuel crisis, a lingering war 10,000 miles away, political unrest at home… wait, what cosmic bunny hole did I just fall into? Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. Like then, today’s music is terrible, fashion is questionable, and the Democrats stand to pull a replay of George McGovern in 1972 in this year’s election.

But knowing what we know now, the question begs: Are these cars coming at precisely the wrong time to save the fledgling series that used to be a bastion of racing reprieve on a Saturday afternoon for a legion of diehard NASCAR fans?

Sadly, it very well may be.

Unable to learn from mistakes of the past, the new CoT for the Nationwide Series will have a common body template. Will it be as bland and uninspired as the current conglomeration of cars that look like that were squeezed out of a Playdough mold and adored with some Erector Set bits and corporate headlight stickers to differentiate between one another? The greatest thing about the current Nationwide machines are the subtle design and styling differences. They each have the same basic formula, but like the Truck Series, are distinguishable enough to make them unique. If you recall, it’s the Truck Series that consistently features the most competitive and compelling battles on the track. While many point to the tires as the main culprit for racing’s gradual decline in recent years, the common body and rule regulations against doing anything with the exterior of the car has not helped.

Then again, depending on the bodies chosen for the Nationwide CoT, perhaps that won’t be such a bad thing. The factories got it right the first time with the Camaro, Mustang and Challenger from the start; as bulgy, snarky and rocked up as all three models are (one cannot really attribute those qualities to America’s favorite grocery getter), NASCAR would do well to let their natural lack of slipperiness work in mutual agreement with each other.

Much like the Truck Series, the Nationwide Series CoT may have hit on that magic formula to spark up interest in it once again. Time will tell, but if the spirits of Donohue and Swede Savage were to echo again in these throwback machines, racing in the Nationwide Series may once again be watchable.