Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: 1st Plymouth, Now Pontiac – Legendary Performance & NASCAR Name Plate Sacrificed in Favor of Big, Ugly, Stupid Buicks

This week, it was announced that General Motors is pulling the plug on Pontiac. The brand that brought us so many legendary nameplates such as the GTO, Trans Am, Grand Prix and Bonneville will be put out to pasture with the rest of America’s storied nameplates such as Plymouth, Studabaker and AMC. I don’t know about the rest of you, but not unlike learning you have contracted Mexican swine flu after pounding a Grande Meal from Taco Bell, this does not sit well with me at all.

The move was officially announced as a cost-cutting maneuver. Similar to when GM decided to stop fielding Pontiacs in the NASCAR series following the 2003 season (even though it developed a new car to be used for just one year), it was called a “very personal decision” by newly installed General Motors CEO Fritz Anderson. That is a bit of a cryptic remark if I ever heard one. Personal how? As in “vendetta” personal? The United States government will likely hold a sizable share of the worldwide symbol of capitalism and American manufacturing might in a few months when GM’s restructuring plan will be likely rebuffed.

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Could that have played into the decision at all?

I know I’m walking a fine line here politically; I know you don’t care about my stance on any issues, nor do I of yours, but let’s not split hairs here – the current administration and its group of “car czars” aren’t exactly made up of a bunch of car guys. Global Warming (mmppff…) and carbon footprints are going to take precedent over Brake Horsepower and Wide-Track handling. Pontiac was always portrayed as GM’s excitement and performance division.

It is credited with defining the muscle-car era with the GTO (even though it began a few years earlier with Super Stock Dodges, Plymouths, Super Duty Pontiacs and big-block Ford Thunderbolts and Mercury Marauders), and their involvement in NASCAR’s golden era of super speedway racing with the likes of Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts were the stuff of legend. Without Pontiac, there would have been no Bandit for Smokey to chase through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia in 1977.

If GM will so hastily kill off such an integral part of hallowed horsepower history, which is also their third best-selling brand, how safe is anything involving racing?

Apparently, not very.

Just two weeks ago, GM’s road-racing boss Steve Wesloski was fired and escorted out of the building by security; this all of two months before their Corvettes will compete in the 24 Hours of LeMans – assuming they will compete at all. Were there other issues at work with that decision? Possibly, however the timing involved is suspect at best.

If GM is willing to upset the apple cart two months before the biggest endurance race on the planet, might NASCAR be next? It’s hard to say. I think we’ve all thought of NASCAR as untouchable since racing is one of the most powerful marketing tools the auto manufacturers have. Then again, did you ever think you’d see they when Pontiac would be turning out the lights for good?

Let’s take a quick look at the sales figures for Pontiac, which apparently has the Tin Indian in such dire straits that it has to be Kevorkianed. In 2008, Pontiac sold 267,348 vehicles. Sure a number of them had their radio or climate control knobs fall off for no apparent reason, but that’s neither here nor there. Buick sold just 137,197 sleds all of last year and that is the division they continue to keep on life support with a dazzling array of boring machinery.

Puzzling to say the least.

Keep in mind that Buicks, as a rule, are typically driven by those who have been collecting social security for a few years, and Pontiacs are the choice of a younger generation with a few more miles left on them. Outside of Tiger Woods, I don’t know anybody in the lower age demographic that is driving one. When Buick stopped making the Grand National at the end of 1987, I stopped paying attention. I mean really. Who cares?

While Pontiac has been out of NASCAR for several years now, they more than made their mark in the history of the sport. Richard Petty may have won the bulk of his races peddling a Plymouth or a Dodge, but his 200th win came in a “Punniac” (as the King would say) Grand Prix at Daytona in 1984. Rusty Wallace won his 1989 Cup championship driving Raymond Beadle’s No. 27 Kodiak Grand Prix, and later would take a pair of tumbles twice in 1993 – once at the Daytona 500 and crossing the finish line at Talladega the following May – flying through the air backwards.

Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart won two titles in 2000 and 2002 in their Pontiacs, while the closest finish in NASCAR history between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in April 2003, with Craven’s Tide Ride Pontiac coming out on top by a near imperceptible .002 seconds.

It was a fun ride while it lasted, and just leaves someone such as myself who is both a racer and a gearhead shaking his cogged cabeza in disbelief and disgust.

So who is the biggest loser in all of this? The 8,000 GM workers who will suddenly find themselves out of a job at the conclusion of 2010 when the GM guillotine falls? A network of dealers across the country that will no longer have over a quarter of a million vehicles to sell? A nation of hot 18-28-year-old girls who will be deprived of the Grand Am/Sunfire/G6 ownership experience? They must have having a kegger at the Volkswagen plant where they build Jettas over this news and the swarm of customers they stand to inherit.

In the end, it will be America as a whole, and our car culture that is so richly intertwined within the fabric of our lives will suffer. It amounts to throwing another log on the fire, burning what little vestiges of iconic American institutions we have left.

These are strange times we are living in to say the least.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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