To say that last Friday’s Nationwide Series race at Daytona was an overwhelming success would be an understatement. The simple fact we are still talking about “just” a Nationwide Series race is evidence enough that the reported demise of NASCAR’s original junior feeder series has been grossly exaggerated.
No, I am not referring to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final ride in the No. 3 Wrangler colors that resulted in a win, but rather the debut of the Nationwide Car of Tomorrow, and specifically the debut of both the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger in NASCAR competition.
Now, before any of the naysayers get all red-faced and apoplectic, prepared to pepper their keyboards with pursed lips telling me that these aren’t really GTs and R/Ts on the track, please back away from the mouse. Yes, it is entirely true that they are not actual cars, but mostly a styled nose cap and quarter windows with new grille and headlight stickers.
To that, I point with my index finger and say, “Shut up, it looks awesome.”
There are certain cars that make sense on a racetrack, and for years in NASCAR the formula was a simple, but proven, one: V8 powered, rear-wheel drive with but one pair of doors. Style and performance took place over utility and practicality – you think it was easy for Dodge and Plymouth to move Daytonas and Superbirds with three-foot tall rear spoilers? Ford went so far as to lose money on every BOSS 429 Mustang it built just so they could run that engine in NASCAR – and this was all 30 years before network TV contracts and billion-dollar sponsorship agreements.
That combination had become rather watered down, if not downright polluted, in recent years with four-door front drivers becoming de rigueur in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series, mainly as MPG had replaced HP when it came to what customers were looking for in a full-sized sedan, and what automakers needed for CAFÉ requirements. What have been sorely needed the last 15 years or so are machines that actually looked fit enough to race, providing a platform for automakers to market their machines. It provides a legitimate reason to maintain their involvement in a racing series that has had next to nothing in common with the racecars that bear the nameplates of the bread and butter of their balance sheets.
A quick glance at the sales figures over the past couple of months for the machines involved in Friday night’s race tell a story of their own.
Chevrolet sold 14,451 Impalas in June, making it the 15th-best selling car in the United States; it’s a 3.9% decrease from the previous year, and without an SS model to lend any credence to any sort of performance aspirations. Storming the grocery centers and rental fleets of North America alongside its horned honcho, Toyota fielded 28,435 new Camrys, with hopes that their intermittent throttles have been cured.
The competition these two are up against in the Nationwide Series trade two less doors for two more cylinders – as well as a unique profile that has any self-respecting gearhead doodling like a seventh grader in homeroom.
Ford sold 8,974 Mustangs – a dip from 10,225 sold in May, however also at a time when the 2011 models are rolling out and the 2010s are being sold on clearance; the new base model V6 Mustang packs nearly as much horsepower as the 2010 V8 GT model. Dodge, meanwhile, moved 3,086 Challengers. Sure, it might be bringing up the rear sales wise, but it is also produced more in lower volumes than either of the other two pony cars it is matched up against — and is also arguably the hottest thing to roll out of Detroit (well, Brampton, Ontario) in recent memory. The SRT8 model also stickers for over $40,000, putting it in rare cross-shopping company.
The same guy looking at a Camry probably lusts after one, but has no intentions of getting one unless he hits the Powerball jackpot.
It is also worth noting that Chevrolet – which has opted to not run the Camaro (at this time) for reasons that only they can halfheartedly justify – sold 7,540 units, down from 8,931 in May – which were up 63% from a year ago.
Mind you, these are sales of specialty vehicles that are not exactly easy to drive in much of the United States from November through March (though I managed to wheel a 2007 Mustang GT for three years in the white stuff thanks to a set of Michelin X-Ice snow tires), and nearly every news article regarding the economy the last couple of weeks speaks not of recession, but of depression. That these kind of cars are still moving at a brisk pace and stir up the kind of nostalgic feelings and memories that they do, you couldn’t find a more perfect stage for which to view their debut than on a Fourth of July weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
It isn’t just fans that are excited about their arrival, but the car companies themselves.
Dodge President Ralph Gilles was on hand for the unveiling of the CoT Challenger with Roger Penske last Wednesday, and – having been part of past programs at Chrysler involving the design and development of the Dodge Viper – was understandably enthused about the new machine his company would be competing with.
“We’ve been looking forward to this race weekend for quite some time,” Gilles said. “And our loyal owners and fans are going to have a lot of opportunities to celebrate the return of the Dodge Challenger.”
Jamie Allison, Ford’s North American Motorsports Director two days earlier, echoed similar feelings about the Mustang making an appearance in the Nationwide Series.
“Normally, when we go to a NASCAR race, the drivers are the recognized stars as far as fans are concerned,” Allison said. “That’s not the case this week.”
This is something that has been sorely missing from a racing series that offers a sight and sound so unique and unmatched in motorsports. The last time there was as much hoopla surrounding the actual vehicles used in a racing series was 40 years ago, when BOSS 302s, Z/28s, Challenger T/As and AAR ‘Cudas were squaring off against each other in the SCCA Trans Am Series. At the time, it was racing that nearly equaled the popularity of NASCAR, and the cars were in fact the stars; there wasn’t an official drivers’ title, only a manufacturers’ championship.
Considering the perilous economic times we are in, and the effect that the recent stumbling two of the Big Three have experienced in recent years, making the case for continued motorsports funding can be difficult at best.
But with the new Nationwide CoT addressing some of the ills experienced by the original Sprint Cup CoT, it is further enhanced by the brand identity that the new cars provide, as well as addressing some of the aerodynamic woes that had become commonplace with the existing Nationwide machine. Aero push was not something many drivers were complaining about Friday night, regardless of Justin Allgaier’s rear TV panel, which flipped up behind him and rendered his spoiler almost useless. With the rumors of some changes to the Nationwide Series forthcoming that would make it less enticing for Cup competitors to barge in, the stepping-stone to Cup may have effectively solved its identity crisis in just the nick of time.
That being said, I am personally looking forward to the next Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway. Not only because I will be there to cover the race, but rather because that is the next date for the new CoT car to take to the track. Call me a sucker for nostalgia, but save the comments about being a shill for the syndicate.
The simple fact is, NASCAR got it right out of the box with this one, and that should give both fans and competitors of the Nationwide Series hope for what lies ahead.