Twice a year, when the Sprint Cup Series travels to the Irish Hills of Michigan, the sport’s manufacturers take center stage when they compete for hometown bragging rights. NASCAR is the only sport which uses differentiated products as the medium of competition meaning that Ford, Chevy, Chrysler and Toyota represent much more than just a decal on the car – they represent the vehicles Americans use on the street each day. That makes them, quite literally, the “driving force” of the sport, which would not exist in the way it does today if it were not for the backing of these loyal manufacturers. So when the most popular form of auto racing in America competes in Detroit’s backyard, one cannot blame the “Big Three” for wanting to reach Victory Lane just a little more than usual… or Toyota for their desire to steal it from them. It is that very type of grassroots rivalry, competing for wins, championships, and ultimately market share that has fueled the sport for well over half a century.
“Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” has been the theory behind the auto manufacturer’s official involvement in NASCAR since the 1950s. It was in 1951 that Hudson Motor Co. became the first factory to get involved with the then two-year old series when they sponsored Marshall Teague. General Motors followed suit just four years later with the small block overhead valve V-8 while Ford Motor Co. formed its own factory-based team in the same year. Meanwhile, although Chrysler did not officially support any one team early in NASCAR’s history, the rumor around the garage area was that the company was providing “back door help” to Carl Kiekhaefer and Petty Enterprises during the height of their success during the decade: Kiekhaefer alone won 52 times as an owner from 1955-56.
But while factory support may have been sporadic through NASCAR’s first full decade of existence, the 1960s ushered in the “golden era” of power and innovation for the Detroit automakers. When people hear the name “Delorean,” many think about the sports car turned time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. However, the car’s creator, John Delorean, was better known for being the mastermind behind the GM’s Pontiac brand, which burst onto the scene during the ’60s with plenty of NASCAR success: 52 victories in a two-year span, including Daytona 500 trophies from legends Marvin Panch and Fireball Roberts. Not only was the company turning heads with their car designs, but they were also producing some major horsepower under the hood with the big block “Mystery Motor” in 1963 that stepped up competition and interest around the circuit.
While GM was making a statement, Chrysler was ensuring that it would not be left behind by flexing its own muscle. They countered with their famous hemi-head engine, which won a dozen races in Plymouths throughout the 1964 season; and of course, who can forget the vast majority of King Richard Petty’s 200 victories came in Plymouth or Dodge-backed equipment?
As the decade continued, money spent back in the shops laid the groundwork for NASCAR’s future: manufacturers realized that the team combining horsepower with the right aerodynamic package would be tough to beat on race day. Chrysler was first to make significant progress in the aerodynamic category when it unveiled its radical Charger in 1966. Just three years later, the high-winged Dodge Charger Daytona hit the track and the Plymouth Superbird followed the next season, capturing the 1970 Daytona 500 with Pete Hamilton. Ford and Mercury responded with its successful sleek-roofed models in 1968, then transitioning into sloped-nosed Ford Talladega and Mercury Cyclone “racer’s dream” designs in 1969. Just like that, the “Aero Wars” had officially begun, a precursor to the modern-day, multi-million dollar wind tunnel experiments we see today.
The roller coaster relationship between the sport and manufacturers took yet another turn in the 1970s, when many teams received unofficial factory support while Chrysler exited NASCAR altogether – the result of energy crises and changes in marketing strategy, among other factors. But it didn’t take long for factory support to reemerge, becoming trendy once again in the 1980s in tandem with the sport’s explosive growth. Only Chrysler would stay on the sidelines for nearly two decades, following an exit from the sport in the late ’70s; they reentered slowly, through drag racing and the ARCA Series before finally returning to the Sprint Cup level in 2001.
While much of the attention is focused on the “Big Three” American automakers through NASCAR history, there has been participation from foreign competitors well before Toyota’s debut in the Camping World Truck Series in 2004 and the Sprint Cup Series in 2007. During the 1950s, several overseas manufacturers competed in NASCAR’s premier division, including Jaguar, Porsche, Volkswagen, Aston-Martin, MG, Morgan, Austin-Healy, Citroën, Goliath, Renault and Triumph. Jaguar was the only one of the group to win a race, when it went to Victory Lane with Al Keller behind the wheel at NASCAR’s first road course event in Linden, NJ in 1954. While others tried, Jaguar would remain the only foreign manufacturer to win a race at the top level until Kyle Busch won the 2008 Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta while driving a Toyota Camry.
Certainly, the thrill of competition and the advantage of having a weekly “R&D test session” for new technology plays a role in driving these manufacturers to compete in the top form of automobile racing in the United States. But the number one reason for their participation lies within the marketing and sales numbers. GM has found that NASCAR fans are five more times as likely to say they would be more likely to consider buying a car that is featured in a NASCAR-related vehicle ad or display. Dodge has reported similar statistics, that NASCAR fans have a 50% greater consideration of Dodge than non-fans. As for Ford, they credit their business-to-business and marketing partnerships, created in association with NASCAR for well over $200 million in vehicle sales last year.
“Ford Motor Company is [like other manufacturers] woven into the fabric of NASCAR,” said Norris Scott, NASCAR Managing Director, Partnership Marketing & Business Solutions upon presenting the 2010 “Driving Business” Award to the company earlier this spring. “They work with all of NASCAR’s official partners to sell thousands of Ford vehicles as well as create and implement fan sweepstakes and co-marketing platforms.”
So it has been an unspoken rule that when a driver wins at the Michigan International Speedway, he needs to give special mention of the manufacturer that helped put his team in Victory Lane. And while the motivation behind this practice is to acknowledge the bragging rights of winning just 70 miles from Detroit, the center of automotive brilliance throughout American history there’s a deeper meaning behind it. It’s because there’s an appreciation for the very organizations – whose support, in some cases, is over 50 years strong – which make NASCAR into the successful entity it is today.
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