The beginning of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship has some fans in NASCAR Nation already pondering the promise and potential of 2013.
As Brad Keselowski wheeled his Miller Lite Dodge into Victory Lane at Joliet last weekend to celebrate his fourth win of the year, it’s very likely that several car owners, crew chiefs, drivers, and fans already looking forward to next season. Such is the plight of the underdog/also-ran – the team (and its fan base) whose mantra is, “Wait until next year!” This kind of hopeful thinking goes for Brian France, too.
Poor Brian must toss and turn each night worrying about the sluggish state of his sport. Race attendance is down, as are television ratings, for the most part. Teams are watching in frustration as corporate sponsors close up their money bags and run for cover, pretty much what race fans have done in recent years as their paychecks get smaller while gasoline and hotel bills grow. Money is the dwindling fuel that makes NASCAR move, and – as the Great Recession of 2008-2011 demonstrated – there’s a lot less of that to go around.
Now this isn’t intended to be a political essay, nor is it meant to be a primer about all things gloomily financial. This isn’t about a struggling industrial sector, big government bailouts or unemployment numbers, but…. then again…. maybe it is. I’m little more than a casual observer regarding such things, but because I live in Michigan and work around motorsports as an automobile historian, any significant moving or shaking in either of these two areas typically reaches my desk at some point.
Hence the attention given to an announcement made last week by the Ford Motor Company. The headlines had nothing to do with NASCAR per say, but the news was directly connected to the upcoming 2013 racing season. As reported by Tyrel Linkhorn, business writer for the Toledo Blade, on September 10th: “Ford to add 1200 jobs at Flat Rock plant”.
The Flat Rock Assembly Plant used to be called AutoAlliance International during the days when Mazdas were built there as part of the company’s affiliation with Ford. When Mazda Motor Corporation moved Mazda 6 production back to Japan last month, Ford assumed managerial control of the facility. The automaker also announced that all workers with AutoAlliance would become Ford employees by the start of 2013.
In addition to the 1200 new hires, Ford officials said that second shift workers laid off at a plant near Kansas City would be transferred to Flat Rock to accommodate increased production. As the Flat Rock Assembly Plant ramps up to now produce both Mustangs and Fusions, Ford is investing $555 million into an upgraded paint and body shop. According to Linkhorn’s story in the Toledo Blade, the mid-sized Fusions – the “highly-anticipated model that competes in one of the auto industry’s most important segments” – will begin rolling out of Flat Rock next year.
The announcement out of Flat Rock last week celebrated all sorts of positive news. New jobs in automobile manufacturing were coming to Michigan, including spots destined for workers previously laid off through production shifts and cut. Ford’s big announcement also came with a not-so-subtle reminder that the auto maker was the only one of the “Big Three” to not require a government bailout. That message was just a small part of a larger discussion.
As Mark Fields, Ford America’s president put it: “It’s an all-out battle for the American garage and, I can tell you, Ford is in it to fight to win.”
Ford’s financial and emotional investment in the 2013 Fusion seems echoed by the folks at NASCAR. The sanctioning body was nothing less than thrilled when the new-and-improved model was introduced to the media back in June. Introducing a new car is always good for grabbing the media’s attention (at least for a few days), but the 2013 Fusion’s debut was like having a front-row seat to the second coming. Even the most jaded journalists and racers spoke positively about the re-design and its “car-on-the-street” appearance. For a while, it felt as though the Hudson Hornet had suddenly been returned to mass-production.
And is that sense of similarity not what NASCAR has been craving over the past, oh, say, fifty years?
If there’s one universal complaint about NASCAR’s use of the designation “stock car”, it’s that there’s a huge disconnect between what you see on the street and what you see on the race track. I know the demands of racing would all but vaporize a “production-model” automobile if NASCAR still adhered to its original “Strictly Stock” guidelines, but all the same old arguments still ring true. As many in NASCAR Nation – regardless of their manufacturer preference – are wont to say: “When was the last time you saw a normally-aspirated, rear-wheel drive, two-door, American-made automobile?”
The debate got even more out-of-hand once NASCAR introduced the “Car of Tomorrow” configuration. Safety concerns took precedence over the criteria of how one defined a “stock car”, but still the NASCAR faithful grumbled about the future of their sport. It didn’t take very long for the term “spec racer” to find its way into the blogosphere. By the time Kyle Busch entered Victory Lane at Bristol in 2007 after winning the CoT’s first competitive outing, he pretty much spoke for a large percentage of NASCAR Nation when he said, “I can’t stand to drive them, they suck.”
But here we are – the ever-loyal – watching 2012 wind down, with nine Cup races to go and a title to award in November, and now our attentions turn to 2013 and the introduction of new models all-around come February. After Ford fired the first volley last June and cornered the media’s attention, other manufacturers rolled out their latest-and-greatest developments. The hoopla surrounding Dodge’s entry for 2013, however, fizzled like a damp sparkler once Penske Racing announced that the team was signing with the Blue Oval bunch.
With all the attention leaning toward the promise of a competitive and marketable NASCAR season next year, it’s no surprise that we’ll be seeing the new cars being tested at Chase tracks during the next several weeks (what a coincidence!). Oddly enough, according to several Sprint Cup crew chiefs, race team insiders, and writer Mike Mulhern, these tests will be moot since automakers are way behind schedule in the production of sheet metal body pieces. The cars tested in the coming weeks at places like Talladega, Texas, and Phoenix will look like the 2013 models, but the data they produce will be relatively useless because the cars will utilize plastic fenders and hoods. Even the new stock cars won’t be “stock”. How appropriate!
What’s appropriate is the attention being paid to the idea of new cars racing next year in NASCAR. New car sales are at record highs in 2012. Just last month, for example, retail consumer demand for new vehicles in America rose by 28%. The combined brands of Toyota Motor Corporation saw a 46% increase in sales while General Motors saw its sales climb by more than ten percent. Ford experienced an increase, as well, with sales rising by thirteen percent during the month of August. Granted, these higher sales figures fail to consider new approaches to automobile financing (some dealers are offering loans over seven years!), but the end result is that more people are buying more cars. There’s no better time for NASCAR to show off its new models.
There’s also no better time for NASCAR to try and recover some of its frustrated fan base. With race attendance and television ratings looking more down than up, maybe it’s an ideal opportunity for the sport to lure in both former and future fans. NASCAR has a way of reinventing itself whenever times look bleak. Ending 2012 with on-track looks at 2013’s cars may be just the tonic our ailing sport needs.
The recent announcement at Flat Rock was the first step toward such medication. Revitalizing a struggling industry by creating brand new jobs in an economically-depressed region signals a move toward recovery. This kind of recovery brings an atmosphere of hope – the hope (in Michigan, at least) for a more stable, more productive, and more positive future.
NASCAR’s looking to reclaim an atmosphere of hope, as well. The introduction of new cars that more closely resemble their grocery-getter counterparts seems to be the sanctioning body’s attempt at attracting a loyal cadre of fans, sponsors, and media support. NASCAR Nation seems all a-twitter (even on Twitter) about the promise of 2013, even as the 2012 Cup season grinds to its eventual conclusion at Homestead.
With Dodge leaving NASCAR after Homestead, and with Penske Racing making the move to Ford for 2013, might we see an all-Michigan trifecta at Daytona next February? After last week’s announcement about Ford Fusions coming to the Flat Rock Assembly Plant, how appropriate it will be to have a Michigander (Brad Keselowski) behind the wheel of a “Michigan-built” car (the Fusion). Toss in a Michigan-based sponsor, and it’d be a marketing campaign like no other (are you reading this, all you “Pure Michigan” promotional planners?). A little loyalty can result in big headlines.
So I’m skimming through the newspaper over breakfast this morning when a story near the end of the sports section catches my eye. The headline reads “High Hopes for Ford Fusion”. In the piece, it’s reported that “Ford hopes the redesigned Fusion will finally trounce the [Toyota] Camry”. The story also states that the new model will be officially introduced next week at events held in New York City, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Dearborn, Michigan. These public events are meant to coincide with the Fusion’s official roll-out “to U.S. dealerships later this month”.
Such “high hopes” for the Ford Fusion are perhaps indicative of the high hopes NASCAR has for the car, as well. Never has “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” carried such broad importance. Michiganders are used to keeping faith alive; the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Lions have taught us well.
And so has NASCAR. One thing the sanctioning body has taught me during my career is that “There’s always next year….”
My response to that is “We’ll see….”