2006 Ford Fusion and 2006 NASCAR Ford Fusion. Click image to enlarge
By Tony Whitney
The news that the Ford Motor Company is looking to the NASCAR race series to give sales of its highly-praised new Fusion sedan a boost is an indication that despite substantial costs, automakers are still very anxious to go racing.
Ford executive vice-president Anne Stevens reportedly underlined that NASCAR was important to Ford marketing because the TV viewership continues to grow; the series was edged out only by NFL football in the television ratings for major sports events in North America.
Motor sport is very expensive, regardless of series, as technology gains and intense competition have pushed costs to super-high levels. Even so, there is a clear indication that racing does sell cars and the old adage “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” still holds true.
Of course, those race cars that circulate the high-speed ovals of the NASCAR series, plus a couple of road course events, have very little relationship to our road cars. They are highly developed for competition and capable of speeds close to 320 km/h, and are built around incredibly rugged protective cages made from large-diameter steel tubing to protect the driver even in the worst multi-rollover accident.
Even so, the rules state that the cars have to follow the basic profile of their road car equivalents and for each race, NASCAR officials check the race cars with templates to make sure they comply. Of course, as with any other branch of motor sport, teams have bent the rules over the years in all kinds of fascinating ways.
The external appearance of a NASCAR racer is cleverly created to follow some of the key identification features of the road car, which usually means the grille and headlamps as well as the profile. Ford’s Fusion NASCAR entrant even has the large areas of “chrome” around the nose and an ingenious decal to replicate the headlights. These decals are works of art and you have to go right up to a car to discover they’re just applied vinyl.
2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and 2006 NASCAR Monte Carlo. Click image to enlarge
The same process is followed by the two other NASCAR models, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Dodge Charger. Both have similar profiles to the road cars and those cunningly-created grille/headlight jobs. It may all seem a little artificial, but nonetheless, vast numbers of fans – millions, in fact – like to cheer “their” car at the track or in front of the TV.
There’s no question that these racing efforts do sell cars. Automakers are famed for their legions of ruthlessly-efficient accountants who look for every possible way to save a few cents here and there, and thus bring us more affordable vehicles. These people would not allocate millions to race efforts unless there was an ultimate payoff somewhere.
As if to legitimize the business of marketing cars on the track,
2006 Dodge Charger revealed at 2005 Detroit auto show from beneath NASCAR ‘mask’. Click image to enlarge
the racing world was recently stunned when Toyota announced that it would field NASCAR teams from the 2007 season onwards, using its Camry as a base for the racer and becoming the first non-domestic automaker to field an entry in NASCAR since Jaguar in the 1950s. Not all fans welcomed Toyota, feeling that their series was for “U.S. cars only” and shouldn’t be invaded by offshore nameplates. But in reality, just about all Toyota products sold in North America are built either in the U.S. or Canada; the company employs over 142,000 people in the U.S. alone. The ever-expanding Toyota Canada workforce adds further to this figure. In the U.S., the Toyota Camry has been best-selling car for eight of the past nine years.
2007 Toyota Camry XLE
Toyota already got a start on the big ovals by fielding Tundra pickup entries in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, which often features top drivers from the major series. For 2007, Toyota will run Camrys not only in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series, but also in the slightly down-market Busch Series, which also features top drivers.
Toyota should bring a breath of fresh air to NASCAR, which has featured just Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge models for some time. History records that fifteen different automakers have competed in NASCAR over the years, and having more models on the track will give the series a big boost. Top drivers like Michael Waltrip have been hired as part of the Toyota team buildup.
But what does all this mean to the average car buyer? The fact is that race participation is nothing less than a straightforward marketing effort, much like a newspaper advertisement, TV commercial or a billboard. The more a model sells as a result of innovative marketing, the more likely it is that prices at the dealership can be kept down and within reach of more buyers. Another spin-off is that huge numbers of people get to keep their jobs (look at those Toyota employment figures) and the automaker gets major side benefits in the form of imagery and prestige.
Despite high costs, there’s no sign that major automakers will turn away from the track any time soon. In fact, there’s more interest in this kind of promotional effort than ever, which should be welcomed by race fans and auto buyers alike.