Saturday, February 03, 2007

Car of Tommorrow on the Street

There has been a lot of speculation, grumbling, and rambling surrounding the car of tommorrow and its inevitable debut on the Nextel Cup circuit. I remain cautiously optimistic about it. It's good that it's safer and I'm glad that it's bigger. Common templates will increase emphasis on the drivers, so we might get more of those upset underdog victories. If the racing stays as good as it is now or is actually improved, then I think all complaints will vanish over the course of the year. If it turns out the cars are even more aerodynamically dependant and unable to run without clean air, NASCAR will have voluntarily inherited the problem that plagues every other top tier racing series in the world (particularly open wheel.)

The cars are ugly as fuck in testing prep. But that's okay, all cars are ugly as fuck in testing paint, with that shitty bondo grey or black look to them.They seem to look pretty good decked out in racing trim, so I don't think that will turn many fans off. It'll be weird for awhile, but that's where the gradual phase-in will help.

Some critics are afraid that the introduction of the Car of tommorrow will be the last nail in the coffin for anyone who cares that SC in NASCAR is supposed to stand for "Stock Car" as in "what you can buy in the showroom" stock. Obviously, it hasn't been this way for a long time in NASCAR, with upgraded motors, then safety features, then bodies that only superficially resembled street cars. (Though at least you could tell the difference between an Oldsmobile and a Thunderbird by their bodies back even in the 80's.) By the late 90's manufacturers were pretty much just like any other sponsor, only instead of decals on the hood they got to slap fake headlights and grills on the nose of the car and they paid in technical support rather than money. While manufacturer still meant meaningful aerodynamic body differences to teams themselves, the average fan probably couldn't tell a Ford Fusion from a Chevrolet Monte Carlo if you stripped the decals and paint job.

This slow evolution from radically different looking vehicles on the track to superficial differences has all-but killed the manufacturer's championship race. Other than advertizing bragging rights, it's all-but meaningless. Save for old holdovers from a bygone era, nobody will get in an argument or fist fight over the superiority of the Chevrolet, Ford, or (now gone) Buick on the track. That's why GM only bothers with one brand now. It's meaningless to have Oldmobiles, Pontiacs, and Buicks on the track when they would look just like the Mone Carlo. (Though the Pontiac was the last holdover with a truly distinctive nose style.) People only support car brands because of the drivers now. Almost nobody supports a driver because of his car brand.

I remember this was different even as late as the mid nineties. If your driver couldn't win, you'd (at least in my house) root for the next Ford driver in line, so at least one of those damn Chevy drivers couldn't win.

The irrelevence of manufacturer is why Toyota can now make a relatively smooth transition into the sport. It's still advantagous for manufacturers to participate - NASCAR fans are loyal to sponsor brands. But they're late to the game. Despite Jack Rousch's freakout, they're not likely to spark a new manufacturer's war in the series. The Camry looks just like the Dodge that looks like the Ford. What's the difference? By the time to Car of Tommorrow is roled out, most people will answer, "none."

Teams may care. By proxy, fans might be interested, but they won't really care as deeply. People simply don't have any reason to care about manufacturer as much as they used to. This is dangerous territory for a motorsport. When fans lose interest in manufacturers, the variety of manufacturer in the sport declines. That means less support for the teams, which means less competition.

But there is a way to flip the equation.

For a long time, NASCAR has tried (to an ever lessening degree) to model its cars after stock sedans anyone could go out and buy on the market. The Car of Tommorrow offers an opportunity to finally reverse that. A manufacturer can take advantage of the design of the COT and model a street sedan off of it. With the current "Car of Today" this is an unrealistic prospect. Have you ever seen a street car with an air dam and real spoiler on the back? Of course not. But the COT has a nose that swings back under the car a few inches. Just take the airdam off after the cutoff, replicate its wing design, and you have basic features you can slap on any basic model sedan and market it to the NASCAR fan. A wing is a lot less hokey than a spoiler on a street car. Fuck, even the Ford Contour had one. Put the wing on there, Model the Nose after the COT in a functional way, and match up the grill/headlight decals and you have marketing gold.

The first manufacturer to do this will probably see a jump in sales. If multiple manufacturers come out with "Official NASCAR Editions" of their respective street vehicles, it might even generate enough competition in the show room to spark a new round of manufacturer competition on the track.

Just an idea.

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