Feb. 22, 2013 at 8:32 AM ET
What is today one of the most popular sporting events in America has some humble roots, NASCAR tracing back to the days when moonshiners would tune up their cars to outrun the “revenuers” and then give each a challenge to see who was fastest.
But the days when the familiar sporting event could claim to field “stock cars” is long past. When NASCAR organizers began ordering the switch to the so-called “Car of the Future,” a few years back, the design may have been safer and better on track, but about the only thing it had in common with the cars of today were decals designed to make it look, sort of, like the Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas you’d find in a showroom.
That triggered a backlash from fans, something that was measurable in both race attendance and TV viewership, and it has forced NASCAR and its teams to do a little soul-searching – as Ford is demonstrating with its latest stock car entry which actual shares at least a few body panels with an actual Fusion sedan.
“This is a day so many of us at Ford and Ford fans have been waiting for,” said Jamie Allison, director, Ford Racing. “When we first unveiled the 2013 NASCAR Fusion in Charlotte in January 2012, we said we wanted to help return the ‘stock car back to NASCAR.’ Without question, with this car, we have.”
The high-dollar motorsports league isn’t totally returning to its roots. You won’t see bootleggers out on the track, and under the skin the new cars are still what NASCAR refers to as the “Gen 6” race car. But manufacturers now can customize 13 individual exterior surfaces to bring the look and shape of their entries a bit closer to their production models – without having to resort to lame tricks like decaled headlamps.
Ford experimented with the idea of going back to stock car design in the secondary Nationwide racing series several years ago and “saw the exciting reaction from the fans, and even from people who didn’t follow NASCAR,” said Allison, adding that it showed the maker that “We were on the right track,” quite literally.
Ford has spent about two years developing the new NASCAR Fusion, revealing it to NASCAR and its team members in June 2011 and then giving the new design a public preview in January 2012 at the Detroit Auto Show. It has continued tinkering with the car, focusing especially on aerodynamics as that can make or break the chances of a race car moving at 200 mph.
The Fusion will make a high-profile racing debut at this coming weekend’s opening NASCAR race at the Daytona International Speedway. It will face a tough challenge from Chevrolet, notably from the GoDaddy.com team led by Danica Patrick who has become the first woman ever to land the pole position in the historic race.
But Ford is confident it won’t be embarrassed, the new NASCAR Fusion being used by such prestige tames as Roush Fenway Racing, Penske Racing, Wood Brothers Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Germain Racing and Front Row Motorsports.
Ford cars have taken the checkered flag at three of the last four Daytona races.
The decision to go with the new design isn’t altruistic. While Ford officials may appreciate NASCAR heritage they also want to maintain the popularity of the sport – and hope that this spills over to their brand. In recent years, it’s become less clear that the old adage, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” still holds true.
Nonetheless, “We know nearly 40 percent of new car intenders are race fans, and of those, almost 84 percent follow NASCAR,” said Allison. “Racing helps drive our business. We know Ford race fans consider, shop and buy more Fords than the general public. So bringing back this kind of relevancy to NASCAR is the X factor.”
Incidentally, while cars like the Gen 6 Fusion may look more like street models then they have in some years, don’t expect to find one at the showroom. Under the skin they use an entirely different sort of construction – as you’d expect of vehicles that often tangle with one another at well into triple-digit speeds. Even the engines are unique. NASCAR only last year began using a version of fuel injection, for example, a technology that the last U.S. street vehicle abandoned in the early 1990s. But the Sprint Cup cars still feature live rear axles and four-speed gearboxes, technologies generally considered way out of date.
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