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DATE News (chronologically)
02/15/07
nascar
Exposing NASCAR’s ’stock car’ fallacy  Will they boo? More than a few bonuses at Toyota USA must hang on that question as the foreign brand participates in its first-ever Daytona 500, dubbed (by fiat of NASCAR’s marketing department) the "Great American Race."

Not that there really could be such a thing as a "foreign" stock car. All the vehicles in Sunday's race will have been built from scratch in fabrication shops in the vicinity of Charlotte, N.C.

And "stock car" should perhaps be put in quotes too -- these are purpose-built racecars whose only resemblance to the street versions is the names they borrow.

While we're at it, let's avert our eyes from another irony: In tinkering with the rules to permit Toyota's entry, NASCAR changed the definition of an eligible vehicle from "American-made" to "American-assembled." Oops. Chevy's Monte Carlo is built in Canada and Ford's new Fusion is assembled in Mexico.

Then again, it's probably time to retire the slogan that for 50 years has underwritten Detroit's participation in NASCAR: "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." Folks in the grandstands long ago realized that the car on the racetrack bears not the slightest relation to the showroom hardware. And Toyota certainly didn't sign up with NASCAR in hopes of selling more Camrys -- they already fly off the shelves and, anyway, Toyota's own surveys show that Camry owners are indifferent to NASCAR.

Toyota wants to sell trucks, specifically its new Tundra pickup. Joining NASCAR is the company's way of asserting, after 50 years, its claim to be treated as an "American" company based on the factories it has built here and the thousands of jobs it has created. Toyota calculates, perhaps shrewdly, that staking such a claim is the necessary preliminary to competing for the largely male, largely rural, disproportionately Texan market for pickup buyers.

As for the us-vs.-the-invader rhetoric that has slightly clouded Toyota's welcome in the sport, think of it mainly as hooey aimed at serving the backroom needs of those who've been shouting it most conspicuously: legendary team owner Jack Roush, who fields five cars with the "Ford" emblem, and Ford's own Dan Davis, head of its racing operations, who publicly accuses Toyota of being a "predator."

The two have a natural interest in papering over the fact that Ford is in the worst shape of the Big Three, both in its racing and in its business. More to the point, Messrs. Roush and Davis are a greek chorus for a message that other team owners and sponsors have quietly been whispering in NASCAR’s ear since Toyota appeared on the horizon: We're counting on you to protect our interests!

Exact figures are hard to come by, but some 90% of the money for racing comes not from the auto makers but from the consumer marketers whose logos festoon the cars. And a big problem is that Toyota's arrival crowds seven more contenders into a field for each race that has room for only 43.

This is one pie that even NASCAR’s famed "competition managers" will have a hard time baking any bigger. NASCAR constantly rejiggers the rules in the name of sharing the marketing wealth. Take the Daytona 500: While teams still go through the rigmarole of running qualifying laps, 35 of the 43 starting spots were already awarded in advance based on "past performance" -- i.e., based on NASCAR’s judgment that some teams and sponsors are too important to risk having them miss the big show.

In fact, the reason stock cars stopped being "stock cars" in the first place is that, since the 1960s, NASCAR has increasingly been designing the cars itself to ensure advertisers a "level playing field." This marketing imperative will culminate later this year in a new, NASCAR-designed "Car of Tomorrow" to provide safer, more competitive racing. Yes, the cars will still be called Fords, Chevys, Dodges and Toyotas, but for purposes that finally are purely promotional.

A question then becomes: How much longer will Detroit throw megadollars at NASCAR merely to mythologize the names of its cars? Except for Toyota, all the manufacturers in Sunday's race have been losing gobs of money in North America. The day may come when the Big Three decide they no longer have anything to gain from the NASCAR illusion and choose to take their money to cheaper forms of racing where cars are more identifiably related to cars in the showroom. More at Wall Street Journal

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