Mustang Debut in NASCAR this weekend The Ford Mustang that will christen a new era in NASCAR isn't a carbon copy of the 1973 coupe that captured Brad Barnett's imagination.
But despite not being a NASCAR fan, Barnett will be watching intently when the car takes the green flag Friday at Daytona International Speedway. For the Birmingham, Ala., native who fell in love with the Mustang at age 3 and has attended shows since he was 6, the Fourth of July weekend is a fitting debut for a car that "represents the American dream."
"The freedom of driving fast, putting the top down and looking at a long stretch of open road," says Barnett, 31, who founded TheMustangSource.com, an online community for more than 20,000 enthusiasts of Ford's most famous car. "The Mustang embodies that. It's more than a car; it's a symbol of Americana."
Its NASCAR debut will carry symbolism, too: An acknowledgement that in the quest for competitiveness, cost efficiency and safety, stock-car racing lost some showroom appeal for fans and manufacturers.
In relaxing a few of the rigid rules that homogenized its premier Sprint Cup Series (whose models are virtually identical besides decals), NASCAR revisited brand identity by remodeling Nationwide Series cars. Though not quite as "stock" as the cars that raced with radios and cigarette lighters during the sport's origins, the throwback concept was enough to entice Ford (Mustang) and Dodge (Challenger) to roll out vintage models.
"NASCAR listened to the fans, and they were saying, 'I can no longer tie a link between what I see on the track and on the road,' " says Jamie Allison, director of Ford North America Motorsports. "What's going on in Nationwide is the first step in trying to reconnect fans with recognizing the cars we race. NASCAR is getting exposure to audiences and enthusiasts that previously had no reason to look at the series. There have been nine million Mustangs sold since 1964, and I consider every one a potential Nationwide fan."
Barnett's site did a live webcast of the NASCAR unveiling last fall, and Allison says Ford is monitoring strong support from the Mustang's grass-roots base, which includes several publications, 250 clubs (with 40,000 members) and a Facebook page with more than a half-million fans. Dodge President Ralph Gilles says the buzz was similar when the first photos of the Challenger were leaked on the Internet last year.
"This once again allows the car to become the star," Gilles says.
Both Allison and Gilles say the Nationwide models eventually could become Cup nameplates, which would be a natural transition. The Nationwide car incorporates many elements of the bigger, boxier Cup car that made its debut three years ago, such as the same 110-inch wheelbase.
The Nationwide Mustang, though, sports a more squared-off nose and a grille indentation to mimic the production version. Other features — a chrome pony logo, a faux gas cap and a rear license plate with Ford's blue oval — also add character. Allison says Ford eventually wants more "production-intent hardware," such as an actual grille and tail-light lenses.
Barnett says the car (which also will race at Michigan, Richmond and Charlotte before a full season in 2011) is close enough to the real thing.
"The front is unmistakably Mustang," he says. "We wish it was nearer to a production car, but it looks really cool, the way a Mustang is supposed to look." Detroit Free Press
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