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Restyling, refiring NASCAR's battle of the brands

- elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday: It’s an old NASCAR adage that described how a car’s performance in a race would help move cars off the lots.

That was when the cars looked like (or in the early years, even actually were) cars that you could go buy from a local dealer. As the sport grew, though, increasing regulations and changes in body design lessened that resemblance, until the cars rounding the turns all looked more like each other than anything you might drive.

But at Friday night’s Dollar General 300 Nationwide Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the cars on the track will look a bit more like the cars in the showroom. And racing fans and insiders are saying that’s good for the sport – and maybe good for business.

“As a fan, I like to look at the cars and be able to tell a Ford from a Chevy,” said Bruton Smith, CEO of both Charlotte Motor Speedway’s parent company and auto dealer Sonic Automotive. “If my favorite vehicle out there is a Ford and there’s a Ford out there in front...there’s pride that comes with that.”

The homogenization of the cars increased with the 2007 debut of the so-called “Car of Tomorrow,” a new, uniform design that introduced more exacting specifications on how cars are built from their frames outward.

The Nationwide Series’ cars were introduced in four races last season and adopted for the whole 2011 season. Friday's race will feature Toyota Camrys, Ford Mustangs, Chevy Impalas and Dodge Challengers that look more like their production-model cousins. The redesigned noses are especially distinctive.

A similar program is on the horizon for NASCAR’s premier Sprint Cup series, though NASCAR officials wouldn’t say exactly when that series might see redesigned cars. Smith said he thought the change could take place in the 2013 series, but “the sooner the better.”

Fans camping at the track Thursday under a drizzly sky said they like being able to tell an Impala from a Challenger.

“I’ve always been in favor of that. I grew up when there were about seven different designs,” said Tim Propst, of Morganton. He did worry that the cars could be different enough to give one manufacturer a competitive edge.

“Somebody will be complaining about, 'Oh, this one’s more aerodynamic,' ” he said.

“That’s the point!” his wife, Nancy Propst (wearing a Dodge shirt), interjected. “That adds another layer.”

And seeing which manufacturer’s car runs the fastest adds to the fun, she said. “We can see which one runs best. That’s what we want to see.”

Ford introduced the Mustang as its new Nationwide car last year, choosing the sportier model of the Fusion that the automaker runs in the Sprint Cup races. Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, said the company had noticed that customer’s identification with brands was falling.

“Over the years, the affinity of the fans had shifted...to the drivers and to the teams, and less about the manufacturers,” he said. “Fans have basically disconnected from that visceral yearning that started the sport of showroom stock car racing.”

Since the debut of the more-identifiable Mustang, Allison said the company has seen evidence the move is working in fan emails and increased coverage of racing in hardcore Mustang fan-targeted magazines.

“It really brought (Mustang) to a new audience,” he said. “Our objective is to make sure the fan has an...emotional experience of cheering for their driver, their team and their car. That really is the holy trinity of excitement.”

NASCAR executive Norris Scott, who oversees relationships with sponsors, said reaction to the redesigned cars has been positive.

“The manufactures are able to have a little bit more of their personality on the front of the car,” Scott said. NASCAR polling shows about three quarters of fans have a favorite automotive racing brand they cheer for, he said. “If you’re rooting for Jimmie Johnson, you’re rooting for Chevy.”

Scott added that manufacturers now have a wider array of options to convert fans into buyers. They’ve increased their use of social media, fan databases and trackside events.

Ed Laukes, vice president of marketing for Toyota Motorsports, said the Nationwide change was largely fan-driven.

“It’s really what the fans have been asking for,” he said. And from a business’ perspective, “Absolutely, having that identification does help.”

“It’s a step in the right direction,” former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and general manager H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said of the redesigned cars. In the past, he said, cars were often sold based on who won at the track, such as special edition cars put out by Pontiac after a championship.

“I think that it was a ploy that not only worked, but got a lot of attention for that particular model of car,” he said. “If Chevy’s winning all the races, subliminally you might buy a Chevy instead of a Ford.”

He also said that the redesigned cars will still share a lot more commonalities than differences, thanks to the evolution of engine design and regulations.

“Basically, they’re all the same under the skin,” he said. “In the old days, someone could build an engine that was 50-horsepower stronger. That’s impossible now.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041

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