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The Way It Is/ The Car of Tomorrow and Toyota will have big effects on NASCAR in the coming years

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
There's no doubt that NASCAR is a roaring success with a broad base of competitors and fans and solid business underpinnings which mean it will remain America's dominant form of motor sport for many years to come. With thirteen championships ranging from the major league Nextel Cup series to the grass roots Dodge weekly and regional touring car series and more than 150 NASCAR-affiliated tracks across the United States, the France family's empire and organization has come to define racing in America.

While the likes of the SCCA, USAC, IMSA, CART and IRL fizzled or failed NASCAR has been established as the nation's pre-eminent sanctioning body for more than thirty years and is unlikely, in our lifetimes at least, to deviate from that august role. In fact, given its recent moves north and south of the border it's possible that NASCAR soon will be firmly established as the leading sanctioning body in all of North America, Canada and Mexico included.

In the past five years, since Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona in February of 2001, both NASCAR and Earnhardt's deified reputation have rocketed to new heights. During this time NASCAR has changed dramatically with the arrival of a whole new generation of drivers like Tony Stewart, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne. But as much as NASCAR has metamorphosized in recent years so too will the face of NASCAR undergo even more essential change over the next five years.

First of all there's the taller, wider, chunkier 'Car of Tomorrow', rudely referred to by some as the 'Car of Yesterday'. NASCAR's leaders--Brian France, Mike Helton, Robin Pemberton and the newly independent contractor Gary Nelson--insist the new car will reduce cost and improve safety but plenty of team owners, engineers and crewmen believe it will cost them many millions to adapt, develop and race the 'Car of Tomorrow'. NASCAR believes the new car will be so restrictive that teams will run much smaller fleets of cars, but you can be sure the big, multi-car teams will spend barrels full of money on testing, development, simulation, wind tunnel time and investigating every tiny detail.

The big teams--Hendrick, DEI, Roush, Yates, Childress, Gibbs, Penske and Ganassi--will do everything in their power to challenge NASCAR's thesis. Many former F1, CART and IMSA engineers are enjoying life working in NASCAR these days and are among those being unleashed on the 'Car of Tomorrow'. The fact is rule changes in racing historically always cost the teams a lot of money and result in the richer teams pulling away from the little guys. It's difficult to imagine anything different happening with the 'Car of Tomorrow'.

Most of the teams also wonder how much safer the new car really will be. For many years NASCAR's adaptation to changing safety standards in material use and equipment was nothing less than glacial compared to F1 and CART. NASCAR talks a good story about safety these days but it's still a long way behind the more modern forms of racing and it remains to be seen how much more effective the new stock car will be at absorbing energy under impact. And the fact that it's such a big, ugly brick--the antithesis of the time-honored concept of sleeker, faster, better--just rankles the soul. Forget aesthetics. It's all about The Show. But it will be intriguing to see what effect the 'Car of Tomorrow' has on NASCAR over the long haul.

Then there's the arrival of Toyota in NASCAR at a critical stage in America's industrial and car-making history when General Motors and Ford are facing profoundly fundamental problems. In every other form of racing it's competed in--off-road racing, world rallying, IMSA, CART, IRL--Toyota has out-spent, out-powered, out-politicked and eventually steamrollered the opposition, and in F1 today Toyota has established new boundaries for spending and enormity of operation ahead of Ferrari, the traditional standard-setter.

It will be interesting to see which teams join the Toyota bandwagon as it gathers strength. Most people I know believe Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi will be key Toyota players. Penske's dealerships sell more Toyotas (and more Hondas) than anyone else in the United States and nobody is more aware of Toyota's resources and capability than Roger. So too is Ganassi who has won with Toyota in CART and IRL and is winning this year in GrandAm with Lexus-powered sports cars.

Nor will it be long before the veteran Chevrolet and Ford teams like Hendrick, DEI, Childress, Gibbs, Roush and Yates start chasing Toyota's dollars and making the switch. As Toyota Racing Development's technical boss Lee White said to me at Daytona earlier this year: "It'll be 2010 before we really come onstream." And when they do, believe me, it will be a deluge.

Nor is it likely to be long before questions will be asked by the directors and bean counters at General Motors and Ford. If Toyota kicks them in the butt like many of us believe, how long will the cash-strapped Detroit dinosaurs keep spending on a losing proposition? Many NASCAR diehards can't imagine their favorite form of racing without Chevy and Ford, but I believe that by 2010 that question will become a real issue.

Another factor in this changing landscape is that the confluence of the arrivals of the 'Car of Tomorrow' and Toyota may well mean that Toyota's money, technology and commitment will help their teams master the new car more quickly and effectively than their less well-heeled, less technologically astute rivals from Detroit. It could all add up to a Toyota steamroller.

And too, I expect to see Toyota Racing Development (TRD) build motors, parts, and probably chassis too, for the entire stock car industry. Over the next few years TRD will move its operations from Southern California to Charlotte and Toyota's expansive embrace of stock car racing will help TRD become a serious profit center over time as well as pushing Chevrolet and Ford to the margins of grass roots American racing. Toyota has already arrived in midget racing, winning its debut USAC race this winter, and it appears that history is on Toyota's side in all this as many of GM and Ford's UAW employees or their children inevitably will end up working in non-union shops for Toyota and Honda.

Some people even suggest that NASCAR and the Frances have already figured out that Detroit's future in racing is parlous and that the time is coming ripe for a wholesale switch to Toyota. There are of course, some very smart and cagey folk down in Daytona and it wouldn't surprise me if they're way ahead of the rest of us on this.

For anyone who wants to gain some appreciation for how Toyota and Honda play the game I recommend reading chapter twelve of my book, 'A Winning Adventure', co-written with John Oreovicz about Honda's ten years in CART. Chapter twelve is entitled, 'Politics, Pop-off Valves and Engines Rules in 2001', and it documents CART's implosion amid a legal argument between Toyota and Honda with CART over details of the engine rules. Every NASCAR official should read the chapter if they want to be properly prepared for dealing with Toyota's aggressive technical and political methods.

Regardless, big changes lay ahead for NASCAR and it will be interesting to watch the arrival of Toyota and the 'Car of Tomorrow' and begin to see how all this shakes out.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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