Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Ford to Campaign Mustang in 2011 Sprint Cup Series NASCAR Change to Believe In

NASCAR, in an effort to rebuild some brand identity into its Sprint Cup Series, will be removing the front-splitter braces for the 2011 season. Following the removal of the rear wing, the last vestiges of the controversial styling cues of the Car of Tomorrow that first debuted in 2007 have been eliminated, and the new “New” car will appear refreshed and less cobbled than its current iteration. NASCAR has always been about win on Sunday, sell on Monday, and it is a welcomed change from both an aesthetic and marketing standpoint.

“It’ll have a little more style in it, and I think people will like that. As we work forward, that’s not the last change. We’re looking on some stuff that actually has to coincide with the manufacturers and their introduction of new cars to sell,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton. “It’s just time for a style change. We’ve been working on it for about a year now. We’re working on [the brand identity] with the manufacturers.”

As Pemberton alluded to, this was a change that’s been in the works for some time. Ever since the new CoT debuted at Talladega last fall, the front splitters that adorned the front of all four manufacturers were splitter-less and a sign of things to come in the Sprint Cup Series. When I spoke with Kyle Busch last month at a go-kart race in Grand Rapids, Mich., he referred to the change that was coming to the front fascias of the Sprint Cup cars, ones that would resemble the look of the new Nationwide Car of Tomorrow.

When I asked if the Nationwide Car of Tomorrow was being modeled as a car to fix the shortcomings of the current CoT before that model is updated, he seemed hesitant to confirm or deny, but now it seems there are more styling changes planned for the 2012 season.

Coinciding with this news was word that Ford would also consider bringing the Mustang to the Sprint Cup Series, replacing the Fusion that it has campaigned since the 2006 season. Ford is campaigning the Mustang with the new Nationwide Car of Tomorrow, while Dodge is following suit with its Challenger. In contrast, for reasons that have confounded scholars and even Stephen Hawking, Chevrolet has opted to leave its nouveau-retro Camaro at home and is wheeling out the moribund Impala – meanwhile, Toyota is following suit with the milquetoast Camry.

Let’s be honest – the last time somebody had a hair-raising, hang-on moment in a Camry, it was because the throttle was stuck wide open.

Anyways, that Ford would take the step to move its signature model and muscle car mainstay up to the Sprint Cup level says a lot about the company and their position currently as the foremost American automaker. While most manufacturers have been content to stay with their tried and true mass-market sedans, Ford is treading in territory that has not been breached since the 1960s and 1970s, when everyone fielded their intermediate-bodied muscle cars in competition.

I asked Greg Biffle on Friday how he felt about the forthcoming change.

“We have been lucky to bask in success that Ford has experienced as of late. They never veered from the course,” he said. “I was at Ford yesterday [last Thursday], got to see the new technology and got to drive all the new cars. It is no wonder to me how they are the industry leader. I think that will continue into the future. They are building such great product while the other companies are trying to get back at it.”

As the only American car company to not accept a federal-backed bailout, Ford Motor Company mortgaged the remaining asset they had – the mark of the Blue Oval itself, to help fund its way out of ruin. A little more than a year later, Ford has posted profits of over $2 billion the first quarter of 2010 and is once again building vehicles on a world-class level – something that even the most jaded brand-loyal aficionado would have to concede.

That Ford would gamble on fielding its thoroughbred among a field of draft horses says a lot about the automaker’s commitment to the sport – and where that commitment is headed for the future. Geldings these are not.

What it does do is put the pressure on the other manufacturers to follow suit. Dodge has already responded with the Challenger – and after three years, has finally opted to start advertising its best offering with a series of commercials. Of particular timely interest is the spot that has aired during World Cup play, with George Washington charging headlong into a sea of British red coats in a black Challenger SRT8. With any hope, Chevrolet will wisen up and campaign the Camaro, which perhaps it just may considering the impending return of another legendary American nameplate – the Z/28.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the SCCA Trans-Am Series that was the hot ticket in American motorsports. Names like BOSS 302, Z/28 and Challenger T/A (along with its cousin, the Plymouth AAR ‘Cuda) became famous thanks to the racing series that campaigned ponycars on road courses. It was a competition that was built around the manufacturers and the personalities of the machines that made it so popular during the muscle-car era.

So much so, in fact, that there wasn’t an official drivers’ title – just a manufacturer’s championship. It is a formula that, if coupled with NASCAR’s ideal of driver personality driving the sport, could help reinvigorate and reinvent a series that struggled with brand identity and product which, at times, has tasted a bit stale.

Ford’s use of the Mustang will first be tested in the Nationwide Series – an outfit that itself has suffered a bit of an identity crisis in recent years. Yet with the rave reviews the Mustang, along with the Challenger in Nationwide CoT form, has received from styling, safety and drivability standpoints, it will likely migrate its way into Sprint Cup, where the years of homogenization of aero-matching common templates have contributed greatly to the kind of competition that was on display last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

So where does this leave the Camry? While the forthcoming Supra was canned when half of Earth went belly-up and flat broke last year, a version of a tarted up Toyota will surface; the Camry will compete as well in the Nationwide Series, but looks much more menacing and Decepticon-ish than anything your local rotary-club participant would be piloting. That NASCAR has responded in dramatic fashion this year with wholesale changes to the marketing, operation and competition sides of their equation is a step in the right direction; now, it’s time for all manufacturers to follow suit.

But no matter what with the changes coming to the cars that will race as the new Nationwide Car of Tomorrow, then also look to migrate over to the Sprint Cup side of NASCAR, it is encouraging to see an American manufacturer taking a step to help influence the direction of what has always been a decidedly American sport – particularly when facing struggles of its own in competition on the track.

“I wish we could hold our end of the bargain up. We are carrying that banner out here,” Biffle exclaimed. “I got lucky that the leadership had the insight to move the company in the right direction, and that just happened to be who I was driving for. I couldn’t be prouder.”

About the author

Frontstretch.com

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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