NASCAR Nation… turning Japanese???
While a bit short on technical accuracy, the new film “Taladega Nights” poses an interesting question: How would good-ol’-boy NASCAR fans react to a gay, French champion driving a Perrier sponsored race car?
I can hear Bubba now: “At least it was a Chevy!”
Due to the huge financial success of NASCAR, there has recently been a huge influx of international drivers from other series. Currently imported drivers Adrian Fernandez, Ron Fellowes, Max Papis, and Carlos Contreras will soon be joined by the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve. While the international drivers have not yet been very serious contenders, that is likely to change in the coming years, especially with NASCAR chairman Brian France looking to expand the sport beyond the US borders.
The really big change for 2007 is the introduction of the Toyota team to NASCAR’s premiere class, the Nextel Cup Series. If traditional NASCAR fans are having a hard time accepting international drivers, how will they feel when their beloved Ford, Chevy, or Dodge is beaten by a Camry?!
“Camry is too sissy of a name for an 800-horsepower, roaring monster of a NASCAR racecar” wrote Bill Lawrence in a 2003 column posted on Stockcarcity.com.
Toyota is making the transition as painless as possible for NASCAR fans by installing perennial fan favorites Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip behind the wheel, (especially since neither is likely to contend) but the recent addition of young gun Brian Vickers to the Red Bull Toyota team shows that they mean to get serious about contending quickly.
Open-wheel fans booed when a Honda-powered racecar made its debut in the Indianapolis 500 in 1994, but after Honda raced to three consecutive championships, (with Jimmy Vasser in 1996; Alex Zanardi, 1997-98) outright contempt turned to admiring praise.
Does this bode well for NASCAR? Open-wheel racing fans are far more likely than the NASCAR Nation crowd to drive imports. They’re also already accustomed to cheering for drivers named Mario, Rolf, or Giles.
NASCAR fans are quite a different animal altogether. With roots in the deep South, their loyalty resides in the American flag, mom, apple pie, and most of all, Detroit muscle. Each race is an epic battle between Ford, Dodge, and Chevy. It’s Junior vs. Tony; or a Gordon vs. a Bush. NASCAR traditions and loyalties are passed from one generation to another whether it be racing families like the Pettys and Earnhardts or spectator families like the Taylors and Johnsons.
Honda has already chased all the American manufacturers out of the IRL. (Every single car at this year’s Indy 500 was powered by Honda!) Will Toyota follow suit in NASCAR? What about Honda, will they enter the lucrative NASCAR market too? Can you imagine the following conversation taking place between two of NASCAR’s good ol’ boys?
“Dang; Bubba! That Accord is one bad ass set of wheels!”
“Y’all are crazy, Cletus! My Camry could wipe any doggone Accord off the dang highway!”
Yeah… we’re having a little trouble picturing it too…
After his article, “Toyota, NASCAR and Maybe a Little Patriotism,” appeared on the Internet in 2003, author Charles Walker was bombarded with e-mails from impassioned fans. Roughly 80 percent saluted the stance that NASCAR should “stay American.”
“The ‘N’ in NASCAR stands for ‘National!’ NOT ‘International!’ ” wrote a fan named Butch. “Let one thing remain American!”
Another wrote: “The moment a foreign-make wins, I will turn it off.”
NASCAR executives are aware of the potential for a backlash when Toyota enters the Nextel Cup series, but downplay their concerns.
“That will work its way out,” said Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s vice president of corporate communications. “It gives the fan another opportunity to either pull against or pull for another brand.”
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France went even further:
“NASCAR welcomes Toyota to the greatest auto racing in the world… Toyota’s entry into the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and the NASCAR Busch Series is good for drivers, teams and the fans. This move provides for even more intense competition on the track between drivers and manufacturers, which will provide more excitement and fan interest. Toyota’s entry also provides more options for drivers and teams, which will increase the competition between manufacturers.”
Although 60 percent of Camrys sold in the United States are built in Kentucky, it’s hardly considered an “American” car, and Toyota officials are sensitive to this as well. They’re being a bit more subtle with the introduction of the new Camry than they’ve been entering other race series in the past.
The Tundra has already established itself as a serious contender in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and we don’t expect their efforts in the Nextel Cup to be any less of a success. Ready or not, NASCAR Nation… the Japanese are coming!
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