The view from my couch
I Guess I'm Just Not Politically Correct
by Cheryl Lauer
March 17, 2006
After months of reading how wonderful it is to have a Japanese car manufacturer announce they will be entering the highest level of NASCAR in a year, I can't help but wonder why I still see this as the beginning of the end for NASCAR. Almost every print media and many on the internet have written articles touting how wonderful this will be and how this company builds many of their cars in America. With a few exceptions, these writers seem to forget that the profits for this company don’t stay in America. So, no matter how much positive spin people put on it, that still means to me that they aren't an American company. Yes, these same people will claim that many of the parts for Ford and General Motors' vehicles are made in foreign countries. I won't dispute this fact, but the profits for their vehicle sales stay here, helping build the American economy in more ways than just paying the salaries of the factory worker building the car. While everyone from Brian France to many racing fans are claiming "what's the big deal," my feelings about this issue just make me “not politically correct”. It's not the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last time that I've been guilty of not "going with the flow." I just feel strongly about "Buying American" and try to do so whenever possible, especially when it comes to my cars.
Before anyone starts saying claiming I'm a xenophobe, let me explain a little bit about my background. My parents came from the mountains of northwestern North Carolina (not far from the legendary North Wilkesboro Speedway). After World-War II, my father went to auto mechanic school in North Carolina. Then he and my mother moved to Maryland in the early 1950s. My father initially worked at Fisher Body in Baltimore, which went on to become a General Motors Assembly Plant. Unfortunately, since my Dad was a new hire, when production was cut back a bit, he was one of the first ones laid off. This didn't deter him from his love of American sheet metal, and he went on to spend the next twenty years working as a Lincoln/Mercury mechanic. So you might understand why I have American cars in my blood. Now I don't claim to be a gearhead by any means, but I did grow up with an appreciation for American sheet metal and pure American horsepower.
As the 1970s came along, bringing the gas crisis, foreign auto manufacturers gained a foothold in this country. Over the past thirty years, these companies gave Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler a run for their money (quite literally). A combination of lower wages paid to workers in countries with a much lower cost of living had a significant impact on American car manufacturers and their ability to compete. The smaller foreign vehicles resulted in better gas mileage, and the perception of higher quality forced American manufacturers to improve their vehicles in these areas (which they have done). While I may have blue-collar roots, I have some issues with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and other unions. I just don't believe they have served a purpose in the last thirty years. But that's another philosophical discussion entirely. Suffice it to say, I believe the liberal benefits and concessions negotiated for the American auto workers, and loss of market share to the foreign companies has contributed to the decline in profits attributed to the Detroit auto manufacturers. All of these factors contributed to the takeover of the American car market by foreign-owned companies.
With oil becoming even scarcer in the late 80s, for a lover of American cars like myself, it was increasingly painful to see the dominance of foreign cars on American highways. Particularly in higher cost of living areas, such as where I live between Baltimore and Washington. As you get into more rural areas, particularly in the south, you still see less foreign cars and more Fords and Chevys. When I discovered NASCAR racing in 1988, I couldn't help but feel I'd found the last refuge for those of us who were born and bred to love American sheet metal and pure American horsepower. (Okay, I'll admit even then production cars were starting to be more fiberglass than metal, but the analogy is still a good one in my book.) Maybe I had to watch foreign cars inundating the area in which I live, but on Sundays, I could escape from that reality when tuning into Winston Cup races on TV or attending them at the track.
In 2001, the company known as Daimler-Chrylser entered Winston Cup Racing. Of course, they made an announcement about 18 months earlier that they would be entering NASCAR. Now don't get me wrong, I've never believed auto manufacturers have participated in NASCAR for any other reason than to increase vehicle sales. The old saying "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" was coined for that very reason. Yet, here was a company that wasn't even going to be entering NASCAR for over a year making an announcement of their future plans! And they got the result they were hoping to receive. They were enthusiastically embraced by a lot of race fans who could still remember the glory days when Richard Petty drove a Dodge or Plymouth. But those of us who knew the truth, realized that the car company had merged with Mercedes-Benz and the profits from production car sales were actually going to a foreign country. Still most race fans could pretend this was the same Chrysler Corporation that participated in NASCAR 30 years before, and proclaimed "Dodge is back!" Well, sort of - yes. In addition, instead of actually designing a racing version of their production car, the Intrepid, Daimler-Chrysler simply copied the most competitive NASCAR body style at the time, the Ford Taurus, in developing their race car. Talk about taking the easy way out and reaping millions in sales from so little effort!
Along comes February 2003, and announcements are again made a year in advance that a foreign manufacturer would be entering the Craftsman Truck Series in 2004. Again, a foreign-owned company follows a non-traditional marketing strategy - make the announcement a year early to get all the PR and thousands of race fans will buy your product because we all know how obsessively loyal race fans can be. And get a very vocal former champion and a former crew chief to be your two main spokesmen. What a great business decision! I'm not knocking it, but it just makes me realize more than ever that this is not really about racing. It's all about promoting your product even when you aren't actually in racing yet. As I mentioned earlier, this company had never actually built an engine with a carburetor, so what did they do to get ready for NASCAR? They convinced a current NASCAR team to give them "proprietary information" about the Dodge engines he was running at the time. Everyone knows about the big lawsuit between Bill Davis Racing (BDR) and Dodge, right? The one that was recently decided in court and resulted in BDR being forced to pay Dodge over 6 million dollars in damages. So instead of developing their own engine for the Truck Series, this manufacturer cut a deal that gave them a jumpstart on an engine program for their entry into NASCAR. Not exactly an ethical practice if you ask me. In exchange, BDR must've been paid quite a bit of money and made a lot of promises for the future. As a result, Dodge withdrew ALL their factory support from Bill Davis’ Cup team after they discovered the engine deal with the new manufacturer. Now, during the recent announcements of that company’s entry into Cup next year, they’ve also announced that BDR will be one of their "factory" teams. So I guess that BDR will finally be compensated for the engine information that helped this manufacturer get into the Truck Series. Still, the entire deal just makes you wonder about the business practices we’ve already seen employed by this manufacturer.
Now we come to January 2006 and that same manufacturer has made their “big” announcement that they will be entering NASCAR's highest level in February 2007. Hmmmm...another entire year of "goodwill" for this company with the sanctioning body, the media, and the fans when they haven't even run a single lap on the race track yet? And don't forget that mock-up of their "race car" that we see paraded everywhere and in commercials. All this from a car company that has never made a single rear-wheel drive car or carbureted engine! And doesn't that "race car" look suspiciously just like the 2005 Ford Taurus or some other current NASCAR template? Also, isn't it quite a coincidence that this manufacturer will be entering Cup just when NASCAR will begin introducing their "Car of Tomorrow" (COT) in 2007? A car which, once and for all, will remove any relationship to production models. How convenient for the foreign manufacturer - first they didn't have to start from scratch in developing an engine for NASCAR racing and now they won't even have to bother developing their own body either. They can just slap their nameplate on the COT and claim it is the same as their production model. They obviously feel all those consumers who have already bought their cars will flock to NASCAR and support their so-called race car as well. Then there are all those notoriously loyal NASCAR fans that they feel they can convince to buy their production cars based on their participation in NASCAR. What a deal for so little real work, other than a massive public relations campaign!
Speaking of public relations, am I the only one who has noticed that, since this company's announcement that they'd be entering the Truck Series, they appear to have "bought" so much commercial-time on the SPEED Channel that it sometimes seems like they are the series sponsor instead of Craftsman? Also, since the manufacturer began running in the Truck Series, the announcers make such a big deal about where those vehicles are running every week. Of course, that "update" is sponsored by the manufacturer. What a coincidence! It just seems like the coverage of the Ford, Chevy and Dodge teams has become secondary to this paid coverage. Now this year, you have Michael Waltrip joining the announcers and all he can do is talk about his brother's truck or his brother’s driver who is driving that running that make of truck. Michael Waltrip, who himself has joined BDR and is the first driver expected to drive the foreign car in the Cup Series. Talk about a marketing blitz! Is this what we have to look forward to in Cup next year?
It's also quite interesting that this manufacturer has stated they don’t have a "particular interest in the Busch Series." To me, this says they're truly not really interested in stock car racing for racing's sake; they simply want to use the high-profile status of Nextel Cup to market their vehicles. So why bother with the Busch Series. I've even heard that they are losing interest in the Truck Series lately. I guess they plan to put all their money into conquering Nextel Cup instead.
Obviously, I have lots of issues with the entire "invasion" of foreign vehicles into both society and onto the race track. And hasn’t it been interesting to hear that car manufacturer's spokesman always reminding us that most of the model they plan to market by running in Nextel Cup were built in Kentucky and how they employ over 300 Americans in that plant? Yes, it is great that those folks have jobs since in my opinion the penetration of that company's cars (and those of other non-American corporations) into our society is one reason so many American auto-workers are being laid off. As many writers found "unfortunate," NASCAR 's announcement of the entry of this company in Nextel Cup came on the same day that Ford Motor Company announced a pending lay-off of 30,000 of their employees. Yep, I guess we should embrace a company who employs 300 Americans while striving to drive out of business American-owned corporations who have been forced to lay-off thousands because of declining car sales. Now I'm hearing they may open another plant in Indiana and manufacturer more even more of their production vehicle there. And if this manufacturer didn't realize deep-down that they will never be an American company, why are they always so quick to remind us about those few Americans employed by their plants? I don't care how many plants they open in America, to me, if the profits go to another country, they'll never be an American car company or truly contribute to the American economy. I guess I'm just not politically correct because I think something is wrong with everyone touting the entry of this manufacturer into NASCAR
It's quite obvious that Brian France, that marketing "genius", has seen the handwriting on the wall. The demand for American cars has continued to decline despite their quality and fuel improvements over the last 30 years. By the way, did I mention that I never had to put my last car (a 1999 Pontiac Grand Prix) in the shop in the 6 years, or 82,000 miles I owned it? How can you beat that quality? Or the great gas mileage I got with the Grand Prix - as good of mileage as I see advertised for any foreign car in it's class. But Americans seem to be increasingly brainwashed by the media and massive advertising campaigns into believing that foreign cars are still better quality and have better mileage than their American counterparts. Then we come to one of my other observations about foreign cars. To me, they lack any personality or visually-appealing styling. And, is it me or are they all silver in color - so boring as to not be noticeable at all? Your mileage obviously may vary, but I just think “vanilla” and boring when I look at every import on the road. What really bothers me though is that now I see Ford and General Motors actually copying these bland styles in a last ditch effort to keep a market share. Every new model of car I see lately has the same triangular taillights. Where's the diversity in that? And don't get me started on that annoying exhaust sound that the "suped-up" street versions of the foreign cars make! When I heard they were getting into NASCAR, all I could think of was that instead of the throaty V-8 sound that all race fans love, would we now have annoying sound to look forward to in racing as well?
I guess NASCAR has truly decided they don't need the “old” fans; many of who still “buy American” as I do. John Sturbin of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote that the buyers of foreign cars: "represents a younger/hipper/upwardly mobile demographic for the sanctioning body to tap into." This is probably the truest thing I've seen written about the big announcement and NASCAR's deal with this new auto manufacturer. So I guess besides being not politically correct, I'm also a dinosaur and dying breed among NASCAR fans. Not that I didn't already know that Brian France wants to dump what he considers the stereotypical NASCAR fan as quickly as possible. As more and more traditional fans become alienated by the ridiculous changes which France has made since 2003, I guess he feels he must do something to replace them with another demographic. What better group that those thousands of foreign car buyers in America (and around the world as well)? What better way to get them interested in that "provincial southern redneck sport" than to lose all vestiges of what some of us loved about it? That refuge from the foreign dominance we see on our highways. Speaking of dominance - if this new manufacturer comes in and throws as much money into NASCAR as is speculated, won't that cause already struggling American-owned corporations to lose even more new car sales to them? And how long before those companies can no longer justify spending millions on a racing program when they are already laying off thousands of workers because of lack of sales? Where is the return on investment there? But I guess that truly is the plan for this manufacturer - to crush the Amercian manufacturers once and for all.
So I guess my truly “politically incorrect thought” is this - why are so many race fans (and a few race car drivers, at least publicly) embracing a company as "good for the sport" when the sport itself may actually make further inroads in totally crushing Ford and General Motors because of their participation in NASCAR? In addition, with the way this company has started to dominate the Truck Series, there is no reason to believe they won't do the same thing in Nextel Cup. From all reports I've read, they have a reputation for pouring millions of dollars into a racing series in order to dominate it and then take their "toys" and go to play elsewhere. NASCAR claims they won't allow them to do that in Nextel Cup, but I'm skeptical about how much control the sanctioning body really has over the sport these days. In my jaded mind, I feel like if a company brings enough money, they'll be allowed to do about anything they want, unchecked. We've already seen how big money sponsors seem to dictate rules changes, penalties, TV coverage, etc. within NASCAR. My fear is not only will this new manufacturer drive the American-owned manufacturers out of the sport, but there won't be anything left of the sport we love when they are through with it.
I'm not vowing I'll stop watching NASCAR after 2006, but my interest in it will surely be diminished even more than it already has been by all the other drastic changes NASCAR has made in recent years. NASCAR believes they need to attract a whole new crop of fans to replace people like me. But those fans who loved NASCAR because it entertained us with racing between American auto manufacturers seem to no longer be politically correct for the Post-Modern Era of NASCAR.
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