Full speed ahead for Gen-6 race car

NASCAR's new Generation-6 race car has the sport -- and the auto industry -- abuzz.

When the Gen-6 is unveiled in Sprint Cup Series competition next month, it will mark the first time since the late 1980s that the race cars on the track will so closely aesthetically resemble their production-model brethren.

With that, the hope is that two of the founding principles of NASCAR are rekindled: the manufacturer rivalry and brand identity.

Years ago, if you loved Ford, you hated Chevy. If you loved Dodge, you hated everybody else. Depending on allegiance, signs and shirts reading "FORD: FOUND ON ROAD DEAD" or "FORD: FIRST ON RACE DAY" adorned the stands. Over the years, the industry got away from that to a common-template car, culminating in the Gen-6's predecessor -- the Car of Tomorrow. Suddenly, the manufacturer rivalries that long drove the sport were generally nonexistent.

Re-establishing the visual difference between a Ford, a Chevy and a Toyota became imperative for NASCAR's decision-makers. Hence, the Gen-6.

"That was the whole reason for the new car," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "That was the goal. That was everything."

For men like Rick Hendrick, a Chevrolet dealer for 35 years and owner of what may be the most successful Sprint Cup organization ever, and Roger Penske, he of the 340-plus dealerships that sell some 40 different automotive brands across multiple countries (that sentence is not a typo) and fresh off his first Cup title as a team owner, it is a joyous change.

"It's always been the race car was the afterthought," Hendrick explained. "I don't know of any time in the history of Chevrolet … this should show the commitment that Chevrolet has to racing, when they design a production car and a race car together, at the same time. I don't think it's ever been done."

What it means for the forgotten industry adage "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" or "Drive on Sunday, buy on Monday" is anybody's guess. The hope is that attractive race cars increase interest and, ultimately, sales. Hendrick says it's well on its way.

"After we tested Daytona [in early January], we started getting orders for deposits on the [production] car," Hendrick said. "We've got people who want to get in line to buy it. So that's a big step. You've got people who are enthusiasts all over the world looking at this car."

The interest in the Chevy SS is so overwhelming, Hendrick said, that Chevrolet is contemplating doubling its projected production of the car.

"From a dealer standpoint, it's going to bring people into the showroom," Hendrick said. "When I started racing, it was the Chevrolet guys against the Ford guys against the Dodge guys, and I think having a rear-wheel drive, 420-horsepower car in the showroom is going to help drive traffic to the track, and the car on the track is going to definitely bring traffic to the showroom."

Jamie Allison, Ford Racing director, said Ford Motor Co. has no doubt that there is a correlation between the aesthetics of race cars and interest in street models. Ford saw that dynamic directly when it introduced the Mustang into NASCAR Nationwide Series competition, and he expects the same with the Gen-6 Fusion in Sprint Cup.

"We're convinced that showcasing the new Fusion on the racetrack will translate into more interest and awareness in the [production] Fusion, and that winning will translate into showroom traffic. We've seen that with the Mustang," he said. "We heard from dealers who told us that when Mustang won on Saturday, they literally had people walk into the showroom as a result."

Allison said the Gen-6 Ford Fusion race car is patterned by the same designer who produced the street model, and while the parts aren't identical due to the competition-specific needs of the race car, the face of the cars -- including the grill, grill opening, the shape of the lower fascia around the fog light area, the hood character lines and side character lines -- looks the same as the production model.

Pemberton said the work required to place the Gen-6 bodies on racing chassis makes for a potent piece.

"The race car is like the production car on steroids," Pemberton said. "There's only one piece on the car that's not manufacturer-specific: the deck lid [trunk area]. Every other piece is manufacturer-specific -- the roofs, the windshield, the back, sides, rear, hoods, everything. The [COT] was more generic. Everything was the same, except maybe the nosepiece."

Penske, too, expects to see residual consumer interest due to the Gen-6.

"That's my business. So if I can win on Sunday, it drives morale for us at the dealerships," Penske said. "And there's no question as we look at this new Fusion, it looks exactly like the vehicle we're going to sell on Monday.

"To me, from the perspective of what the fans want, it's something they can now relate to and they can drive down the highway. The Gen-6 car delivers that."

That did not happen with the COT. Quite the contrary, in fact. The COT looked like a "Transformers" character.

"It was not a sexy car," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said.

It had a wing on the back and brackets on the front and drove like a school bus in traffic. And by the end of its five-plus years in competition, it looked strikingly similar to the fourth-generation car that owners had to scrap. But it didn't perform the same.

"I think it's an act of patience and reason on the part of Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota that they stayed the course as they had to give up their brand identification," Sprint Cup owner Jack Roush said.

So what impact, really, did the COT era have on the industry? What is its legacy?

"I don't want to build too much into it," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "We love the Gen-6 car, and we have said that we made some errors in collaboration to getting the [COT] car. We achieved a lot of things with [the COT]: costs, as I said; safety went up; a lot of benefits that the industry and that the teams and drivers gained from that car.

"Obviously we got away from some things that historically had worked well for us: the manufacturer rivalry, which we're excited about; the relevance issue with the car manufacturers. And then I think we put a lot more focus in the new car into the rules package surrounding the car that we didn't put nearly -- I can tell you we didn't put nearly as much science into the old car as we tried to achieve better racing."

Unsolicited, NASCAR president Mike Helton added his thoughts on the topic.

"Brian is right: We shouldn't stick a dagger in the Gen-5 program and say, 'Man, we're glad you're gone,' " Helton said. "Because that era created a lot of great moments for NASCAR -- the last two championships for one -- a lot of races in its time in existence."

Helton added that without the COT, the Gen-6 likely wouldn't have happened, from the standpoint that it made the industry realize the importance of a close working relationship between the sanctioning body, the teams and the manufacturers when it comes to the impact car design has on the overall product.

The COT "also led to the evolution of the collaborativeness that we now operate the sport by, when it comes to the parts and pieces and the cars themselves," Helton said. "It also served very well in an era when the car manufacturers involved in our sport were struggling with their own businesses, and we weren't a front-burner topic to them.

"We had a car that could survive that era. So there's a lot of positives to the Gen-5 era that we shouldn't overlook as we celebrate the Gen-6."

Each time NASCAR introduces a new car, the owners assume the cost. NASCAR is a free-enterprise market with no franchising, so the owners assume the overhead. It's up to them to fund the inventory switchover. Immediately the old fleet of cars is obsolete, and thus, basically worthless.

One manufacturer executive who chose not to be identified explained the math: Last year's body was roughly $10,000 in sheet metal per car. This year's is $15,000. If the average well-funded team pumps out 50 new bodies per car, per season, the executive estimates some $250,000 per car number in expenses above the established budget. That's just for sheet metal. And that estimate is based on an aggressive team that produces new inventory consistently and stays current with technology.

In addition, with the Gen-6 car comes new rear-camber rules and thus new suspension components, and a new lighter-weight chassis to meet NASCAR's new weight requirements. Combined, those adjustments can cost upward of $500,000 per car. All in, that's $750,000 above budget -- per car. So if you're a four-car Cup team, for
example, you spend $3 million above budget to make the switch.

That led Sprint Cup owner/driver Tony Stewart to tell me this week the Gen-6 car is financially "great for NASCAR, not for the owner. There's a lot of added cost, a lot of parts that are a lot more expensive than in the past. But racers are very resourceful. These teams will find a way to make it work."

Despite the frustration of being behind in inventory, Stewart noted excitement for the new car based on how it drives, saying, "If these cars race as good as they drive, it's going to be an awesome year."

And Stewart isn't a car dealer. Hendrick is just fine with assuming the switchover cost this time around. Last time? Not so much.

"When we had to scrap our fleet to go to the COT, it was like having the flu," Hendrick said. "We were getting away from our product to a common template. I didn't like it. I'll spend the money now to get away from that, to a production car that fans love.

When we had to scrap our fleet to go to the COT, it was like having the flu. We were getting away from our product to a common template. I didn't like it.

-- Rick Hendrick

"This is what's going to bring the fans back: seeing the cars they see in the showroom on the track. That's how I grew up watching it. I've been a Chevrolet dealer for 35 years, and I've never seen them announce the race car before they showed the production car."

Chevrolet will unveil the production-model 2014 SS during Speedweeks at Daytona in February. Hendrick said this is yet another example of integration between the production business and the racing business.

"You start with Chevrolet's identity, the gold bowtie in the center, and the rest of the front end wraps around it," he said. "They took the coves in the side -- and I never thought NASCAR would go for that, the gills and coves you see in the new Corvette, it went right into the race car.

"I got to go into the studio and watch them, through the computers, lay the car out with the coves and grill angles, and then NASCAR had to tweak it but they worked right along with NASCAR. It's amazing."

So will it drive production sales?

"I think that it does," Roush said. "NASCAR fans are the most brand-loyal consumers of anybody in the American economy. If we get [the cars] looking like they look in the showroom, I think that we'll have a chance to excite the consumer and have more interest in driving a test model and getting a price on a new car."

Allison added, "It's hard to quantify sales, but the interest in our cars, and the rising showroom traffic after a victory on the track, and the conversations that happen outside of normal NASCAR coverage, was obvious. The new car drives that."

Somewhat like it used to be.

"I go back to when I started [racing], and we had the Monte Carlo coupe, and Ford came out with the T-Bird, and we put the back glass in the car, sold 200 of them so we could race it," Hendrick gushed. "This is really exciting."