Soon You’ll Be Able to Buy a NASCAR Vehicle—Or at Least One That Looks Like That

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John Raoux / AP

Matt Kenseth crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 28, 2012.

In this week’s Daytona 500, the race consisted of 16 Chevy Impalas, 13 Ford Fusions, 11 Toyota Camrys, and 3 Dodge Chargers. But you’d have been hard-pressed to even tell them apart.

That’s because ever since 2007, when the safety and competitive parity-inspired Car of Tomorrow, with its homogenous sheet metal, was introduced, brand identity in NASCAR has had as much individuality as fashion choices in Maoist China. Save for sponsor paint schemes and numbers, all of the Sprint Cup cars look identical, and none of them look like their namesake counterparts parked on car dealer lots and in showrooms.

This wasn’t always the case. During the early years of NASCAR, the race cars were modified versions of the production vehicles that everyone drove. Back then, in fact, it wasn’t uncommon for professional drivers to travel to competitions in the same cars that they’d race around the track. (A wreck could mean more than losing — it might necessitate finding another way home.) And the auto industry actively fostered, and benefited from, the connection between race track and road: Race fans tended to be as loyal to car brands as they were to their favorite drivers. Ford was the Hatfields, Chevy the McKoys.

But if the gap between the “stock” cars on the track and those driven on regular streets has never been wider, NASCAR and the auto industry are now intent on shifting that trend into reverse. In the near future, cars driven in NASCAR’s  Sprint Cup Series will once again look more like those sold to the public by car dealerships—and automakers hope the public will be more enthusiastic to buy them because of that.

Case in point: A few weeks after Ford presented the 2013 Fusion production car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, it did the same for the racing version during the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour in Charlotte. Designed in Detroit, the racing version was built by Roush Fenway Racing in Concord, N.C. It looked just like the regular Fusion, only a whole lot faster.

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While Ford was first to show off its new wheels, the automaker isn’t alone. Chevy, Dodge and Toyota are also working on producing race cars that more closely resemble mass-production cars. Previously, NASCAR had brought all of the stakeholder manufacturers together to figure out how to reestablish brand identity among race cars, without going back to the days of bickering over competitive advantages due to differing designs and aerodynamics.

The thinking is that consumers will be more likely to buy vehicles that look similar to those driven by their heroes on the racetrack. Considering that all race cars look the same—and that look isn’t available for sale to the public—the current design situation seems like a missed opportunity to market to the masses. Allowing each automaker to build a strong brand identity may correct that.

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“I can’t tell you how excited we are about what the return of manufacturer identity means to the sport,” said Kevin Kennedy, Ford’s racing communications director. “This car was worked on extensively by designers in the Ford Design Center, the first time we believe there has been Design involvement since 1970. The Design team helped sculpt this car with the same processes that they use to create Ford’s products for the street.”

The leader of that design team, Garen Nicoghosian, noted, “This has involved a lot more elements of the company that may have not been involved in the past. It’s generated a lot of buzz and enthusiasm and I think that’s not something they’ve seen before.”

In the months ahead, Ford expects to allocate significant advertising and marketing dollars to push the car’s new look, so that a major race on Sunday is followed by strong car sales on Monday. Ford launched a year-long national sweepstakes featuring the 2013 Fusion at Daytona last week.

And while this effort is primarily aimed at consumers, another benefit may be the effect on morale it has inside Ford. After the race car was unveiled, Ford staffers were giddy with excitement, with enough hugs and high fives to celebrate a championship. The event was streamed live back to Ford Headquarters and Pat DiMarco, who runs Ford’s NASCAR program, quipped, “I’m getting messages from people I don’t even know.”

“Edsel Ford, Allan Mulalley, all of them have seen the car and they loved it,” said Nicoghosian. “It was a boost from that perspective as well because everyone saw the enthusiasm that upper management had.”

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What’s especially unprecedented about the new designs is that competing automakers have actually collaborated with each other. DiMarco recalls that when the different manufacturers were first brought together, comments and suggestions were marked by apprehension at what the other teams’ angles were. “Halfway through the year, though,” said DiMarco, “you started getting the feeling that we’re all working together.”

In May, Toyota will present its new design racing Camry at the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) shop in North Carolina. Lee White, TRD president, said that there is unprecedented synergy between Toyota’s race and street car designers. This is creating greater esprit de corps between the two sides of the business, which usually operate fairly independently of each other.

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Hopefully for Toyota, Ford, and the other automakers, the enthusiasm spreads to public—because the bottom line for these redesigns is selling cars.