NASCAR and Fuel Injection: “Sustainability” or Survival?

Crabber 1967 .@crabber1967Correspondent IDecember 3, 2009

LAS VEGAS - FEBRUARY 27: Crew members for the #18 M&M's Toyota driven by Kyle Busch change engines during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Shelby 427 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on February 27, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for Nascar)
John Harrelson/Getty Images

During the recent Sprint Cup season concluding Ford Championship Weekend, a report was first heard that Volkswagen racing boss Hans-Joachim Stuck was to meet with NASCAR officials regarding a possible entry into one or more of the sanctioning bodies’ racing series.

However, the next day, Volkswagen officials said they were not interested in NASCAR but the meetings were about the potential entry of their brands (VW, Audi, and Lamborghini) into Grand-Am Road Racing.

According to the Grand-Am website:

"GRAND-AM Road Racing was established in 1999 to return stability to major league sports car road racing in North America."


The website continues:

"GRAND-AM was acquired by NASCAR Holdings in late 2008 and operates now as one organization, with resources such as marketing, research and public relations fully integrated into the NASCAR framework. GRAND-AM offers a product that features extremely competitive sports car racing on historic road and street circuits and in major market speedways throughout North America."

The fact that the original report was not met with total disbelief shows that the automobile industry in the US is in bad shape.  Adding strength to the story is the fact that Volkswagen is constructing a plant in Tennessee, with production of mid-size sedans to begin in 2011.

Toyota is manufacturing cars in the US, which was the fact which NASCAR used to allow the manufacturer into its various racing series.

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NASCAR chairman Brian France said in June 2009 that the sanctioning body has had talks with other foreign nameplate companies that have factories in the US.

Companies that meet that description include Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz.

One of the stumbling blocks to any manufacturer that would be interested in entering into NASCAR competition is the fact that the engine technology allowed has been frozen in a type that was state-of-the-art in the 1960s.

When Toyota decided to enter NASCAR competition, the company was eager to continue its charge to the top of heap in the US.

Toyota was bringing in plenty of cash and was intent upon moving past General Motors to become the number one car company in the US.  

When Toyota entered the Cup series, NASCAR required the company to make a pushrod, rocker arm cam-in-block V8 with a carburetor. Does anyone know how long it's been since Toyota last made an engine with a carburetor?

Toyota had the will and the cash at that time to comply with NASCAR’s demand that all the manufacturers compete with the same engine type.

Now, however, things are different. Toyota has just recently announced that they are withdrawing from Formula One, just a year after Honda had also quit that series.

Toyota had entered the F1 circus the hard way by building a racing organization from the ground up, compared to (for example) Honda’s entry by buying an existing team and re-branding that team.

Toyota spent an unknown amount of Yen on just the Formula One program and when that is added to the undoubtedly large amounts of money spent on their NASCAR programs, it can be seen that incredible sums were spent on racing by Toyota in the last few years.

The Detroit Three manufacturers have continued racing in NASCAR despite the fact that the sanctioning body’s series have no technological relevance to the current state of the auto industry.

If the city of Detroit, which has been used as shorthand for the US auto industry for decades, is not only the “home” of the industry in North America, but itself can be used as a literal symbol of the industry, then the following should be as chilling to you as it was to me.

"Outside the city’s downtown core of office buildings, Detroit looks like a postapocalyptic nightmare. The collapse of the auto industry, political dysfunction, and epidemics of crime, drugs, and arson have battered Detroit like a slow-motion hurricane, leveling entire neighborhoods and causing a major chunk of the population to flee. Nearly 30 percent of the city, an area almost the size of San Francisco, has been abandoned….

"…The torched skeletons of homes are commonplace. In the 1980s and ’90s, demolition permits outnumbered building permits by more than 10–1. Nearly 30 percent of the city’s remaining housing stock—more than 100,000 units—lies vacant."

And this:

"Once the nation’s fourth-largest city, with a 1950 population of 1.85 million, only 770,000 remain, with an estimated 1,000 residents leaving every month."


And then there’s this:

"Detroit’s fall, like its rise, is inextricably tied to the auto industry. Founded around 1700 as a French fort, Detroit didn’t begin booming until the early 20th century, when Henry Ford and other automobile visionaries launched an industry that for decades would define American ingenuity. When Detroit successfully shifted production to meet the military needs of World War II, the city became known as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” But a race riot in 1943 was a harbinger of postwar trouble.

"Despite its history as an engine of the American middle class—and a creator of the black middle class—Detroit began to unravel. Between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s, the city lost more than 100,000 factory jobs, and whites began fleeing to the suburbs. Detroit’s black neighborhoods were hit particularly hard, losing several plants."

(See the full story: “Detroit: A city on the brink at The Week website)

This article just drove home to me how bad it really is for the US auto industry.

The industry's current woes have roots that go back to World War II and GM and Chrysler have still not addressed the myriad of problems that confront those companies.

The fact that on Tuesday (Dec. 1, 2009) General Motors CEO Fritz Henderson resigned must have caught NASCAR by surprise, just as it did the general public.

Henderson is the second “car guy” CEO at GM to be ousted by the government since Rick Wagoner was forced out in March.

The fact the both GM and Chrysler Corporation are now largely owned by the US government (the Treasury Department owns 61 percent of GM stock, for example) certainly places the continued participation of the companies in NASCAR in question.

With the government (as well as the UAW) owning the vast majority of both companies’ stock, it would appear it is just a matter of time before these expenditures are questioned.

The fact that the premier Sprint Cup Series (soon to be followed by the second-tier Nationwide Series) is using a race car that was totally designed by the sanctioning body (despite the fact that the series is supposed to be "stock car racing") is problematic for NASCAR.

Coupling that with the fact that the only engine design currently allowed is one that was dominant in the 1960s, this situation has made NASCAR’s current car (commonly known as the COT) virtually immaterial to the foreign-based auto companies who have production facilities in the US.

The only reason that the foreign nameplates might be interested in NASCAR is the publicity machine that has been developed over the last two decades.

NASCAR’s efforts to minimize their dependence on the auto makers has resulted in a form of racing that must change to attract manufacturers who have no prior history of competition in this form of motorsport.

Domestic manufacturers, who were involved periodically in the sport virtually since NASCAR’s founding, were drawn back to NASCAR by the explosion of popularity in the 1980s and '90s.

The Detroit Three were drawn down this technological cul-de-sac by both the sanctioning body and those inside the companies who continued to believe that involvement was necessary to stay in front of an enthusiastic fan base.

Toyota was willing to enter this arena to pursue the NASCAR fan base in its desire to become the number one car company in the US.

With the possibility that two of the three domestic-born companies (GM and Chrysler) now involved in the sport will withdraw due to the new ownership (the US government), deciding that what NASCAR purports to be "stock car racing" is irrelevant and a poor use of scarce financial resources, the sanctioning body must consider how to make their sport a more attractive advertising model.

With the world wide auto industry struggling as well, NASCAR’s racing circuits must return to some appearance of contribution to the advancement of automotive technology.

NASCAR converting their cars to fuel injection would be a way to entice manufacturers not currently involved in the sport to become involved.

NASCAR has been reportedly considering fuel injection for several years and the latest reports indicate that the sanctioning body may finally make the move for the 2011 season.

It is likely NASCAR will follow its usual go-slow approach but the fact that domestic manufacturers phased out carburetors in the mid-1980s and the “sustainability” angles are almost sure to be mentioned by the organization when the switch is announced.

The flames belching out the exhaust pipes of the current cars are a product of the use of carburetors and NASCAR is likely to point out that fuel is being saved by the switch to fuel injection.

Of course, the amount of fuel wasted by the race cars is minute compared to the amount of fuel used in one day in the US.

NASCAR could also link the change to fuel injection to the new “NASCAR Green Clean Air” program which is an effort to plant “approximately 20 acres of new trees each year”

The idea is to be “a program to help capture the carbon emissions produced by racing.”

“The tracks participating in the tree-planting program—eleven this year and every venue visited by the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2010—will mitigate 100 percent of the carbon emissions produced by the race cars competing in their Sprint Cup Series events.”

The above quotes from NASCAR PR are straight out of the phrase book for the "green initiatives" among major companies that has come to be known as “Sustainability.”

Sustainability includes such things as "carbon offsets" and that lowly idea: recycling.

But no matter what smoke screen NASCAR may put out to make a change to fuel injection look like a responsible “green” effort, its real reason will have a different idea of “green” at its core: money.

Fuel injection used on NASCAR race cars will make the cars, even if it is just a little bit, more attractive to manufacturers who have no tradition of oval track stock car racing.

NASCAR will want to put itself in a position to remain viable (and make money), and that means making itself open to the possible entry of new manufacturers.

NASCAR needs to make itself attractive to manufacturers who could replace GM or Chrysler should the government (the new owner of both companies) decide that NASCAR is something that no longer makes sense.

NASCAR will do whatever it will take, not to be sustainable, but to survive.

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