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Who'll be NASCAR's next foreign make?

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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With car and truck counts dwindling and the automotive well running dry for NASCAR, Chairman and CEO Brian France is initializing the next plan of attack — finding new partners. In the past week, news of General Motors cutting motorsports budgets and eliminating Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series programs altogether have opened many eyes to the stark reality that the party is over. It's unlikely that France — or anyone else in NASCAR — now has the access they once enjoyed with the "Big Three," particularly since two-thirds of those calls will now be redirected to Washington D.C. So what's the next step? Start the courting process. "We have been talking to people for off and on for a long time," France said on Sunday. "These are decisions in terms of the new manufacturers joining the sport that would take a long time to evaluate and actually enter. "So those aren't something that we turn the light switch on tomorrow morning and it would happen." And in this economy, that won't be an easy task. When Toyota entered the Truck Series in 2004, its arrival evolved from a myriad of meetings that began with the sanctioning body in July of 2001. After many hours with NASCAR and even more money to feed the research and development, the prototype truck was delivered for submission in the summer of 2005. The initial investment from the drawing board to the racetrack was roughly $50 million. Graduating to the Cup Series was likely an additional $25 million to develop the car and engine package. And adding a marquee name to the roster such as Joe Gibbs Racing upped the ante considerably. According to sources, JGR received roughly $100 million for a five-year contract.
Certainly, some manufacturers are faring significantly better than others. The Toyota Camry is the top selling car in American, but even its sales were down 15.7 percent in 2008 from the previous year. The bottom line is people simply aren't buying new cars given the escalating unemployment and uncertainty surrounding the future. But NASCAR still delivers one of the best bangs for the marketing buck. Particularly if a manufacturer is looking to launch a new model — or a new brand entirely — NASCAR's fan base covers a wide range of demographics. "Of course we're the preeminent place in North America for car manufacturers to build their business with an auto racing group," France added. "We remain that and clearly there's some companies that are going to look at opportunities that may not have even been there in the past that could be presented in the future. "We'll have our philosophical approach to that in terms of welcoming new companies in as we did with Toyota. It is under a very clear set of circumstances that the manufacturers come to NASCAR to compete. And that will not change." Although France would not name brands, according to the NASCAR Sprint Cup rulebook, Section 20-1.1 — NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races are open to eligible 2008 through 2009 models of American-made, steel-bodied passenger car production sedans. Unless NASCAR decides to change that rule, potential partners would be limited only to cars manufactured in the U.S. Trucks would fall under a similar regulation. NASCAR also requires all participants to use an archaic "small block V-8 engines with a minimum of 350.000 cubic inch displacement and a maximum of 358.000 cubic inch displacement will be permitted." The first generation NASCAR engine dates back to a 1955 production car which has been transformed over the years with the newest generations evolving from the 2005 Chevrolet engine. Toyota never had a two-valve push rod V-8 prior to coming into NASCAR. After the company built the first engine for 2005, it was so solid that NASCAR insisted Toyota tone the technology down and a second engine was developed for 2007. Any potential manufacturer entering NASCAR would still have to develop its own unique power plant. However, with the R&D Toyota invested in its engine, extensive design parameters now exist that would make the process considerably less expensive than the $40 million the company spent to get up to speed. And unless NASCAR scraps the Truck Series, perspective competitors would be forced to take the same path at Toyota, first through the Camping World Series and then to Sprint Cup. So which foreign manufacturers fit the bill? Here are the most likely candidates for the next round of NASCAR newcomers:

Honda

In motorsports, whether it is open-wheel, sports cars or even drifting, Toyota and Honda seem linked (despite Honda made a quick exit out of Formula One at the end of 2008). There's been talk in racing circles that Honda was interested in making the jump to NASCAR six years ago but nothing came to fruition. Honda 2008 sales decreased 8.2 percent from 2007, so added exposure could be in order. Possible NASCAR models: Honda currently builds the Ridgeline truck in Ontario, Canada and the Accord in Marysville, Ohio.

Nissan

Long before Fiat came into the picture, Nissan was interested in a partnership with Chrysler. Chrysler could benefit from Nissan's small car expertise, Nissan's Titan truck would be served better on the Dodge Ram platform. Nissan has competed in both off-road and sports car series. The Nissan GTP ZX-T competed in IMSA until 1990 and fielded cars in the ASA Speed Truck Challenge. Possible NASCAR models: The Altima is built in Smyrna, Tenn., while the Titan is manufactured in Canton, Miss.

Hyundai

Unlike Japanese manufacturers Honda and Nissan, the South Korean-based Hyundai is a relative newcomer (1986) to the U.S. market. Hyundai's Genesis brand was named the 2009 North American Car of the Year. It currently supports teams in SCCA ProRally Racing, Formula Drift and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb events. Possible NASCAR models: The Genesis or Elantra are both built in South Korea. The Sonata is built in Montgomery, Ala. Hyundai does not currently manufacture trucks.

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