Could Pony cars come to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series?

Is NASCAR ready to Pony up in the Sprint Cup Series?

One year ago, first reported that sportier cars were coming to the Nationwide Series. With the popular response that both the manufacturers and the sanctioning body have received over the last 12 months and the anticipation of the new car rollout next month at Daytona, it’s not surprising that the car chiefs are now pushing for a sexier car with more brand identity in the Cup series.

Certainly, the adverse reaction to what was first called “the car of tomorrow” by NASCAR fans accelerated the timetable for a design change. The Nationwide car, in essence, is an attempt at the second generation COT, first introduced by the sanctioning body in 2007. While the car proved to be safer, its boxier design void of any resemblance to a race car or a showroom car was not well received by manufacturers or the public.

This year, NASCAR replaced the original COT wing with a spoiler and is currently working on a new front bumper on the Cup cars for 2011 that is similar to the Nationwide car. NASCAR is testing the lower “nose” in the wind tunnel this week.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby says the lower part of the front bumper “will be universal.” He adds the goal for 2011 is to offer the manufacturers “more real estate” for brand identity and to make the cars more appealing to fans/consumers but at the same time not lose the “current aero signature” that NASCAR has reached through research and development.

“We have a new lower nose that the Cup garage will run in 2011 that’s a lot sexier than what we have now,” Darby said. “It helps eliminate the metal rods, the splitter braces. It has a little more shape to it that will allow the manufacturers to, through the use of graphics, which they’ve been so successful with, to really make the Cup cars a lot nicer looking in the front.

“The spoiler and the long quarter panels kind of fixed the backs. They look pretty normal now, or at least (like) what our fans are used to and that’s been well accepted. If we can bring that type of appeal to the front of the car, I think we’ll be OK.”

Last week’s trip to Michigan International Speedway gave the “Big Three” American automakers a chance to sound off to the media after several months of lobbying NASCAR behind closed doors. Several sources in both the manufacturer and sanctioning body camps say the changes to the spoiler and nose are just the first steps to a redesign of the Sprint Cup cars for 2013. All parties agree that maintaining the integrity of the car’s original design along with the current aerodynamic targets and safety aspects that have evolved in the last three years will be key to green-lighting the project.

Ford has already designed a prototype Mustang for the Sprint Cup Series that would match NASCAR’s current aerodynamic parameters. Dodge, which has two muscle cars, wants to continue to use both Cup and NNS as a platform to promote the Charger and Challenger. Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Dodge, called the ability to showcase the Challenger in NNS “really an extra bonus for us.“

“It wasn’t something we were counting on,“ Gilles said. “We’re looking at the off-shoot of having the same brand with a second nameplate in a different series to see if we’re getting some draw.”

In return, a positive response from consumers could mean additional support to race teams from Dodge.

Chevrolet is already feeling the heat from fans for not bringing a Camaro to the Nationwide Pony Car coming out party at Daytona but GM Racing’s NASCAR group manager Pat Suhy admitted last weekend, “I’ll never say never.” Suhy added that the consideration for developing a Camaro for NASCAR would depend on the "terms of the canvas we’re given to work with."

"The canvas we had for the car today was basically from the cowl forward and from the out forward corner of the headlights kind of into the windshield,” Suhy said. “The fenders, the lower (valance), the sides, the tail, the deck lid — all that stuff is pretty common."

Toyota is the only manufacturer in NASCAR that doesn’t boast a pony car in its lineup. And Lee White, president of Toyota Racing Development maintains that the current focus is to sell Camrys. However, Toyota’s direction could change — possibly in time for a 2013 rollout.

“We’re selling Camrys,“ White says. “That doesn’t mean that a nice, new sports car can’t come along one day that we could launch in Cup or the Nationwide Series. But right now we don’t have that car.”

Both Chevrolet (Impala) and Toyota (Camry) are running the same model in both series. Darby, who is already undertaking some of the new responsibilities as NASCAR Managing Director of Competition over Cup, Nationwide, Trucks and the regional tours, says the initial move to pony cars was an opportunity for the manufacturers and the series "to get identity back."

“What we thought was very attractive was to put different bodies on them,” Darby said. “That’s how the Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger came to be. Unfortunately, at that time, General Motors couldn’t see to put the Camaro in — although we campaigned it heavily — they chose not to. Even Toyota has sportier cars than the Camry that they could have put in. But the goal of the Nationwide Series was to give it a different look at the time.”

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup rulebook currently calls for full-size production sedans. Darby adds the sanctioning body would have to be “approached by all the manufacturers with the same mindset” before agreeing to change the current rules.

Just over a decade ago, NASCAR evolved from a two-door car model to a four-door sedan. With cooperation from the current partners and NASCAR, there’s no reason why the rules couldn’t be modified again.