Volkswagen program head in Homestead

November 21, 2009

The head of Volkswagen's motor sports program is at Homestead-Miami Speedway, fueling speculation that the automaker is interested in joining Toyota as the second foreign manufacturer in NASCAR.

Top NASCAR officials confirmed to The Associated Press that Hans-Joachim Stuck met with the sanctioning body Saturday at the track. The officials requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the meeting.

Volkswagen officials expressed interest in entering a racing series, but indicated they are more inclined to pick a series that showcases technology, according to a person who attended the meeting but also requested anonymity. NASCAR features competition over technology.

A second option for Volkswagen could be the Grand-Am Road Racing Series, which is owned by NASCAR and currently uses foreign engine makers.

Earlier this season, NASCAR chairman Brian France said the sanctioning body is open to accepting new manufacturers into the sport. The only requirement is that manufacturers must have production plants in the U.S.

Volkswagen has a plant under construction in Tennessee, and the facility is scheduled to build midsize sedans in 2011. That coincides with NASCAR's tentative plans to replace carburetors on Sprint Cup Series cars with fuel injection.

NASCAR held a Nov. 3 meeting with representatives from all four current manufacturers, as well as engine builders from five race teams and two independent suppliers to discuss the potential move to fuel injection.

A move to that system apparently interests Volkswagen, whose $1 billion plant in Chattanooga would qualify the German manufacturer to compete in NASCAR.

France opened the door for more foreign participation in June when he admitted the sanctioning body has had continued discussions with interested automakers.

BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz all have manufacturing plants inside the U.S. - the same criteria Toyota met when NASCAR accepted it into NASCAR in 2002.

"We have companies that are interested in particular in developing the North American market as robustly as they can," France said. "And we're all aware that there are lots of foreign manufacturers producing cars here in America. That was part of the rationale that Toyota used.

"We're the pre-eminent place in North America for car manufacturers to build their business with an auto racing group. 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."

Allowing more foreign automakers into the sport could rankle hard-core race fans, who objected to Toyota and think NASCAR should include only American manufacturers. But the decline of the automotive industry has wreaked havoc on racing budgets, and most NASCAR teams either received cutbacks in funding this season or were cut off entirely.

Even deep-pocketed Toyota has had to reduce its spending, and the Japanese automaker is currently not taking on any new factory-supported teams.


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