Next year, for example, the Budweiser Shootout - the exhibition race at Daytona that starts the season - will include the top six cars from each carmaker rather than, as in previous years, the pole winners from the prior season. But this tiny concession can't paper over the us-versus-them relationship that's long existed between NASCAR and the manufacturers.
That attitude was born during the formative years of stock car racing, when NASCAR was a poor cousin to USAC and the sport got no respect outside blue-collar enclaves of the South. In those days, factory involvement gave stock car racing credibility. But at the same time, the manufacturers' high-handed decisions to quit NASCAR temporarily at various points during the '50s, '60s, and '70s threatened to fatally undermine the sport. Bill France and his progeny never forgot, and they never forgave. As one insider puts it: "NASCAR doesn't consider the manufacturers a necessary evil. It considers them evil, period."
The balance of power has turned upside-down in the past decade, and NASCAR is now the 900-pound gorilla that can do whatever it damn well pleases. The sexless, widely reviled Car of Tomorrow was implemented over the objections of, well, just about everybody. Likewise, Toyota was welcomed into the NASCAR fold despite fears that it would bring expensive new technology and boatloads of Japanese yen to stock car racing.
Sure enough, earlier this year, NASCAR was forced to dumb down the Toyota engines in the Craftsman Truck and Nationwide circuits to level the playing field. Meanwhile, Sprint Cup's dominant driver has been Kyle Busch, who pedals a Camry. The American manufacturers are understandably miffed. But do the fans really care? Does NASCAR?
NASCAR was built on a foundation of stock car racing. It was Ford versus Chevy (and Plymouth and Hudson), and "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" was more than a meaningless marketing mantra. The connection between street cars and racing cars was stretched by the demands of safety and the desire for competitive parity. But the fiction endured until the Car of Tomorrow, with its common template, revealed "stock car racing" to be a sham.
"NASCAR has created a sport that's all about competition between personalities," says Don Taylor, who used to work on GM's stock car program. "It just so happens that these personalities are competing in cars."
So NASCAR has rendered the manufacturers obsolete. It's no longer stock car racing. Now that it's just another soap opera, watch Americans change the channel.