Detroit's blind obsession with NASCAR is costing it market share and further eroding its already tarnished image. by Peter M. DeLorenzo Now that the excruciating annual 36-weekend death march called the "NASCAR Nextel Cup" season has mercifully come to an end, once again I think it's time to remind everyone of just how ludicrous the "Detroit Three's" involvement in the France family's marketing juggernaut/money making machine truly is. An alert reader pointed out to us that in the Los Angeles Times coverage of Kurt Busch's championship at the final race of the season last Sunday in Homestead, Florida (which was on the front page of the sports section on Monday), the name "Ford" only appears twice in the whole article (not on the front page anywhere, however), and "Chevrolet" appears only once. This is not a rare occurrence, by any means. Page through typical coverage of NASCAR by the traditional "stick and ball" sports media, and you'll have to squint to see any mention of the manufacturers involved. Pieced together from several different sources, I have determined that the "Detroit Three" are dumping in excess of $125 million annually each into the France family's coffers for all things NASCAR (that's direct payments to teams and drivers, plus advertising and promotional program support). For that privilege, these car companies get a personality-driven racing series that features "spec" bodies with little to distinguish between the makes except for the grille openings and the shape of the decals indicating the headlights, "spec" engines that could be built by any NASCAR team's engine shop without factory involvement, "spec" chassis that are identical and a "spec" rule book that discourages any creative differentiation by the manufacturers' engineering departments. On top of all of that, this "cult of personality" racing series/marketing vehicle places the utmost priority on (in descending order) - NASCAR, the driver, NASCAR, the car sponsor, the event sponsor, NASCAR again, and last - and most definitely least - the car manufacturer. It is clear that NASCAR is a micron away from having "NASCAR" branded cars, engines and chassis - it would be yet another revenue stream/windfall for the France family, as a matter of fact. Would they miss Detroit's involvement down in Daytona Beach? After the handwringing and the hue and cry subsided, frankly, no - because it would give NASCAR final control over every last nut, bolt and detail of their motorized circus. "Knowledgeable" marketing insiders in the hallways of the Detroit Three will sit there and tell you with a straight face something like, "...we have not found any other motorsports event that delivers the TV ratings that NASCAR does, so we will continue to participate in it and support it, blah, blah, blah." And they would be partially right, because no other motorsports event in the U.S. does deliver the television numbers that NASCAR registers. But do these NASCAR TV ratings numbers translate into actual sales numbers for Detroit? Not by a long shot. Chevrolet runs a "Monte Carlo" that's one step removed from permanent fleet sales status, while Ford and Chrysler run the "Taurus" and the "Intrepid," respectively, which are rental cars. "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" has now given way to "Win on Sunday, Rent on Monday" apparently, only with NASCAR's common body templates no one would know the difference anyway. How in the world does this benefit the Detroit manufacturers? I'll answer that for you. It simply doesn't. The only other semi-logical argument put forth by Detroit marketing insiders about the rationale for competing in NASCAR is one of "image enhancement." That's all well and good, for that's all manufacturer involvement in motorsports is anyway. But how does NASCAR's image rub off positively on the Detroit Three, exactly? How does competing in a "Yester-Tech" series in "spec" cars with "spec" bodies and "spec" chassis do one good thing for Detroit's image? Especially when Detroit is in a fight for its life against import manufacturers who are universally praised as building hipper and more contemporary products in every way? The argument for Detroit competing in NASCAR makes about as much sense as Detroit desperately trying to hold on to its dwindling "loyal" customer base - instead of going after the kinds of consumers who are predisposed to favoring the imports. Detroit needs to focus on the consumers who won't give Detroit products a second look on a good day - and those people won't be found in NASCAR Nation. Will Detroit wake up? Not in our lifetime, apparently. Even as you read this, Chrysler is eagerly anticipating introducing their NASCAR-ized "Charger" at the Detroit Auto Show in January. This four-door sedan will bear absolutely no resemblance to its street counterpart. None. Nada. Zero. Because it will have the NASCAR-template "greenhouse," the NASCAR mandated body-profile, and the NASCAR required hood, fenders, rear deck, etc., etc., etc. And for this Chrysler will be thrilled. Why? Because they've all lined up for their daily IV-dose of NASCAR Kool-Aid, and because no one there (and no one at Ford and GM, for that matter) has the cojones to stand up in a boardroom and say, "Excuse me, but what the hell are we doing dumping that much money into an enterprise that values us so poorly and solely exists for the financial gain of the owners? How does this allow us to conquest import buyers? And how the hell can we possibly justify that much money to pump up our fleet sales?" If I were put in charge of a Detroit manufacturer's racing department, the first thing I would do is cut the existing NASCAR budget by 50 percent. Then, I'd put the France family on notice by saying: 1. Unless and until we can race with bodies that closely resemble what we sell on the street, we will no longer participate in your NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series. Period. 2. If discussions aren't started immediately to change NASCAR rules to our satisfaction, we will instruct our marketing departments to phase out their NASCAR-related contracts, and we will put our teams and drivers on notice that their contracts will not be renewed. Would it be the end of the world if that happened and one or all of the Detroit manufacturers walked away? In a word - no. NASCAR would chug along, selling their slick corporate marketing vehicle masquerading as cornpone, "aw shucks" Americana, and no one will know the difference. The fans will still go, and instead of being told they're looking at a "Ford Taurus" they will be told that they're looking at a "Roush NASCAR" or a "Hendrick NASCAR" or an "Evernham NASCAR," and they will be just fine. And NASCAR will continue to sell their brand of manufactured "racing" to the highest bidder. And if the Detroit manufacturers actually abandoned their NASCAR obsession, it could open up a whole new world to them. They could set about to competing in motorsports activities that have them actually going up against the import competitors that they're trying to sell against in showrooms across America. What a refreshing, imaginative concept - going after consumers who would actually help improve their share of market, instead of going after the ones who are already predisposed to driving domestic brands - and who are slowly dying off or just fading away to the imports.