- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

CHARLOTTE, N.C. | Fans cringed and teams shuddered when NASCAR opened its doors to Toyota, the first foreign automaker to enter a sport built around American cars.

Competitors feared that a deep-pocketed company with its free spending and technological savvy would run wild over the loyal supporters of Detroit’s Big Three manufacturers. Longtime fans simply couldn’t stomach a Japanese car racing side by side against their red, white and blue models.

It now has been five years since Toyota eased into NASCAR in the third-tier Truck Series - three since the automaker graduated into the premier Sprint Cup Series - and a foreign brand didn’t bring the sport to a halt. Nor did it ruin the racing. If anything, it has improved both the competition and overall health of the industry.

Now NASCAR says it is willing to consider other foreign automakers.

BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, and Mercedes-Benz all have manufacturing plants inside the United States - the same criteria Toyota met when NASCAR accepted the automaker into NASCAR in 2002 - and Volkswagen is building a facility in Tennessee. Any of those manufacturers can approach NASCAR about coming on board, and chairman Brian France is apparently willing to listen.

“We’re the pre-eminent place in North America for car manufacturers to build their business with an auto racing group,” France said before Sunday’s race. “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.”

That his comments came at Michigan International Speedway - a short drive from the home offices of Ford, GM and Dodge - probably didn’t sit well with those in NASCAR.

But on what grounds can any American automakers object to NASCAR allowing more manufacturers into the sport? Chrysler and GM are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the restructuring plans have led to cutbacks in each auto racing budget.

Dodge flagship owner Roger Penske says it has been business as usual for his team since Chrysler’s filing. But Richard Petty Motorsports cut salaries across the board and laid off at least nine employees last week as it prepares for significant shortfalls in Dodge funding.

Then came GM’s decision late last week to end its support of teams in the lower-tier Nationwide and Truck Series, a cutback that will slash the bottom lines at race teams owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and every organization not run by a big-time NASCAR star. The pullout leaves Toyota as the only manufacturer supporting teams in either of those series.

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