- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009



The great American sport of stock-car racing may be contemplating a future in which there aren’t any American cars to race. This is so embarrassing.

Just three American makes are racing now - Ford, General Motors’ Chevy and Chrysler’s Dodge. Chrysler is in bankruptcy, and GM soon may be. It’s not hard to imagine a pinched judge, with little sympathy for the weekend pastime of good ol’ boys, deciding that racing gaily colored cars is not a good use of the creditors’ money.

And when Chrysler emerges from bankruptcy, it will be managed and partly owned by an Italian company, Fiat.

Rather than full-throated V-8s, Fiat’s iconic car was the tiny Topolino (Italian for “Mickey Mouse”), whose tiny engine propelled it at the dizzying speed of 50 mph.

Fiat is talking about reviving the Topolino as a modern green car. That’ll bring a beer-soaked crowd roaring to its feet on the backstretch.

It is exaggerated sometimes, but there is something to the story of how stock-car racing got its start with moonshiners racing their souped-up cars - American cars - on the back roads of the South. Although it cuts against the chauvinistic grain, the future of stock-car racing and NASCAR may lie in foreign cars. Toyota, the only foreign maker on the circuit, is also the most successful.

Maybe Honda and Nissan aren’t far behind. The Koreans may jump in, too, with Kia. The Germans are unlikely to come along after the bad experience that Daimler, manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz, had trying to run Chrysler.

The makers who really might get enthusiastic about racing in America are the Chinese. They are desperate to crack the U.S. market, and before the economy hit the wall - there and here - there was loose talk about a Chinese company maybe buying GM or Chrysler.

But stock-car fans are noted for their brand loyalty and it’s hard to see the faithful loading up on cars and merchandise from Chery, Geely and Dongfeng, the potential entrants into the U.S. market.

However, the cars NASCAR races are American cars in the sense they are assembled here, out of U.S. parts, but they are not actual makes in the sense of being a Ford or a Dodge. Two years ago, as a safety measure, NASCAR decreed that all the teams must race a generic vehicle, ambitiously called the Car of Tomorrow. The only thing specifically Toyota about the Toyota COT, for example, was the decal saying so.

The solution to keeping stock-car racing might be for NASCAR just to designate the cars as any make it pleases. Fortunately or unfortunately, previous contractions in the auto industry have left us with an abundance of no-longer-used names - Locomobile, the Henry J, Maxwell, Hupmobile, Pierce Arrow, Hudson, to name a few.

We soon may not have any American cars left, but we have a huge stock of American car names. Heck, even Pontiac will be available soon.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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