If You Can’t Dodge ‘Em, Ram ‘Em
Following Brad Keselowski’s championship in 2012 driving one of their cars, Dodge stepped away from NASCAR in 2013. Penske Racing had decided to change their affiliation to Ford due to a series of contract issues, and Dodge was simply unable to pick up another competitive team to fill that void, and left the sport entirely.
It was an unfortunate end for a manufacturer with a pretty rich history in the sport – in the 60’s they designed the famous Dodge Daytona that, along with the Plymouth Superbird, was so fast it was banned. In the 70’s they were the manufacturer for the fifth and sixth of Richard Petty’s seven championships. After leaving the sport in the mid-80’s, they made their triumphant return in 2002 with Evernham Motorsports, along with five other teams. After 10 years, 55 wins, and their 2012 championship, the aforementioned dispute with Penske resulted in their unfortunate second departure. Now, 10 years later, if there is indeed a fourth manufacturer joining the sport, as NASCAR CEO Steve O’Donnell is rumored to have all but confirmed, I’d be shocked if it isn’t Dodge making their second triumphant return. Look at the current landscape of consumer cars. Most manufacturers in the U.S. are swapping out their sedans and coupes for boring, cookie-cutter crossover SUV’s. Ford has stopped producing any sedans or coupes, save for the Mustang (one version of which they turned into a crossover itself in the Mach-E, albeit a fast one), and GM seems to be following suit, with rumors that even the Camaro may soon be destined for an electric sedan fate. They even had the audacity to discontinue my beloved Impala. Disgusting!
You know what American automaker isn’t really doing that? Dodge!
It seems like every year they trot out some new iteration of the Charger or Challenger that is more outlandishly fast than the last. On top of those two heavy hitters are the Durango and the Ram, both of which provide fairly ridiculous levels of performance in their own rights. They seem to be the only American car company still placing an emphasis on ludicrous performance, and speed at all costs. Sure, the Mustang, Camaro, and Corvette are plenty fast, but these Dodges are outlandish.
According to Dodge brand CEO Tim Kuniskis, the Challenger and Charger as we know them will not exist by 2024, and they’ll be replaced by “new cars on new platforms”. They have also announced they will introduce their first electric muscle car in that same timeframe. It’s unclear exactly what the rebranding will mean for the company’s future, but I imagine it will still place an emphasis on going fast.
At a time when they – and all auto manufacturers – are on the doorstep of massive market shifts as the world moves toward an all-electric future, I think Dodge may be placing a bet as old as this sport itself: win on Sunday, sell on Monday.
The Other Team 23
Dodge has nothing left to prove.
Three Dodge-branded vehicles are currently sold in the US market: the Charger, the Challenger, and the Durango. All three are available with a 6.1-liter supercharged 700-plus horsepower V8.
The “Hellcat everything, discontinue everything else” approach has transformed Dodge from Chrysler’s budget line into the only dedicated muscle car performance brand in the world.
What, at this point, does Dodge have to gain from a NASCAR program? The company won’t benefit from loyal NASCAR fans buying vehicles throughout its lineup the way that Ford, Chevy, and Toyota can. Even the Ram Trucks line is no longer marketed under the Dodge name.
Besides, Dodge is now overseen by Stellantis, the global automotive mega-conglomerate composed of Peugeot-Citroen, Fiat-Chrysler, and the wreckage of GM Europe. Even if Dodge wanted to join NASCAR out of some sense of obligation, corporate executives in three different European nations are unlikely to approve that massive budget on a whim.
No, it won’t be Dodge. NASCAR’s next new OEM will be an automaker with a full line of products in the US market, in desperate need of an enthusiast re-brand, and that builds its cars in NASCAR’s heartland.
The next new automaker in NASCAR will be Nissan.
Now, outside of its home country of Japan, Nissan has never really had a sustained presence in motorsports. There have been occasional flirtations with top-flight sportscar racing, and of course the legendary R32 GT-R Group A touring car, but Nissan has never been the first name in professional motorsports, especially not in the USA.
Nissan’s modern history lives in the shadow of Carlos Ghosn, its former CEO who infamously escaped Japanese fraud charges in a suitcase. Ghosn had been nicknamed “Le Cost-Killer” by colleagues at Renault for his financial turnaround of Renault-Nissan through keeping costs low and selling as many cars as possible. In the US, this included an emphasis on fleet sales to rental car companies and rarely redesigning models like the Frontier pickup.
For a post-Ghosn, post-Renault Alliance Nissan, this was a problem. Ghosn’s strategy made the company money, but led to a perception of Nissans as dirt-cheap cars to be treated disposably (see: memes about Altima drivers).
New CEO Makodo Uchida’s “Nissan Next” plan should give Nissan higher margins per car, allowing them to sell fewer, more desirable vehicles. Just last year, the company turned its first profit since Ghosn’s departure. The US market has seen new variants of the Pathfinder SUV and Frontier pickup that have been well-reviewed, but moving upmarket is never that easy (just ask Buick or Hyundai).
Nissan needs to change its reputation. It needs people, particularly Americans, to get excited about its new cars.
After 14 years, Nissan is finally releasing a new sports car in the US market. The 2023 Nissan Z is primarily intended to change Americans’ perceptions of the brand – the new Z won’t even be sold in Europe. But building a sports car isn’t enough on its own (cough, cough Saturn Sky). A halo car needs hype around it. The Z needs something special to not be overshadowed by the reborn Supra.
I have just the thing. With the new Z and the Titan full-size pickup, it will be Nissan that joins NASCAR.
Featured Image from NASCAR Digital Media