After announcing four different variants of the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion when it was introduced earlier this year in Detroit—including models driven by traditional gas engines, EcoBoost powerplants, a hybrid propulsion system and a plug-in hybrid setup—it turns out the Blue Oval had one more special edition waiting in the wings: The 2013 Ford Fusion NASCAR Sprint Cup racer. And in the same way its production brethren were designed to upset perceptions when they arrive in consumers’ driveways, the racecar is geared to change peoples’ thinking when it hits NASCAR’s speedways.
The difference here is a simple one. As most fans know, NASCAR entries must meet rigid design specs that were first put in place to ensure a level playing field for all competitors. But the fallout has been a steady parade of racecars that are not only almost identical beneath the skin, but also appear to have been stamped out of the same template for exterior design, too. Worse, especially for enthusiasts, is the fact that the current generation of Sprint Cup cars bears only the slightest resemblance to what the automakers have on sale in dealerships, essentially taking the “Stock” out of the “National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.”
But for the 2013 Fusion racer, Ford designers spent a year crafting an exterior appearance that would unmistakably connect it with the production model. Most noticeable is the competition car’s dramatic front grille, which showcases the same aggressive and detailed design as that on the retail Fusion. But Ford also spent much time and effort in incorporating the production model’s eye-catching design cues into the rest of the racer’s bodywork, particularly on its flanks, and even ensured it had the same athletic proportions as the production car.
Significantly, the folks involved were from the Ford Design Center, too, not just the company’s motorsports team—which also had another benefit, since Ford Racing could concentrate all of its efforts on the current NASCAR season.
As a result, according to the Ford Design Center’s Garen Nicoghosian, the 2013 NASCAR Fusion “looks fun to drive and very much eager to go and tear up the track. It has a very aggressive stance from the outside and the inside. From all angles the vehicle exudes performance and I think it reflects our general attitude of how we go about setting up our cars very, very nicely.
“It brings a certain level of nimbleness and lightness and agility to the NASCAR platform, much like we do in our production cars, because all of our production cars have that nimbleness and agility and eagerness about them.”
The car was introduced, appropriately enough, during a recent NASCAR media event at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and it’s expected to make its competition debut at the 2013 Daytona 500.
It’s also expected to help re-establish the ties between Ford production vehicles and its motorsports efforts.
”We wanted Fusion to be the car that helped return ‘stock car’ to NASCAR.” stated Jamie Allison, director, Ford Racing. “I think fans, when they see the car, are just going to smile and cheer. It is going to reengage them with the sport and make the sport better because there is just something natural about seeing race cars that look like cars in their driveways.”
Looking at the bigger picture, the move represents the latest in a series of small steps from the mainstream automakers that—taken as a whole—may signal a coming NASCAR renaissance, driven by the need for brands to get an edge in one of the most competitive segments of the auto industry.
In addition to providing the inspiration for Sprint Cup racers, the mid-size sedan segment saw six members break the 200,000-sales mark in 2011 and find a spot on the year-end top-20 list. Further, the Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima all will drop next-gen versions in coming months, with the brand-new Toyota Camry and surging VW Passatt already on the market. With all these models on the hunt for new customers, and NASCAR trying to regain its cultural relevance, it would make perfect sense for automakers to once again play the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” card.
This could help explain why Ford isn’t the sole automaker revving up the racing presence of its midsize sedan. During launch events for the 2012 Camry, for example, Toyota showed off a Daytona demo car that previews the one that will pace the Great American Race next month. It’s also worth pointing out that Kia will seek to build on its first racing series title—earned last year with the Kia Forte Koup—by campaigning the Kia Optima Turbo in the GTS class of the SCCA’s 2012 Pirelli World Challenge Championship. The road courses in that SCCA series are a far cry from NASCAR’s high-speed ovals, but it wouldn’t be a complete shock if Kia comes around to a different way of thinking—and racing.
Finally, NASCAR itself is certainly aware of its fans’ interest in seeing more distinctive racecars in Sprint Cup competition, and the organization should be quite eager to accommodate Ford—and any future automakers—in making this happen.
So when Ford’s Allison says that the Fusion racecar represents “a seminal moment in the sport where we had a chance to get it right once again and make sure the racecars are race versions of street cars,” he may be on exactly the right track.