Saving American muscle is NASCAR’s future

The glorious thunder of the Talladega Superspeedway will one day be a living museum of sound.There is nothing like it, that mechanized conflagration of stock cars breathing an audible firestorm down the frontstretch, and there will not be anything like it ever again.

“Do you hear that?” a future father or grandfather will one day ask at this monument to noise. “That’s what American muscle used to sound like.”

And that’s the thing that’s going to save stock car racing, in the end. When all the vehicles on the road either run off batteries, or look like a battery, it’s the sound of the carburetors, and the smell of gasoline, and the nostalgia of Americana that will keep people coming to this track.

 This isn’t another column about how NASCAR is dying, OK. It’s not. NASCAR has been losing fans for years, and the sport is searching for a few crossover stars to replace its former greats. It’s a problem. I get it. But NASCAR isn’t going away.

This was the first race at Talladega since Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, and they like him here, in case you haven’t heard, so something important was missing.

What wasn’t missing was that sound. When 40 stock cars roll down the Alabama Gang Superstretch of the Talladega Superspeedway, it shakes your soul, and awakens something you didn’t even know was there.

That’s a testimonial. Here’s another: I’m not a NASCAR guy.

I’ve covered races for more than a decade now, but I don’t know all the lingo. I’m not a gearhead. I don’t even know if “gearhead” is something NASCAR people call themselves. I don’t know the crew chiefs, or the sponsors, or most of the drivers. I don’t know the culture, and, frankly, I don’t identify with it.

What’s with all the Confederate flags in the infield? Cars weren’t even around during the Civil War. I know those flags don’t represent NASCAR, but it’s a big turnoff.

Gotta say, though, I like the sport. You know why? Because of that feeling in my chest when the cars scream down the track, and the historical significance I think stock-car racing is going to represent in the future.

One day, stock-car racing is going to be a link to our past. NASCAR has been marketing nostalgia for awhile, but there’s going to come a day when the sport is an actual antiques roadshow.

Motorsports cannot possibly get much better than Sunday’s race at the Talladega Superspeedway. The weather was crisp in the morning and perfect at the green flag. Not a cloud in the sky. Bumper to bumper, three-wide racing at over 200 mph.

The Big One came with 22 laps to go, and Joey Logano held on after the restart to win the 49th annual Geico 500.

Logano drives a stock car with the body of a Ford Fusion.

Second-place finisher Kurt Busch drives a Ford.

Of the top-five racers, only third-place finisher Chase Elliott, was in a ride not manufactured by Ford.

Amid Ford’s recent dominance of the sport, the automobile company announced last week that it is discontinuing the production of the Ford Fusion (and most of its other cars in North America) by the end of this decade, and shifting its focus (no pun intended) to SUVs, trucks and, of course, hybrids and electric.

Other auto manufacturers will follow. Americans are buying fewer and fewer sedans and hatchbacks every year, and Ford has always been a forward-thinking company.

Racing mogul Roger Penske, one of American auto racing’s most successful owners in history, called it a “smart move” when I asked him after Sunday’s race about Ford’s strategic shift, but Penske said he didn’t think perception of NASCAR, or stock-car racing, would change.

“Probably as we look into 2018, and look at the numbers, it’s going to be 65 to 70 percent [trucks and SUVs] sold in the United States, some 161/2 million,” Penske said. “So, I think it’s focusing the right way, and if you look at all the manufacturing, what are the new models they’re bringing out? Ninety percent are bringing out trucks, but that’s a decision being made in the boardroom, and not by the race team, I can tell you that, but overall I think it’s a smart move.”

Maybe it’s a smart move by Ford, and maybe it’s not. That’s impossible to know for sure at this point.

Unlike Penske, I think the perception of American stock-car racing is going to change, though. It’s going to take a positive shift towards nostalgia. Ford announced a few weeks ago it’s switching to the Mustang body for the 2019 NASCAR season. The company leaned heavily on Americana to spin the change.

“This announcement makes me very happy,” said Ford board member Edsel B. Ford II in a statement by the company. “Mustang is a car that is woven into the fabric of our country, and it’s only right that we put it on the track in NASCAR’s most visible series. I can’t wait.”

Chevrolet began using the Camaro body last season. Now, if only Dodge would get back into NASCAR with the Charger. Hey, a kid can dream, right?

“I think we got Camaros and Mustangs and Toyota has the vehicles and anyone else who comes in,” Penske said, defending his sport. “Look, it’s drivers, it’s teams, it’s sponsors, it’s you guys [media] out there who make the difference.”

And it’s the sound.

Guttural cry when gasoline pours into a carburetor. That’s NASCAR. See, buried in a statement about Ford’s shift away from cars was this nugget by Ford executive Jim Farley.

It is all about choice, after all — making sure our customers have what they want when they want it,” Farley wrote. “That’s why we’re moving forward on our hybrid and battery electric strategy at the same time. The foundation for this strategy is to bring hybrid powertrains to our most iconic nameplates and our highest-volume vehicles.

“For Mustang, we’ll amp things up by delivering V8-like performance from a hybrid powertrain.”

The whir of electric cars is going to overtake the rumble of combustion in this country. It’s not an if thing. It’s a when thing. Just not on the track, please. Leave us our cathedrals of American muscle and auto racing will be just fine.