NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski drove through uptown Tuesday, and the Observer got to ride shotgun with him. Brendan Marks bmarks@charlotteobserver.com
NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski drove through uptown Tuesday, and the Observer got to ride shotgun with him. Brendan Marks bmarks@charlotteobserver.com

NASCAR & Auto Racing

If Ford’s NASCAR teams retire the Fusion, perhaps there’s a bolder name than Mustang

February 05, 2018 06:30 AM

If the Ford Fusion gets retired from the automaker’s passenger-car lineup, what nameplate should replace it in the NASCAR Cup Series?

There’s an obvious candidate, but if Ford Performance asked me – it won’t – I’d offer another suggestion.

1. Why will the Ford Fusion be replaced?

There are two Fusions at question here, the midsize passenger sedan sold in Ford dealerships, and the NASCAR racing car.

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The family car appears to be in trouble, or may be facing a radical change.

"It's a competition, they've gotta bring it and one of these days I'm sure they will," NASCAR's Kyle Busch says about racing's younger drivers. Davie Hinshawdhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The Detroit News reported last month that Ford has canceled the redesign program for the consumer version of the Fusion and is re-evaluating the midsize sedan’s future.

Ford is not selling as many Fusions as it would like – sales were down 21 percent for 2017 – even though the car remains the automaker’s top-selling U.S. sedan.

While the redesign cancellation doesn’t mean the Fusion nameplate will disappear altogether, it could signal a shift in how Ford approaches its lineup, the News’ Ian Thibodeau wrote. It is possible that the company could follow Chrysler’s lead and stop selling midsize sedans in the United States. However, his source told him that that the Fusion would remain in the lineup for at least another three years. A later redesign is also possible.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett has indicated that consumers prefer a “bigger silhouette,” but poor fuel efficiency has hampered large-car sales, Thibodeau wrote. A larger, but more fuel-efficient sedan – with or without the Fusion brand – could be the key that lets Ford “crack the code” and deliver what more buyers want.

However, Forbes’ Doron Levin reported last week that a downgrade in the company’s credit outlook could make a shakeup in the Ford lineup more likely and could accelerate the end of U.S. Fusion sales.

And if the Fusion brand’s future is in doubt, or limbo, then it might be smart for NASCAR’s Ford racing teams to use another name on their cars.

Meanwhile, Toyota and Chevrolet have redesigned their race cars to look more like what people see in the showrooms.

Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Ford Fusion, kicked off Bank of America 500 race week by leading laps around Uptown during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Laps around Uptown in October.
Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Toyota got a new-look Camry in 2017. The aerodynamics on that new racing Camry is credited in part for the dominance of Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. The runnerup, Kyle Busch, also drove a Camry. (For the record, four of the the top seven drivers in the final standings drove Toyotas.)

Toyota also posted its best-ever December (43,331 cars) and quarterly sales for the consumer Camry.

This season, Chevrolet teams get a new Camaro, replacing the Chevrolet SS, whose dealership doppelganger was an agile Australian-designed super sedan (a rebadged Holden Commodore SS) with a V8. The street SS was an athletic hunk of stealthy horsepower for the money, but few people bought one – about 3,000 sold in 2016 — perhaps because it looked like a taxi. Or didn’t look enough like NASCAR’s Chevy SS. Or because it wasn’t an SUV.

Ford team Cup cars have used the Fusion name since 2006, through three body-style changes, the last coming in 2016. That’s the second longest run for a Ford name in NASCAR; “Thunderbird” was used from 1978 to 1997. Perhaps a change is due regardless of what happens with the passenger car.

This Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, photo shows the new 2019 Ford Edge ST on display in Warren, Mich. It's the company's first SUV tuned by the Ford Performance team responsible for the GT supercar, Focus RS and F-150 Raptor.
Carlos Osorio AP

2. What could replace the Ford Fusion nameplate in NASCAR?

It’s been a long time since NASCAR cars looked just like the ones you could drive off a dealer’s lot. But if automakers still hope to use NASCAR as a marketing tool for their new cars, it still makes sense that they use a name from a vehicle that NASCAR fans are likely to aspire to drive off the track.

The Ford Fusion, even the Sport version with a V6, never really fit that bill. It’s a family car – sensible, not bad looking but not envy-inspiring, either. No one’s ever pulled up to a Fusion at a stoplight and wondered what its 0-60 mph time is. No, this is a car that’s likely to get a bumper sticker that reads, “My other car is a ...”

The obvious choice for the name of Ford’s next NASCAR auto is, of course, the Ford Mustang, Detroit’s original pony car. If they could tie in a special version of the Mustang, such as the GT, that would at least match what Chevrolet did with the Camaro. No one would get fired for picking the Mustang name.

3. A Mustang for NASCAR sounds cool, but is there a better option?

Now that the most logical choice is out of the way, it’s time to have some fun.

These days, Ford is known for its sport-utility vehicles and trucks, rather than sedans. They sell better, too. In January, SUVs accounted for 34 percent of Ford sales, compared to less than 20 percent for cars. Three SUVs, the Escape, Explorer and Edge, had higher sales than the Fusion. And Fusion sales were down about 33 percent compared to January 2017.

Given that NASCAR, or at least some of its early drivers, carries historical connections to Southern bootleggers, attaching the name of a vehicle that could haul a serious amount of moonshine adds a nostalgic link to the past. If someone were to run moonshine in 2018 from a backwoods still to the big city, an SUV bursting with horsepower that could climb mountain trails like a billy goat and then tear down freeways like a rocket even in the worst weather certainly makes a better choice than a sedan.

Sure, NASCAR Cup cars look like sedans, and not SUVs, but then again, the Truck series racers don’t look like they can be loaded with lumber or haul a boat trailer, either.

Ford Escapes roll off an assembly line in Louisville, Kentucky. The Escape was Ford’s top-selling SUV in January.
Luke Sharrett Bloomberg

NASCAR fans are smart enough to know they can’t buy Brad Keselowski’s Ford Fusion in a dealership, no matter how much the silhouettes looks alike. The Ford Fusion running at Daytona has never carried a child safety seat, and no one’s ever complained, at least not on record.

So, imagine, Keselowski making left turns in a “Ford Bronco” – the iconic SUV that once took countless numbers of outdoorsmen off-road but also made history on Los Angeles freeways is coming back in 2020.

Is it enough if only the front end of the NASCAR vehicle looked like the dealership model? Is anyone really going to be upset if it doesn’t seat seven people and feature a trailer hitch?

Perhaps Ford could spice up a few performance models of the Bronco, something akin to the Porsche Cayenne or its current Ford Edge ST. A smart marketing department could work with that.

And if a racing Bronco starts a trend , and the tracks fill with Chevy Traverses and Toyota 4Runners, maybe NASCAR could shorten those rain delays.

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