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Random Lugnuts: Pontiac, Safety, and Fiat

Stock Car Racing What is Random Lugnuts?  It's random bits of stock car racing commentary written on an irregular basis by an irregular racing fan.  The name is a reference to the lugnuts that go flying off a car during a pit stop:  you never know where they are going to go, what they're going to do when they get there, they can be annoying, they're often useless after a race, and every once in a while someone gets hit and they don't know exactly where it came from.
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

Random Lugnuts: Pontiac, Safety, and Fiat

Bill Crittenden
May 4, 2009

The Garage

Well, it appears that Pontiac is following Oldsmobile into the history books.  Pontiac has a bit of history in NASCAR, and I'd like to take a moment and reminisce thanks to Restrictor Plated's The 10 Greatest Pontiacs in NASCAR...

Pontiac's first NASCAR win came in 1957 with Cotton Owens at the old Daytona Beach course.  It was the first time a driver averaged over 100mph in a NASCAR race.  Pontiac would take the last two races at the Daytona Beach course:  Paul Goldsmith won in 1958.

A lot of NASCAR's legends won milestone races in Pontiacs.  David Pearson's first win was in a Pontiac.  Richard Petty's 200th and final win was in a Grand Prix.  And Dale Earnhardt drove a Pontiac to victory in the first race in what is today the Nationwide Series.

4 champions in NASCAR's top series won a total of 5 trophies in their Pontiacs, in Joe Weatherly (1962 & 1963), Rusty Wallace (1989), Bobby Labonte (2000), and Tony Stewart (2002).

After Joe Gibbs switched to Chevrolet following the 2002 season, the writing was on the wall for Pontiac's exit from NASCAR.  Their top driver in 2003, their final season, was Ricky Craven driving for Cal Wells.  But they not only won a race, they gave Pontiac a grand sendoff at one of NASCAR's most historic tracks, with Craven beating Kurt Busch to the line by just .002 seconds.

Yellow Flag

I know we're all tired of hearing about Talladega, but everything I've read, from yellow line issues to NASCAR threatening to police excessive blocking, all has to do with one thing:  controlling the action on the track.  NASCAR isn't the I-90, there are no lane lines or speed limits (except for the restrictor plates), and there shouldn't be, not if NASCAR wants to keep fans watching week after week.  I know the safest accident is the one avoided, but in this instance the danger is part of the thrill and NASCAR should do its best to ensure that the only real danger in wrecking is a fortieth-place finish.

I do have a question about Carl Edwards' comment, "I guess we'll do this until someone gets killed and then we'll change it."  Was he talking about the drivers or the fans?

Because if it was the drivers, well, someone needs to take Carl aside and remind him that someone actually did die in a restrictor plate NASCAR race, the result of contact when racing at close quarters.  Some say he might have even been blocking, similar to what got Carl Edwards into the fence two Sundays ago.  Following this driver's death, however, NASCAR actually did "change it," bringing about the much hated but much safer Car of Tomorrow program, the very vehicle that allowed Carl to do his pirouette into the catch fence and still feel well enough to go for a jog afterwards.

But if he was talking about the fans' safety, I'm afraid he's quite right.  Catch fences might catch cars, but they don't catch every bit of debris and they certainly don't catch hot or flammable fluids.  So what can be done?  Move the fans back a bit from the track.  I know it costs major money to move a grandstand, so in the case of the existing seats maybe the first 5 rows or so should be ripped out or at least closed off.  It should be done before the cars come back to Alabama for the fall race, because you never know what might happen while you're arguing about seat capacities and ticket prices.  But I have my doubts.

Technical Inspection

Sunday night I heard a couple of commentators joking about the possibility of Ferrari joining NASCAR as Fiat looks to become the owner of Chrysler.  Not very realistic, considering Ferrari's lack of a car suitable for the big boxy Sprint Cup-style racers, and considering the general disdain the average Ferrari fan has for NASCAR I doubt they would want to disparage their brand by having a Ferrari seen next to a mere Chevrolet at a place like Talladega.

However, as I did write an April Fool's Day joke about Hyundai buying Dodge's NASCAR program (overshadowed by the unfunny Car and Driver prank), I did dream up a similar circumstance that could make a little sense for Fiat and be quite a bit of fun for Italian car fans.

Fiat wants ties to or ownership of Chrysler because they want access back into a wider range of the American market, as they have begun selling new models of Maseratis and a top-of-the-line Alfa Romeo, both subsidiaries of Fiat, on a very limited basis (just 84 copies of the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione are supposed to make it to our shores).

So what does that have to do with NASCAR?  Considering the average American isn't buying quarter-million dollar supercars, the average American racing fan is either a NASCAR fan or at least familiar with the sport, NASCAR is the wider American market.  It's why Toyota put the Camry in the Cup Series, and why none of the "Big 3" dares end their NASCAR programs even as the rest of their companies crumble around them.  And it's how Fiat could make a major impression in the American market.

But how?  Well, Ferrari and Maserati build supercars, unsuitable for NASCAR competition.  Fiat's largest model is about the size of a Ford Focus.  But what if Fiat could take a Dodge engine (supposing Chrysler and Fiat are one and the same by this time next year) and convince NASCAR that since they are the same company that Fiat should be allowed to wrap whatever Turin-designed sheetmetal it desired around that Dodge-designed powerplant?

I personally would love to see the Alfa Romeo 159 made over into a NASCAR Cup car.  Because the Petty #43 is an American institution, and one still often associated with Mopar brands desipite the years spent in Pontiac, Dodge bodies could still be run on Petty cars and perhaps the Alfa Romeo bodies on Penske cars.

How cool would that be?

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