Friday, August 6, 2010

What If: The NATCC Series Were Still Around?

John Marine | 8/06/2010 03:01:00 AM | | |
The North American Touring Car Championship Series was an ill-fated attempt at bringing high-level touring car to the United States and Canada. Knowing it was up against the 800-pound gorilla known as NASCAR, the NATCC just failed to seriously deliver on quality super touring action in the United States. The NATCC lasted all of two years- 1996 and 1997. Super touring racing in the North America lived for two years until its demise. This was an attempt at featuring high-end touring car racing like in the British Touring Car Championship or FIA's World Touring Car Championship. The best touring car series in the United States is in the World Challenge series (formerly Speedvision World Challenge and also formerly Speed World Challenge). However, I'm here to speculate. What if the North American Touring Car Championship... were still around? How would it survive? Could it have survived even with the economic recession? What could the future have held for the NATCC? Let's go to work on another blog entry!

Let's set the mood before I begin:

^ from:, by way of - the North American Touring Car Championship in action.

To gain some perspective on the NATCC, here is a video for you to watch. It is the 1996 NATCC race on the streets of Toronto. This specific video introduces you nicely to the NATCC and what it brings to the proverbial table:

Now, it's time to get crackin'!

--- What the NATCC Means to Me: Cars ---
It could have survived long enough, but it didn't. I didn't get into racing until 1998. Didn't start really watching racing until 1999. So I missed out on this series by miles. I think this series features something NASCAR will never capture- high-quality touring car racing featuring cars close to, or similar to the cars they represent. That's why touring car racing resonates so much with people- the cars, while highly capable, highly resembles and performs more like their road-going counterparts. Even high-powered touring car series like the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) and the Australian V8 Supercar Series feature cars that highly resemble the road-going cars that are represented. They are very representative of the road-going cars, give or take the various race car aerodynamic packages and full racing suspension.

There is another reason why touring car racing is so popular and loved- close and hard-fought racing. Most of these races in touring car ranks are mostly predicated on solid driving rather than having the biggest and the fastest car. The diversity of drivetrains and car types also add some spice to the lineup of cars that start in most touring car races. You have everything from coupes, to sport coupes, to sedans, and to hatchbacks. You have your fair share of front-wheel drive (the most common drivetrain in touring car racing), rear-wheel drive, and four-wheel drive. These cars are not like stock cars where all the cars are super-powerful and bear only decals to represent the cars they represent. A Ford Fusion NASCAR stock car (for example) only resembles a proper Ford Fusion ONLY in the decals to make it LOOK like a proper Fusion tuned for racing. But in terms of a Fusion stock car truly RESEMBLING a road-going Fusion, the NASCAR stock car is a pure race car that make believes it is a road-going Fusion.

So what does this series mean to me? It resembles supertouring racing, and it's a shame this series COULD have as big as the BTCC or the FIA's World Touring Car Championship. So you can say that this series would have represented high-end touring car racing truly representative of road-going cars sold in the United States. It would have done to economy cars and economy sports cars like what Trans-Am did for muscle cars. The NATCC could have continued to have been a pinnacle of touring car racing the likes of which the BTCC (or any other high-end touring car series) can contend with. It may even give international racers a chance to compete in the United States against some of the United States' finest touring car racers. Maybe there would be American racers competing in high-end touring car races. Imagine American racers like Randy Pobst or Chip Herr (who I'm a big fan of in World Challenge) competing in a one-off race deal against mostly FIA World Touring Car drivers racing a high-end touring car.

--- What the NATCC Means to Me: Tracks ---
North America is a lot different with tracks. I've always wondered how come there aren't as many tracks where you don't have immediate access to the garage from the pits. Think of tracks like Brands Hatch or Suzuka as the garages are readily available to allow you to work on the car. But in a lot of North American tracks, you just have a team go over a concrete wall to service a car. The cultures of motorsport are a lot different between the USA and other tracks, but I think too much about proper international-style courses with the quick access to pit garages.

As far as tracks themselves are concerned, there is no question we have some challenging courses. I know I've said United States and Canada, but also look to Autodromo de los Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico, which used to play host to the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Mexico. There are some recent race tracks that are very deserving to race competitively with some great cars. You're looking at American courses like Barber Motorsports Park, Autobahn Country Club, Miller Motorsports Park, and New Jersey Motorsports Park among some of the more recent great road courses. Then, you have your classics- Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Sebring, Road Atlanta, Road America, Watkins Glen, and tracks like that.

The best drivers in some of today's best economy cars doing all-out road racing battle on some of our best tracks.

--- Motorsports Culture Clash? ---
I mentioned in the previous section that motorsport cultures are different at times. It is unlikely you can properly translate a racing experience to a certain motorsport culture. This even pertains to series trying to capture certain experiences made famous in other locations. For example, NASCAR raced in Japan in about 1996 at Twin Ring Motegi Superspeedway and on the East configuration of the Suzuka Circuit. It didn't mean that stock car racing would blossom in Japan. The United States had the STRANA series, which was America's answer to series like the FIA's European Truck Racing Championship. STRANA didn't last much longer than the NATCC. So sometimes, one of the biggest deterrents of a motorsport's survival is attributed to a certain motorsports culture.

Does it mean you should stop entirely trying to market a style of racing hardly anyone will care about? Absolutely not! Much like there are sports moments that gives their fans reason to believe (like a usually weak sports team that has a great season and is capable of winning a championship or contending for a championship), you have to make people believe that a certain motorsport CAN and WILL succeed if the stars are aligned properly. America's motorsport culture is mostly predicated on oval racing and drag racing. Despite these two being the fair share of racing enjoyed by Americans, there are many more who love many other kinds of racing. If you want a series to be like an elite or racing superlative, you have to get some serious involvement going. A series doesn't have to be the new 800-pound gorilla of motorsport; it just has to be a sweet distraction from what most of the mainstream loves.

Another thing to consider- certain series just fare better in other locations in comparison to trying to deliver similar experiences to unfamiliar territory. Could the NATCC have survived having said all of this? It would depend on two factors- involvement and success. The NATCC was in no way a poor concept. There just wasn't enough on the table to add longevity to the series to make it last longer than two seasons.

--- How Would the NATCC Do Up to This Point (if still around)? ---
How would the NATCC be if it were still around? Well, that would depend on how the represented makes would fare as the global economic recession hit. Dodge dominated in 1997 with David Donahue. Dodge won every race that year except one. A big factor of motorsport is not so much on sponsorship, but also on the manufacturers represented. If an auto maker is struggling financially or something, the trickle-down is that certain cars in certain series may have to be discontinued. This was the fate that has befallen certain manufacturers in certain series. I think so much to companies like Subaru and Mitsubishi pulling out of the World Rally Championship due to the economic downturn. How many companies would have survived or joined if the NATCC were still around up to this point? Could the NATCC have canceled a season or two just to save money?

Since this series just didn't have enough serious backing and longevity, the NATCC just never had any real teeth to establish itself for years to come. The concept, however, is anything but disappointing.

--- How the NATCC WOULD be Like Today... ---
This section contains my idea of what the North American Touring Car Championship Series would be like today, based on my own imagination. I am assuming it is still referred to as the NATCC, among many other aspects.

The first championship season for the NATCC was in 1996, so this season (assuming there hasn't been any canceled seasons) would have marked its 15th season of competition.

How the NATCC Would Be Like Today: Cars.
Any number of cars could show up to form a true super touring-type championship. Here are some of the cars that would make up such a series:

* Chevrolet Malibu, Chevrolet Aveo, or Chevrolet Cobalt
The Malibu might be the more likely pick because it's actually selling well and is respected. By the way, I would love to imagine a touring car based on the latest Malibu. I'm not hearing too much on the Cobalt anymore. Ditto for the Aveo. So the Malibu might just be the lone representative for GM, because I highly doubt people will care seeing a Monte Carlo NATCC touring car with the many NASCAR-minded masses.

* Ford Focus Sedan or Coupe and/or Ford Fiesta
As ugly as the current US-spec Ford Focus is, it's the only real economy car we have that can be representative of Ford in this series. It may also be possible to market the Ford Fiesta in this series.

* Dodge Avenger or Caliber
The Avenger would be a likely successor to the Stratus in this series. That is, unless Dodge wants to put in the Caliber and make that into a touring car. The reason why I didn't pick the Charger is because I just don't see it blending in with most of the other cars touring car racing series feature.

* Scion tC
Because none of Toyota's current cars have any real racy character to them, you have to go down to Scion. The Scion tC is currently raced in the World Challenge series and is a worthy car. Some kind of super touring version of the tC would make it REALLY stand out.

* Honda Civic, and maybe either the Honda Accord or Honda Fit
Both cars have seen touring car action before. The only maybe would be if the Honda Fit had its own touring car. However, I think the Civic is a great choice. The Honda Accord is a maybe. Perhaps a team could contest the latest Accord, but the latest Accord just doesn't strike me as much as to imagine any kind of super touring model.

* Nissan Versa (sedan), Nissan Sentra (SE-R Spec V), Nissan Altima (coupe or sedan), or Nissan Maxima
Most of you may know that I am not really a Nissan person. The variety of cars in Nissan's lineup would make for a good number of cars to choose from to represent Nissan. The Versa's sedan variant wouldn't be a bad start. A super touring Versa wouldn't look bad at all. For some reason, the Sentra is such a forgotten car. You just don't hear about it as much. The Altima is a stylish and peppy car. I love how the coupe looks, but the sedan would probably be a better fit for touring car racing. The Maxima would be a fierce touring car since it has rear-wheel drive. It may not be likely to see one in touring car trim, but it would surely be interesting to see a Maxima touring car.

* Mazda 3 (4-door) and Mazda 6
Ever since Mazda changed up their boring-styled cars starting with the Mazda 6 in 2002, their cars have exuded much more excitement and style. Cars like the 3 (4-door) and the 6 would make great examples of touring cars in the NATCC.

* Mitsubishi Lancer or Mitsubishi Galant
Mitsubishi is better known for off-road racing success than any on-road success. Having said this, even the weakest Lancer would be formidable in touring car trim. I don't think the most capable Lancer (4WD and all) would really fit in a touring or super touring environment. The big maybe here would be if the latest Eclipse (which I think should be RWD or 4WD) was made out into a touring car. Another maybe would be the Galant. I'm not sure if the Galant would be any good to make into a touring car if you just don't hear about it too much. In its favor, however, I can definitely imagine this as a touring car because of how it's styled.

* Subaru Legacy or Subaru Impreza
Subaru would be great to have as a touring car representative if they were in the NATCC. Their 4WD cars would give them quite an edge in touring car racing. The Legacy is perhaps best representative of a touring car. The Impreza would be a fire-breather if turned into a touring car. But to me, the Legacy would be a better fit.

* Mini Cooper
Imagine a Mini going up against much larger cars. Oh, wait... it's happened before! The likelihood of any super touring Mini would be a real maybe.

* BMW 1-Series or 3-Series
BMW has competed in touring car racing for a long time. This is a company where you can enjoy racing some rear-wheel drive cars that handle every bit as well as any FWD touring car. The 1-series and 3-series all represent quality racing machines as well as great candidates for super touring in the NATCC. The 3-series would be a more likely fit, but the 1-series cars would make a nice small car to bring into touring car racing.

* Volkswagen Jetta series and (maybe) Volkswagen Golf series
The Jetta is raced in World Challenge and even in the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup. Making a competitive car that has some significance to current times and technologies could make the TDI a more likely candidate to be a super touring car in the NATCC. The Golf cars would also be a nice fit, but I sincerely doubt any of the big Golf models (namely the R32) would be a good-enough fit for touring car racing.

* Audi A4
Audi's beautiful late model A4 would be a nice car to have as a touring car in the NATCC. I can only imagine seeing a touring or super touring model with those lovely LED daytime running lights. That is a beautiful car. The A4 has been raced before in proper touring car series (including a version for DTM), so one more A4 in touring cars wouldn't hurt now, would it?

* Hyundai Genesis (coupe)
The Hyundai Genesis coupe is a better touring car fit than its sedan variant. Both of the Genesis models are far different from what other cars they offer. Imagine the Genesis competing against the likes of BMW in touring car racing. Would be GREAT stuff, wouldn't it?

* Kia Forte
Kia's Forte is perhaps one of the most exciting Kia cars ever. While Kia races in the Continental Tire series with the Forte, it would also be nice to have as a touring car in the NATCC.

I think cars like these would comprise the vast majority of cars in the NATCC if it were still around. I completely forgot about Acura here, though. I'm not even sure if Mercury or Buick would make for great touring cars in this series if they had touring car variants of some of their cars.

How the NATCC Would Be Like Today: Tracks.
The series would mostly race in the United States with a visit or two to Canada. I can imagine a series of about eight to twelve different tracks. In no real order, here are tracks I would see today's NATCC racing if it were still around:

(possible tracks)
* Sebring
* Road Atlanta
* Berber Motorsport Park
* Virginia International Raceway
* New Jersey Motorsports Park
* Lime Rock Park
* Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
* Autobahn Country Club
* Road America
* Miller Motorsports Park
* Long Beach
* Laguna Seca
* Portland International Raceway
* Mosport
* Circuit Mont-Tremblant
* Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez

How the NATCC Would Be Like Today: Ratings and Reaction.
It probably would be in close contention with World Challenge, but I don't think it would put too much a dent on the average motorsport fan's interest in touring car racing. There would have to be a great enough effort to promote the series to being as good as other super touring or traditional touring car series.

How the NATCC Would Be Like Today: Overall.
I think the NATCC could still produce great races featuring some amazing touring cars. It probably wouldn't be better than World Challenge, but it would be at least competitive enough to where it could be an American BTCC (of course, many would say NASCAR is our BTCC, at least in terms of the crashes and insane action).

--- What Would the Future Have Held for the NATCC? ---
I've taken a fantasy look at what this series would be like if it were still around today. Now, I fantasize about what the future would hold for this series.

To me, its future would depend on these variables: the economy, the auto makers' involvement in the series, and overall success of the series. How many would be willing to stay with the series and continue to help it evolve more and more. It doesn't have to surpass NASCAR; it just has to be the best style of racing in its discipline of motorsport. A marketing and exhibition move would be if teams from the BTCC and FIA World Touring Car Championship agree to have some one-off races involving the NATCC's best cars going up against the best from the BTCC and/or WTCC.

One other aspect would be better sales of cars in the United States with success in racing. Imagine seeing creative NATCC commercials helping to be catchy enough to market these cars to the masses. Imagine an NATCC-spec car be marketed to where it gets more people to buy them. Imagine if certain technologies featured in these cars make it into production cars. This department would require some creative genius to make these cars marketable and profitable.

An indirect effect on touring car racing in America would possibly stir interest in the World Touring Car Championship racing in the United States. With enough interest, it could be possible to see the NATCC race on the same weekend with the WTCC if there was such a race in the future.

It is still a shame this series possibly couldn't have lasted MUCH longer than it could have. Its concept and everything is wonderful, but it never just had the interest and the passion to really become something great. There wasn't enough staying power to make this a worthy North American alternative to big time touring car racing. I am not taking anything away from World Challenge. World Challenge has some great production car-based racing on television. However, the concept of a super touring series could have been better executed and could have lasted better than it could have. It could have helped to move a few more retail cars from car showrooms and into consumers' garages.

The North American Touring Car Championship Series could have been something better than ending up as another dead racing series. Better management and marketing could have made this series as special to compete in as almost any other. I think if there was a deciding factor in making this series last longer, it would probably be more interest and devotion. Quality racing talent and great race tracks are there. The problem is... how do you get with trying to make this series special and make it last for years to come? How do you make races exciting? Could the NATCC have survived during a down economy? Are there ways you can market the series to people? Even in an old edition of Road and Track magazine, there was a fold-out section that marketed the Dodge Stratus NATCC touring car at one part of the fold-out. The cards were on the table... it just didn't work out.

How do you feel about this? Feel free to respectfully comment!
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