Random thoughts: Mercedes pickups and NASCAR

By Christopher A. Sawyer
The Virtual Driver

(September 29, 2013) Can anybody read the tea leaves? Does Anyone really listen? These thoughts ran through my head as I considered the state of racing in America, and the idea that Infiniti and Mercedes might add pickups to their U.S. lineups. Bear with me. It may even make some sense when I’m finished.

The debacle at NASCAR’s Richmond race was, if anything, predictable. The France family created the Chase as a way to keep viewers interested as the football season started. And what better way to do that than to create an ersatz playoff system that takes the top 10 competitors, a couple of wild card entries, and places them on the field of battle for the last 10 races of the season in order to decide the series champion?

By shuffling the deck and creating a system whereby an also-ran can put together a string of top finishes and take the title, NASCAR hoped to limit the erosion in viewership that naturally arises as the professional and college football seasons get going.

We all know by now that Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team took five straight titles, experiencing an almost Ferrari and Michael Schumacher-like dominance of the sport. No wild card or trailing competitor ever really had a shot until Tony Stewart’s near-miraculous take down of Carl Edwards. Plus, unlike football or baseball or basketball, the competitors who haven’t made the finals are still on the field fighting for points.

It would be like having all of the teams on the ice during the Stanley Cup finals in an all-skate. Keeping the field to the 12 (13 following the Richmond race) Chase finalists would be somewhat more pure, but there wouldn’t be enough cars out there to fill the track and keep things exciting. After all, this isn’t sport, it’s entertainment; much as Mercedes’ desire for a pickup isn’t driven by heritage or large numbers of loyal buyers clamoring for a vehicle as suited to the corn field as the country club.

The whole Mercedes pickup nonsense comes out of the German automaker’s unquenchable desire to claw its way to two million sales per year, double its current output. It may seem a bit strange, but the cutthroat global competition, overcapacity and crushing regulatory burden have made it difficult for small automakers to survive. Yes, Mercedes is considered a small automaker, despite having sales just north of 1 million units annually.

According to a story on Road & Track
online, Mercedes was to get its own version of the full-size Nissan Titan and more compact Nissan Frontier pickups to sell through its light-commercial trucks division. Though the interiors were to have been unique, the sheetmetal would be the same as the Nissans, except for a Mercedes star and grille up front and the Mercedes name on the tailgates. Did they learn nothing from the Lincoln MKT?

Mercedes wants to be a titan, but does it need a Titan to reach that goal?

What killed the program (cancelled on the eve of the Frankfurt Motor Show a few weeks ago) was Nissan’s inability to provide for a number of different powertrains. Not only did Mercedes plan to power its Titan with more than a V8, it reportedly wanted to build hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the Frontier.

However, the vehicles, which were scheduled to debut in late 2016 as 2017 models, were too far along the engineering and development path to make room for these changes profitably. Had these demands been made earlier in the process, it might have worked. As it stands, Infiniti appears ready to replace Mercedes in the lux-truck segment. I wonder how the brand’s Director of Performance, Sebastian Vettel, feels about that.

About as well as NASCAR fans feel about Clint Bowyer’s ham-handed spin at the Richmond race almost three weeks ago, I imagine. With Ryan Newman up front and extending his lead — and looking to be a shoo-in for the last wild car slot — Bowyer followed a not-so-veiled “suggestion” from Michael Waltrip Racing’s executive vice president, and spun his car to bring out a yellow intended to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. get into the Chase. If that wasn’t enough, the intrigue spread elsewhere throughout the field, and caught up Team Penske and others in its web. And Newman? He lost the lead and finished far enough down the order to miss his shot.

We all know what happened next. NASCAR stepped in, fined everyone in sight, put Newman back in the Chase as the 12th entry, and replaced Martin Truex Jr. with Jeff Gordon, making him the 13th. (Had Bowyer not spun, Gordon would have been in the Chase.) Short of throwing Michael Waltrip Racing out of the Chase and docking it 100 owner points for the next season, something NASCAR would have done had it been serious about policing the series, it was the best NASCAR felt it could do. Except that this response made about as much difference as spit on a rainy sidewalk.

Half measures, as Mercedes would have found out had it gone forward with the rebadged Nissan trucks, have very little long-term effect, and often make matters worse. Unfortunately, NASCAR isn’t ready to face the truth:

    Its season is 10 races too long
    Most of the tracks that have them don’t need a second race
    There is a need to dramatically reduce the length of most races
    It has to aggressively roll out its new track drying technology to prevent embarrassments like last week’s interminable Chicago race
    Points for leading a lap must be eliminated
    Only the top 20 finishers should get points
    There must be a significant points advantage for winning a race
    The incentive for teams to “start and park” must be eliminated, etc.

Unfortunately, these ideas will never see the light of day as they would require radical change in Daytona. Better to stick with a tried-and-true formula, even though it is showing obvious signs of stress. Besides, NASCAR hopes that this scandal will fade from the memory, and let it return to business-as-usual. Mercedes, on the other hand, is at least willing to expand its opportunities, even if they don’t fit with the images and desires of its buyers.

Truck buyers are a fickle bunch, and — as Ford found out — they’d rather be in a King Ranch or Platinum F-150 than a badge-engineered Lincoln. To them, one is real and the other is a fake; just like the difference between racing for a championship and running in the Chase.

The Virtual Driver