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The Detroit News



Green flag to fly for racing Fusion

With Taurus to be dropped, Ford turns to a new sedan to race in NASCAR's top series.

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

Super models

Ford has participated in NASCAR for 56 years. Fusion will be its eighth-generation entry.

Source: Ford

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Ford Motor Co. is putting a new face on its NASCAR Nextel Cup entry next year.

The automaker is expected to announce as early as this week that the Ford Fusion will replace the venerable Taurus on North America's most popular racing circuit, said people familiar with the plan.

After 20 years, Ford is pulling the plug on Taurus production early in 2006, and NASCAR rules require that race cars be based on showroom models. The Fusion arrives on dealer lots this fall.

Fusion will enter the midsize car segment, where the competition dwarfs even the longtime rivalry between Ford and Chevy on the racetrack. In the midsize car market, it's Ford vs. Chevy vs. Toyota vs. Honda vs. Nissan.

NASCAR fans are extremely loyal to brands that support the series, and Ford is banking on the affiliation to immediately establish Fusion in the marketplace. The 280,000 members of the Team Ford Racing club own, on average, 1.8 Ford vehicles per household, the automaker claims. Compared with other brand owners, they are nearly three times as likely to stick with Ford.

The entry-level midsize car, along with the larger Five Hundred sedan, represents Ford's latest effort to rebuild passenger car sales.

"To put the Fusion (in NASCAR) makes sense for Ford," said Kim Korth, president of IRN Inc., an auto consulting firm based in Grand Rapids. "Given that it's one of the most popular sports in the country and it's in front of a younger audience, it's a real positive."

When the Charger returned to NASCAR this year after an absence of more than two decades, Dodge recorded a 25 percent hike in its Web site traffic.

John Toppi, sales manager of Royal Oak Ford, is counting on more than stock car racing to generate interest in the Fusion.

Styling and price are more likely to lure buyers, Toppi said. Ford designed and engineered the Fusion to be more aggressive and nimble than the Taurus. It is priced starting at $17,995.

"If you're a race car junkie, sure," he said. "I just can't imagine that somebody who has nothing to do with NASCAR is going to come down."

Ford declined comment on specific plans to replace Taurus, promising to unveil details this week.

"We will announce exciting plans for our next-generation NASCAR race car, which will be instantly recognizable as a Ford product that everyday customers can drive home from our showrooms," spokesman Dave Reuter said in a statement.

NASCAR entries are subject to strict dimensional guidelines to ensure competitive racing, but to help sell the vehicles, manufacturers take great care to make certain that the cars on the track retain identifiable design cues.

According to NASCAR.com, Chevrolet is expected to roll out a new version of its Monte Carlo next year. And Toyota Motor Corp. has submitted a design, which has been approved by NASCAR, but the automaker has not indicated when -- or if -- it will compete.

While Fusion's NASCAR presence could benefit Ford's bottom line, will it perform on the track as well as Taurus?

Roush Racing, a division of Livonia-based Roush Industries, has won the last two NASCAR Nextel Cup championships using Taurus entries.

"We expect (the new car) will be just as competitive as what we have on the track right now," said Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing.

You can reach Eric Mayne at (313) 222-2443 or [email protected].
 

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Would be nice to also see the Fusion compete in the Touring car races on the Speed Channel. That would help the SVT sales when that model comes to life.
 
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