GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Clint Bowyer stood mesmerized, as if he were witnessing one of the great wonders of the modern world. And as far as he was concerned, he was.
Before he hit it big in racing, the NASCAR driver had worked in a body shop at a dealership in his hometown of Emporia, Kan. He knew what it was like to watch new cars arrive -- but had never seen where they came from. Until Wednesday.
"Un-freaking-believable," he said as he glanced around a mammoth Toyota manufacturing facility that was more a city than a factory. At one end were large rolls of steel. At the other was a freshly minted red Camry that Bowyer himself drove off the assembly line. The three miles of conveyor belt connecting them provided a tangible link between vehicles at the showroom and those at the race track, which this season will once again look like siblings rather than distant cousins.
Amid the clash and bang of a plant that turns out a car every 55 seconds, the relationship was easy to see. In an effort to heighten brand identity, the three manufacturers which compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series redesigned their entries for 2013, carrying over many more physical characteristics from their production models. Toyota's 7.5 million square-foot Kentucky operation brought it all home -- there were those snarling front ends, there were those long side creases, there were those same rocker panels, chugging down the assembly line just as they'll soon speed around the race track.
"I didn't realize until you really look at the car that came off the line, and then they had a (Sprint Cup) car out there, and it's like, wow -- it is really, really similar," Denny Hamlin said. "I think it's going to be exciting for all these thousands of employees who work here to see the car on the race track that they build every single day."
Surely, those who work at Ford and Chevrolet production plants will say the same thing when they see the NASCAR versions of the Fusion and the SS dueling for the victory. It all harkens back to the days when race cars looked more like passenger cars, a longstanding tradition that was strained by advancing technology and the need to enhance driver safety. The new vehicles, which will debut in next week's Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway, are the biggest step yet toward bridging that gap.
"For years it was, win Sunday, sell Monday," said Kentucky native and NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip. "Because what you saw Sunday, you could buy Monday. We didn't have that. We do now. ? I think when you go into the showroom now, you'll go, 'I want this car, I saw it win the race yesterday.' And I think this car, this fast car -- it'll be, 'I saw this on the track yesterday, and I want one of these.' Unlike in the past, where you just went in and took whatever they had. So I think there are some bragging rights. I think there's some pride. When you buy a car ? you want to buy something special. That's special."
Wednesday, when Toyota's NASCAR drivers and team owners visited a behemoth of a plant that employs 6,600 people and turns out roughly 2,000 cars in 24 hours, the connection came to life in vivid detail. Men who compete at 200 mph were awed like schoolchildren at a theme park as they saw giant stamping presses, massive spot-welding robots that looked like extras from a Terminator movie and assembly-line workers who had 55 seconds to do their jobs before the next unfinished car came rolling in.
"I'm thinking this might be where they want to produce my Chase cars," quipped Hamlin, whose championship bid last year for Joe Gibbs Racing was hampered by mechanical issues. Georgetown has been the home of the Camry since 1988, and the significance wasn't lost on drivers who will compete in the revised racing model on NASCAR weekends.
"That's definitely unbelievable to see the identity, the recognition, between the two cars," Bowyer said. "There's no doubt our Camrys look like those Camrys. And that's so important. It got our sport to where it is today. The manufacturer support got our sport to where it is. So to be able to get back to that, and to give these manufacturers their identity aspect back ? hopefully, they're winning on Sunday and selling on Monday. Hopefully that correlates more like it did back in the day. I know it does, and I know they've always had a return on it, but this car is going to benefit the manufacturers more than the last one did, for sure."
Judging from the reaction at the Kentucky facility, it's clear the feeling is mutual. "Y'all have caused a frenzy at the plant," community services specialist Kim Sweazy told the NASCAR group upon meeting it at a nearby airport. A few employees had their names drawn and were able to eat lunch with the drivers -- among them Kenneth Burk, who does third-shift body welding, and got off work at 7:15 a.m. but stuck around to meet his favorites from the Gibbs team.
That kind of allegiance was everywhere, only strengthened now by the closer bonds between the production cars and the more brand-identifiable models on the race track. "It gives us great pride in what we do," said Greg Good, who works in the paint department. "It's going to be a great attribute for the sport. I'm glad to see it. It's awesome."
Co-worker Joe Robinson agreed. "I think it's going to be good for all the teams, all the manufacturers," he said. "It will bring some of that manufacturer pride back. Win on Sunday sell on Monday, that's what it's always been about. Maybe it will bring some of that back."
At Chevrolet and Ford as well as Toyota, that's certainly the hope -- that the car model once again becomes as relevant to the spectator as the driver behind the wheel. "I think it's going to help the neutral race fan decide what car he likes," Hamlin said. "? I think it's definitely going to help the new race fan coming in to say, 'Wow, that's a cool looking car.' And it's going to add some excitement for that new race fan."
There was plenty of excitement in the cavernous Georgetown plant, with workers riding oversized tricycles from one end to another, automated vehicles ferrying parts between stations and welding robots throwing off showers of sparks. The NASCAR drivers couldn't get enough of it, capturing every moment on their cell phones like tourists on vacation. It was one overwhelming sensory experience preceding another, the next not under a roof but on an oval of asphalt, with a vehicle comprising the link between the two.
"We're always looking for driver rivalries. I think this gives us a manufacturer rivalry, which was so important back in the day," Waltrip said. "? We lost that. They had no role. Now they're all involved in developing the car, they all have their fingerprints on the car, they all have their name on the car, and they have a dog in the fight, and not just a motor under the hood."
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