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Saturn To NASCAR? Possibly

saturn1Despite the fact that Roger Penske recently said that he remains committed to Dodge and that he would not attempt to bring Saturn, the brand he recently purchased, into NASCAR, I have a hard time believing that will hold true.

I’m not saying that Penske is lying, or that he is working behind the scenes to secretly bring Saturn to NASCAR. Truth be told, he probably has so much on his plate with figuring out what he actually has in Saturn that bringing the brand to NASCAR is very low on the list of priorities.
That does not rule out the possibility, of course.  It just rules it out in the immediate future. I think that Penske Championship Racing — and anyone fielding Dodges at this point — has to be concerned about the future of that brand.

Penske, I’m sure, has a close eye on what is going on with Dodge, and may need to rethink what type of car he fields, should Dodge continue to struggle and cut financing.

Enter Saturn.

According to NASCAR rules, the cars that compete in the series must be based in the U.S., which Saturn currently is. Penske may look to foreign manufacturers to build the cars in the future, but so long as the model they use in NASCAR is built in the U.S., it qualifies. So that should not be an issue.

With NASCAR’s car of tomorrow, the cars share little more with their street counterparts than the decals. Thus developing a Saturn version, at least conceptually, wouldn’t be that hard. The COT’s design seems to limit the amount you can do with the nose — having that splitter — so there is a much better platform for Saturn to build off of than with the previous car. My guess is that it wouldn’t be too hard to fine tune the nose of the car to make a competitive Saturn race car.

It would be nothing like when Dodge re-entered the series in 2002. Back then, the cars had a more bullet-like shape, so hours needed to be spent in the wind tunnel working on the shape of the car. As a matter of fact, if memory serves me correctly, Dodge’s initial nose wasn’t great. It stood up a little too much, creating a lot of wind resistance. They redesigned the nose so that it was more curved, and in line with the noses of the Monte Carlo, Fusion, and the Grand Prix.

Adding in how much the rear wing specs limit the amount you can do with that end of the car, developing and building a Sprint Cup car these days probably isn’t the burden it once was. Toyota went through the Goody’s Dash series in 2000. In 2001, it won its first race in the series, and in 2003 it won its first championship.

In 2004, it entered the Camping World Truck Series, and won races in 2005. Todd Bodine won the championship in a Toyota in 2006, and Johnny Benson won the championship in a Toyota last year. And, in 2007 Toyota entered the Sprint Cup series and won for the first time 40 races later with Kyle Busch behind the wheel. So, it took Toyota seven years to get into the series and eight to be competitive.

Saturn, most likely, wouldn’t face such a long road, but it would encounter some hurdles, I’m sure. For starters, I can’t find a single Saturn v8. Their cars and SUVs only feature v6 engines, which means Saturn would need to develop a v8 to participate in the series. Most teams have complex engine departments, so this could be accomplished, but it would take time.

Saturn makes SUVs, but not trucks. So, they couldn’t use the Camping World Truck Series as a testing area/proving ground without incurring the high costs of breaking into the truck market. 

And with Saturn being in financial trouble, entering NASCAR may not be financially feasible. One thing most people have contended is that when Toyota entered the sport, they had the financing to be competitive. They could essentially throw money at the situation to help improve it. For example, Toyota had a humble beginning when it started because it was partnered with Michael Waltrip Racing, Bill Davis Racing, and Red Bull Racing. These teams were not very competitive in 2007. In 2008, Joe Gibbs Racing switched to Toyota, and that has propelled it to being a winning brand. I highly doubt Toyota could have attracted JGR without financial backing to convince them they could win with the brand.

Saturn may or may not have that. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, but they probably don’t have the money to lure a large team. Of course, Penske Championship Racing would be likely to switch to Saturns because of the obvious link. But, would violate conflict-of-interest rules, because Penske owns the brand and the race team? I don’t know. It would be interesting to see how that would play out.

Saturn could potentially cash in on Dodge’s misfortunes. If Dodge were to bow out of the sport due to bankruptcy, that would leave Richard Petty Motorsports looking for a manufacturer. But, smaller teams wouldn’t be as likely to switch to a new manufacturer if there were a bunch of Dodge COTs being sold by PCR and RPM. It would be cheaper for those micro-teams to buy the used Dodges, even if they could only use them for one year.

Again, despite Penske’s comments, I think that Saturn could come to NASCAR. Granted, a lot of things would have to happen first to make it happen. But, it could happen. Before Roger Penske bought the brand, most people would have never imagined Saturn entering NASCAR, but, the purchase is sure fueling speculation, and it is making it a distinct possibility for the future.