It seems like there are a lot of things that are really predictable about NASCAR (and the NASCAR media) anymore. When the Cup Series takes to Sonoma in June or Watkins Glen in August, you prepare for the newest rehash of the same “Should the Chase have a road course?”, “Road Course Ringers Are Dead!” and the like from pretty much every news outlet that covers NASCAR.
With this week’s off week for NASCAR courtesy of the Easter holiday, we knew that some stories would come out of the woodwork as sites start getting desperate to attract readers that are looking for any NASCAR coverage this weekend. And without fail this week, we got one, but only after Brian France kind of egged things on a bit. This week’s out-of-the-woodwork story is that not only is there supposedly one new auto manufacturer that is interested in joining NASCAR, there are multiple, and one of them is Audi.
One of the media members to pick up the “Audi to NASCAR” rumor was Matt Dillner, which propelled many sites to pick up the rumor and run with it- all without any actual evidence beyond Dillner’s tweet and Brian France’s words on a SiriusXM interview.
To start, let me just say that this “Audi to NASCAR “ rumor isn’t exactly new. Audi or at least some part of the Volkswagen Group, has been linked to joining NASCAR for years- albeit without much evidence to ever support the idea. I can recall this rumor cropping up around the time that Toyota joined Cup, and that isn’t the earliest this rumor can be traced to- when Toyota was rumored to be joining the national NASCAR Series in the early 2000s, a rumor of VW joining with them was floated. It really begs the question: what’s special about having heard this rumor “for 2 years” when it dates back almost 15 years? But I digress. The “VW to NASCAR” rumor cropped up again when Dodge left NASCAR, because many people were optimistic that we would maintain the status quo of having 4 manufacturers, and none of the VW brands have joined NASCAR in the 4 years since Dodge left… or the 15 or so years that this rumor can be traced back. Now, here we are in the spring of 2016 and the rumor is back again.
What would be stopping Audi from joining NASCAR? The biggest roadblock would be the entire Volkswagen Group’s current emissions scandal, in which VW is accused of installing “defeat devices” in their diesel-powered cars to pass emissions tests while being tested, but once taken out of this test mode, they pollute many times higher than is allowed.
While this only covers around half a million passenger vehicles sold in the US, VW has admitted that the number of cars with these devices could be as high as 11 million worldwide for nitric oxide emissions and an additional 800,000 vehicles in Europe for carbon dioxide emissions. The scandal led to investigations by the German government, the European Union, China, a potential buyback of about 115,000 affected vehicles, and has set the company up for an estimated $18 billion in fines alone (though is number is outdated and could actually be much higher).
The question becomes why would VW join NASCAR with their Audi brand, when they’re facing billions of dollars in expenses relating to this scandal? It simply does not make any sense. The costs to compete in NASCAR are huge- Toyota’s entry to just the Truck Series was rumored to cost over $100 million, with their entry into Cup in 2017 possibly costing as much as an additional quarter of a billion (that’s $250 million) just to make it to Daytona in February 2017. Audi would be able to skip the Truck Series investments, but they have to either build teams up in-house or convince teams to switch from their current manufacturers, at a cost of several million dollars a year per car.
It takes years to develop the car, engine, and all of the parts and pieces needed to enter NASCAR. It took Toyota 3 years to jump from Trucks to Cup, and in 2017 it was a disaster for the manufacturer. Even if things were announced tomorrow for Audi to join NASCAR, they wouldn’t field a Cup team until probably 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. By then, the company will likely either be in the final stages of settling any lawsuits relating to this emissions scandal, or will have reached their settlements and begun paying any fines that come with their settlements. The only good news is that the 2019-2020 time frame is around when NASCAR is expected to have their next generation racecar developed, so it would be a good time to join since all of the manufacturers would likely have a new car design to deal with.
The big question still remains: Why would Audi even want to join NASCAR? The entire VW group is enjoying their success in the World Endurance Championship, IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and other series with their Audi, Porsche, and multitude of other brands. The investment costs to go run NASCAR don’t jive with what they would get in return. Audi would have to avoid taking the route Toyota did in joining Cup, and would have to attract a championship-caliber team from the start to avoid the disastrous results that Toyota had their first season. Although you can’t ever predict some of these wild manufacturer switches (did anyone see Stewart-Haas Racing switching to Ford coming?), who would Audi target? Hendrick is ingrained with Chevy. JGR is ingrained with Toyota. Ford has the new Penske/Stewart-Haas/Roush 3 team partnership. Penske would be the only championship-caliber team that could probably be convinced to switch, but they’re happy at Ford and will probably be in the middle of a new long-term deal with the manufacturer around the time this rumor would play out.
Bottom line, while NASCAR might be able to use a fourth manufacturer in Cup to make things a bit more competitive top-to-bottom, don’t expect it to come from the Volkswagen Auto Group, especially in light of all of the problems that the entire company faces, and don’t expect it to happen any time soon.