Although it will probably go unnoticed by the average inhabitant of the Ann Arbor bubble, this Sunday brings what passes as a second Super Bowl in some parts of the country. But when the green flag flies for this year’s running of the Daytona 500, the featured race on the NASCAR’s top Nextel Cup circuit, something just won’t be the same.

Morgan Morel

If you’ve ever watched NASCAR, you know that only cars made by Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge have traditionally participated in the races. While none of the race models look remotely like the street versions of the Fusion, Monte Carlo or Charger, this selectivity is regarded by many as a point of pride in American brands.

Going back into the days of the Big Three, NASCAR, to a significant number of its fans is the quintessential American sport. But with a fourth car, Toyota entering the Nextel Cup races this year, you’ll understand if some fans get a little worked up about a “foreigner” crashing their party.

And if sentiments expressed on online forums like the one at fansagainstracingtoyotas.com are any indication, worked up is putting it lightly. While some resort to nativist provocations even Detroit’s assembly-line workers no longer employ, others simply break out the racism. Says one poster: “As far as japs making better cars, G.F.Y.!!! I think the young people need to be reminded of P.H., this country is way to forgiving.”

Ouch. I need hardly explain that “P.H.” refers to Pearl Harbor; “G.F.Y.” I think is best left unelaborated. Honestly, it’s difficult to understand the fans’ anger here – let me explain.

As a former resident of Dearborn, Mich., the very heart of Ford country and home of the beleaguered auto giant’s world headquarters, I know a thing or two about the pride in American autos and the despise of foreign cars among autoworkers here in Michigan. Yet I have always known their objections to be strictly pragmatic, rarely racist.

Many Dearborn residents frowned upon purchasing Toyotas or Hondas because their jobs depended on the success of Ford or General Motors. Many I spoke to would readily admit that Japanese cars were often a better value and of superior quality, but for economic reasons, their disdain for foreign cars endures well into this decade.

But today the line between what is American and what is foreign is more than just blurred, it’s completely obliterated. I understand if the people of places like Dearborn remain resentful – their jobs still depend on the few remaining Ford and GM plants – but the rest of America is deluding itself by looking at Toyota as an evil foreign entity.

Every year, Cars.com releases its “American Made Index,” which lists the top 10 cars in terms of American parts content, assembly and sales. To qualify, a car must contain at least 75 percent domestic parts. Of the four models that will line up at Daytona on Sunday, only one makes the list.

It isn’t the Ford Fusion, which is assembled in Mexico, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo or the Dodge Charger (both assembled in Canada). That’s right, the only Nextel Cup model to make the top 10 on the American Made Index is the Toyota Camry, which assembled entirely at a plant in Kentucky, checks in at number three.

Toyota, which at some point this year will eclipse General Motors as the world’s largest automaker, has not merely expanded American sales and run the profits back to Japan, as some would have you believe. The company has expanded greatly its manufacturing operations in America, bringing new plants and thousands of jobs to places like Indiana, Texas and West Virginia.

Again, there is reason for Michigan’s UAW creed to be bitter with the Japanese automaker, but why would fans of NASCAR (ironically concentrated in many of the southern states where Toyota, Honda and Nissan have built plants) despise an automaker that is more American in parts content and assembly than the traditional contenders? Why is there an outcry over Toyota’s entry into the Nextel Cup when only three years ago there was not a word of protest at majority German-owned Daimler-Chrysler entering Dodge into the field?

Assuredly the protests are from a flagrantly ignorant minority. NASCAR is America’s fastest growing sport, whose reach now measures well beyond its traditional hotbed of North Carolina. When the engines rev on Sunday, there could be as many as eight Toyotas in the mix. Their entry, along with celebrated open-wheel driver Juan Pablo Montoya’s Daytona debut, is a great opportunity for the sport to prove its diversity to intrigued viewers who remain hung up on the redneck stereotype that has plagued it since its very inception.

After years of stalling, NASCAR officials have abandoned their ultranationalist leanings and accepted Toyota as a legitimate contender that will only make the sport better. Will the fans ever do the same?

Imran Syed is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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