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Secret Formulas

Nissan orchestrates the great racing ruse of 2014

(Nissan North America)

(Nissan North America)

In their quest to make four-door family sedans – generally regarded among the planet’s dullest forms of transportation – appear more thrilling, carmakers enlist a variety of techniques.

They produce racing versions of the cars, optimised for competition in touring car or stock car series. They may doll the products up in willful  stripes, paint schemes, splitters and spoilers. Such tricks rarely redeem the underlying machine.

Nissan North America, however, struck on a novel alternative for its “Ride of Your Life” advertisement campaign, which called for plain-Jane Altimas to be passed off as racing cars to unsuspecting consumers, to demonstrate what an unmolested production Altima could do on a track.

Eight bone-stock Altima sedans were transformed into fake racing cars, which were staged at an event at California’s Willow Springs International Raceway. Nissan invited consumers for rides in the cars to capture their reactions to the Altima’s on-track performance, followed by their incredulity when the cars’ façades were removed to reveal their humble, unmodified roots.

Toyota employed a similar approach for a recent commercial highlighting its Camry sedan, in which a roller-coaster-style track exaggerates the car’s handling. “Any car’s going to be fun when you make it a roller coaster,” said a dismissive Steve Rice, vice president and creative director for Zimmerman Advertising, the shop that conceived of the Nissan spot.

In contrast, for the Altima advert, the agency “wanted to take everyday people, tell them that it's a racecar, let them feel the power of the car, feel the handling, imagine themselves behind the wheel and then strip the artifice off,” Rice said.

To preserve the illusion, cars featured add-on ground effects bodywork, a rear spoiler and racing-spec window nets. Inside, crews added racing seat belts and mocked up a fake competition dashboard using sheet metal, plus a fake gauge panel that drew energy from the cigarette lighter.

The imposters even rolled on stock wheels and tires, so no aspect of the cars’ performance was enhanced from showroom-standard. To create the appearance of large-diameter wheels with low-profile racing tires, the team attached larger-diameter hubcaps using plastic tie wraps.

Bodywork, meanwhile, was mounted with racing-style quick-release Dzus fasteners and the fake interior panels attached with Velcro fastening tape. Non-functioning hood latches were affixed with glue. Topping off the ruse were racing-style vinyl graphics designed for easy removal after the ride. To simulate the sound of racing cars, the crew punched a hole in each car’s muffler.

The cars were prepared by Page Buckner, art director for action films such as The Amazing Spider Man, Iron Man 2 and the Transformers franchise. It took Buckner’s construction team about two weeks to prepare the fleet of eight cars, with a goal of removing all the add-ons in less than five minutes. Ultimately they could do it in less than two.

Even with the disguises in place, the subterfuge could have been spotted by a knowledgeable observer, so the production team sought to enhance the illusion with some preparation of the consumers.

“We were inspired by theme parks, where you see a video presentation while waiting for the ride,” said Mike Disser, Nissan marketing manager. “By the time you are in that ride, you believe you are going for a ride to the moon.”

The producers told the gathered consumers that the race team could spare a brief break in their testing activities to provide the rides, and whisked attendees to the pit lane just as the “race” machines entered.

As Disser recalled, the weather was dry, the cars were baking-hot inside and the smell of cooked brakes and tires hung in the air, while the drivers revved their Altimas’ engines.

The illusion came off perfectly, with participants thrilling to their two-lap rides. “Some of the people were scared, but when we asked if they wanted to go again, they were excited to go,” said Disser.

(Nissan North America)

(Nissan North America)

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