Business As Usual for Ford and NASCAR
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - It will take more than record losses and massive staff cutbacks to push Ford out of NASCAR. After a company record $12.7 billion loss in 2006 and a planned staff reduction of 40,000 this year, racing boss Dan Davis admitted he was nervous about getting the estimated $20 million racing budget for nine full-time Cup cars approved.
"But there was no problem," he said. "This is something that the people at the top levels of the company believe is a positive force for Ford. You don't stop your marketing in hard times, you work harder to market the product."
Getting an 11th Daytona 500 victory for Ford Motor Co. certainly would help. The struggling automaker has 10 cars in the field, including 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth and part-timer Boris Said, who squeezed in during qualifying.
Ford's investment in NASCAR, including its marketing budget, is estimated to be just under $100 million. The company is focusing more and more on stock cars, pulling its marketing support from the struggling Champ Car World Series this season.
Things won't get any easier this year for Ford in NASCAR's Nextel Cup, with Japanese rival Toyota joining DaimlerChrysler's Dodge brand and General Motors' Chevrolets as Cup rivals.
Chevrolet has 19 cars in Sunday's Daytona 500, including four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, two-time series champion Tony Stewart, defending series champion Jimmie Johnson and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dodge matches Ford with 10, and Toyota will have four cars in its Cup debut.
"I feel like all we really need is 10 good cars, and we have nine now," said Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology. "They're not all as strong as we'd like them to be, but we feel like we're close. We would like to win 25 percent of the races on a consistent basis, and I feel like we're within striking distance."
Ford's flagship NASCAR teams are Roush Fenway Racing, which fields five Cup cars, and the two-car Robert Yates Racing operation.
Roush won championships in 2003 and 2004, qualified all five cars for the Chase for the championship two years ago and pushed Kenseth to a second-place finish in the 2006 Cup championship.
After tumultuous times last season, when drivers Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler left Yates for other rides, Davis is confident the Yates team is on its way back. Particularly after rookie David Gilliland and veteran Ricky Rudd won the front-row spots in qualifying.
"I see some very positive things happening at Yates," he said. "It's not just motors. They're making real progress in all areas."
Ford's other teams are Wood Brothers/JTG Racing and Robby Gordon Motorsports _ both one-car teams. The Wood brothers, NASCAR pioneers, haven't won a race since 2001, while Gordon's relatively new and unproven team is switching this year from Chevrolet to Ford.
Gordon, one of two Cup owner/drivers, said he switched manufacturers, because he felt the bigger teams were getting most of General Motors' attention.
"This is an opportunity to use the tools that Ford provides, their engineers, their technical support, their wind tunnel time, their 45 percent model and all of their engineering staff to help us improve our program," he said.
Geoff Smith, president of Roush Fenway, agreed Ford's enhanced levels of support, particularly on the engineering side, are a big plus. He said he believes Ford's on the right track, despite the financial troubles throughout the entire auto manufacturing business.
"It feels like there's continued attention and focus to make sure that the investments they're making here are working effectively and working at a level that the teams need to compete successfully," he said.
In fact, team owner Jack Roush talked Ford into increasing its support of the team this year. Roush said in late January that Ford would pay some of the additional $10 million Roush says he had to add to his research and development budget.
Because success on the track is what matters.
"These days, for a company like Ford that is struggling, you really have to maximize your return," Davis said. "So you put your money where you can really make a difference, and you can do that in NASCAR.
"It helps us sell product, and we know it. So long as we're able to see good returns on where we spend our money, we'll keep doing this. And we'll keep doing it with vigor, because you have to win. If there is a day when the return isn't there, we'll look elsewhere. But, right now, it's a really good return."
A service of the Associated Press(AP)
By MIKE HARRIS