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There's no question that fielding a competitive Winston Cup team is a major undertaking. Nothing can be left to chance and constant refinement is the name of the game. To be successful requires firm dedication, a little luck....and cash. Lots of it.
There were a number of reasons Chrysler Corporation originally pulled away from Winston Cup racing. First and foremost, the sanctioning body at times seemed less than benign when making decisions regarding dominant vehicles (which Chrysler often had), and the company felt they were sometimes singled out unfairly. Also, the economic factors of the time didn't make auto racing in any form a priority any longer, and the major financial commitments that had been made during the musclecar era were no longer reasonable. Plus, since the focus was moving toward front-wheel-drive vehicles with good economy almost exclusively, the then-present regimes had no reason to be involved, turning their performance attention to projects like Carroll Shelby's hop-ups to the 2.2 package. Finally, NASCAR was just beginning to grow in popularity, and nobody could foresee where it would end up.
Almost twenty years later, during the latter half of the 1990s, Dodge's slogan changed from "The New Dodge" to "Dodge: Different," and indeed it was. According to Ted Gray, senior manager of Dodge Dealer Advertising Associations, both the products and the philosophy were different.
"With the "Dodge: Different" program, we wanted to call attention to what makes this brand stand apart from the crowd. We felt it summed up who we were. Dodge has a different way of doing business, different ways to bring products to the marketplace. Viper was a prime example of this. Also by this point, our platform team approach was seen as the way to go. So, what we did as we started to discuss the possibility of going to the next level, to Winston Cup racing, was how can we do this differently than it has ever been done."
Those discussions began within the company during the fall of 1998. Dodge sales were up, and the success generated by the Viper and the then-new NASCAR SuperTruck program proved that auto racing remained a solid arena which, through product identification and marketing, could help sales. In Gray's words, the Dodge brand was on the edge of greatness, and this would be the next logical step in the progression.
Dodge decided early on that the successful platform-team concept would be applied to any Winston Cup effort. Like any other time Chrysler (now DaimlerChrysler) had been involved in motorsports, the idea was not to place or show, but to win. That would take some talent--and money. After presenting the idea to upper management, Dodge was given the go-ahead to make inquiries, but the costs needed to be budgeted through the division.
"The dealers, not all but some, always talked about how we needed to get back into Winston Cup," recalls Gray. "There was a lot of enthusiasm. What we weren't sure of was how much support there really was out there. It was decided that we would begin by reintroducing the executive board of the Dodge Dealer Advertising Associations to Winston Cup racing."
Dodge has 2,933 dealers, all of which belong to one of the 38 dealer advertising associations. The advertising associations, which are based on zones or regions, are non-profit organizations, and each one has a president and a board of directors. The executive board was a 10-member group of these presidents at the time (there are now 11 members), and they held sway over most of the major decision-making for the associations. Gray and his crew knew that these people would be the key to the Dodge brand returning to NASCAR's high banks. In keeping with the "Different" theme, they proposed to link the company, the advertising associations, and the dealerships together, a first in motorsports development, and made plans to get the 10 leaders to the track. "In the spring of 1999, we took the board to the spring race in Atlanta," says Gray. "We did this very quietly, renting a suite under an unrecognizable name.
The ten of them came up there and saw that this was a very big deal. Some had not been familiar with actual Winston Cup competition, so it was a real eye-opener for them. Perhaps more importantly, we walked through the parking lots. It wasn't all pickup trucks; there were literally thousands of potential car customers here as well."
Once back at the host hotel, Dodge made its presentation to the board, with a senior NASCAR official on hand as well. After hearing from the dealership liasons and motorsports representatives from Auburn Hills, a lively question-and-answer session began, with a surprising opening focus. The main area of concern was how NASCAR would treat a new Dodge program; old wounds can be hard to heal. But NASCAR, like the rest of the world, had changed, and the board was assured that NASCAR only wanted a level playing field; favoritism was no longer a driving factor in rules making.
At the end of the evening, the board took a formal vote and unanimously decided the program was feasible and should be presented to the other advertising association presidents. A couple months later, on June 6, 1999, all 38 of them were at Michigan International Speedway to see another race. This time, no suites were available.
"It was late, and the regular suites were all sold out by the time we decided to meet there," recalls Gray with a grin. "So we got a pair of PPG portable suites and put them right at the end of pit row on turn one. They were the best seats in the house. Afterward, since we were going to hold our presentation right at the track, Roger Penske let us set it up in his IndyCar restoration shop. With all the cars and tools in there, it was a perfect place for this meeting. We presented our audio-visual materials on a set of double doors on one of the paint booths."
As before, factory representatives talked about partnership, team structure, NASCAR, and marketing. During the Q&A session, NASCAR officials again reassured the presidents that a level playing field was the only goal. They took a vote, and again it was unanimous that the program should be presented to each of the 38 board of directors. This was critical, says Gray, because, for the Winston Cup idea to work at all, it would need to have complete participation from the associations. While actual financial numbers remain undisclosed to this day, the plan called for a financial and support commitment of no less than five years, a sizable time period by any standard.
So, the summer of 1999 found Dodge representatives making presentations to each association's board of directors. As in any serious negotiation, there was uncertainty and, in rare cases, even some opposition to getting involved again. But in the end, each board had enough yes votes to push the program through. A final meeting was held at Bay Harbor, Michigan, in September of 1999, with all 38 associations voting to support Dodge's return to Winston Cup. This equal partnership between the dealerships and Dodge corporate is indeed "different," an approach that had never been tried before. The standard-bearing car would carry the "Your Friendly Dodge Dealers" and "Dodge: Different" logos without any other corporate sponsorship.
The funding works like this: Each dealership puts a certain amount of money from every car sold into a funding pool used by the associations for advertising and promotional programs. These might be special equipment or bonuses for purchasers. Support for Winston Cup is generated from these funds, so a dealer who sells even one car a year can honestly say he has invested in the NASCAR program. Moreover, the new car buyer supported it directly as well.
Now came the question of talent. Since the idea was to be a credible force in the sport from the onset, the simple approach was to get a list of the top ten teams in Winston Cup to use as the starting point for developing a team. It was at this juncture that Ray Evernham's name came up. Evernham was still riding the crest of three world titles with Jeff Gordon; the primary question was whether he and other teams were locked into multi-year contracts. As it turned out, that was not a problem with Evernham, who relished the idea of starting a new project from scratch. The rest, as they say, is history.
Shortly thereafter, the formal announcement came that Dodge would indeed return to NASCAR Winston Cup in 500 days, for the season-opening 2001 Daytona 500. By the middle of 2000, NASCAR approved the swoopy Intrepid body and the final piece was in place by early November when an all-new Dodge V8 engine was approved.
Meanwhile, the dealership network is already seeing results. A corporate information website (www.4adodge.com) is receiving positive response from the public, and Evernham Racing even had a souvenir stand at every Winston Cup event after mid-season 2000 even though the cars were not in competition yet. Smith Stokes, whose Superbird is featured elsewhere in this issue, is right in the heart of NASCAR's action, Reidsville, North Carolina. His dealership, Smith Stokes Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep has won sales and service awards every single year it has been open.
"As dealers, especially here in the southeast, this is something we've wanted for a long time. In fact, we're already seeing some incremental business from Dodge's involvement. But from my perspective, the big thing is that it brings unity to the dealership network nationwide. We're all pulling for Dodge and we're all coming together in that respect. That is a big plus for everybody."