Although 2011 Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart won Sunday’s NASCAR race in Las Vegas (full race report and results here), the unveiling of the 2013 Dodge Charger race car and the real reason Penske Racing decided to leave Dodge in favour of Ford dominated the weekend’s auto racing news.
You'll recall that out of the blue, on March 2, Roger Penske announced that in 2013 his NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series teams would race Fords and this was reportedly as big a surprise to Dodge as it was to everybody else.
Penske Racing was Dodge’s only multi-car team in NASCAR and was the brand’s champion. So the question had to be: why?
There’s been all sorts of conjecture, and a lot of the analysts have been close, but the real reason was that Penske wanted a five-year commitment from Dodge and couldn’t get it. So he picked up the phone and called Ford and the rest is history.
The news came out during an interview last night on the Speed Channel program Wind Tunnel in which host Dave Depain interviewed Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Dodge. They were discussing the unveiling at Las Vegas of the 2013 NASCAR Charger (which I think is one swell-looking race car) when Despain asked about Penske.
"Penske wanted a five-year deal but we weren’t ready to go there," Gilles said.
Now, Despain is a good interviewer but he was running out of time in the segment and wanted some answers to other questions and didn’t ask the obvious follow-up, which was, "Why weren’t you ready to go there?"
It was a glaring admission by Gilles, because if Dodge wasn’t prepared to sign on for five years with Penske, what other heavyweight team will be willing to do business if the best that Dodge is able to offer turns out to be short-term?
Dodge is part of Chrysler, which is owned by Fiat. Peter M. De Lorenzo, writing on the website autoextremist.com, said this in an article posted March 7:
"The Fiat-Chrysler executive team is led by the ubiquitous Sergio Marchionne, (Norris note: a Canadian, by the way) who is . . . a ruthless cost-cutter . . . This is just another import-owned car company trying to squeeze out as much market share and profits as they can possibly muster. . . And, they couldn't care less about NASCAR to boot.
"It wasn't hard for Roger Penske to figure that out. Not only was his Dodge-branded Sprint Cup racing program not on Marchionne and company's radar, all signs were apparent that the likelihood of any of this changing was slim and none."
Marchionne served notice at the Detroit auto show in January that, when negotations start with the Canadian Auto Workers next fall, they had better be prepared to bend over. It follows that if everything else is being cut, auto racing programs would not - and could not - be spared.
Gilles put on a brave faced in the Despain interview but in order to stay in the game, Dodge is going to have to spend a fortune. He admitted as much when he said the biggest problem is the engine program:
"It's quite a hill to climb," he said. "We have a lot of know-how; we know how to build an engine. Facilities is the problem."
You bet it's a problem and with a guy like Marchionne controlling the purse-strings, it's pretty much guaranteed it will remain a problem.
So this weekend in Las Vegas, Dodge unveiled a really good-looking racing car but you have to wonder why they bothered.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the Nationwide Series race at the weekend, with Mark Martin second and Elliott Sadler third (full results here). Danica Patrick was 12th and on the lead lap, a much better result than last week’s laps-down performance in Phoenix.
FIA race director Charlie Whiting spoke to F1 reporter Adam Cooper at the weekend about rules changes taking place in 2012 (link here). Two are of particular interest:
1. That a Grand Prix will no longer go more than four hours. The Canadian GP last June went four hours and four minutes (because of a two-hour rain delay). Now, if a race reaches the four hour mark, racers will be told they have one more lap until the checkers.
This is interesting, because if the rule had been in force last June, Jenson Button wouldn’t have won. F1 cars do a circuit of Circuit-Gilles Villenvue in about 1:15:00. Button forced Sebastien Vettel into a mistake on the last lap and took the lead and the win in a race that went 4 hours, four minutes and 39 seconds. If the four-hour rule had been in effect, the race would have been over at 4:01:15 (or thereabouts) and Button wouldn’t have had his chance.
Let's hope they're a little flexible with that one. If it's a lap or two from the conclusion, as was the case in 2011, they should let it go.
2. The other interestingg change is that they have written down, once and for all, the rule that a driver is allowed one defensive move and one only. After a driver blocks – oops, defends his position – once, he now can’t move back toward the racing line without leaving a lane clear. Some people are already referring to this as the "Michael Schumacher Rule."
In the next few days in this blog, and in next Saturday’s Toronto Star Wheels section, my annual interview with Canadian Formula One expert Gerald Donaldson on what to expect in F1 this year will be published.
I will also record a Wheels Smackdown video segment with former Wheels editor Adam Gutteridge on the question: "Will Jenson Button win the World Championship of Drivers in 2012?" Guess which side I’ll be taking?
Finally, Stewart Friesen of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., won the Coffee Cup Classic 40-lap TQ midget feature Saturday night at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. He was back in Victory Lane Sunday afternoon for a clean sweep.
Friesen is usually a kick-ass dirt modified racer who is particularly proficient on the big mile tracks. But I wonder: does this suggest Friesen might be considering a crack at next January's Chili Bowl midget race indoors in Tulsa?
If so, I might have to go cover it.