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Q&A with Ford's Brian Wolfe

Director, Ford North America Motorsports
Thursday, February 05, 2009

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Brian Wolfe
Brian Wolfe, director, Ford North America Motorsports, took over the top job at Ford Racing midway through the 2008 season.  As both the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series get their 2009 seasons going this weekend, Wolfe took a few minutes to answer 10 questions.

1. What’s been the biggest surprise to you during the first six months you’ve been on the job?

“When I first came to Ford Racing, because I had had a lot of interface with many of the guys here, I knew I was coming to a really motivated team that could get a lot done with really low resources. That certainly proved to be the case. The motivation here is great… to be in a smaller team environment and pick up on that every day. There’s dealing with less formal meetings and walk-arounds and getting things done, that’s been great. But moving forward, I think the biggest opportunity in front of us is really to get the maximum return on all of our fantastic results from racing. We’ve had so many successes that sometimes the general public doesn’t know. And the one that comes to mind is a series that we don’t professionally sponsor, but is a very professional series …Grand-Am … where the Ford Mustang FR500C won the KONI Challenge last year, beating the likes of Porsche and BMW and Nissan. In European GT4 FIA, we also beat all of those guys, plus Aston Martin.  To be able to use that information to tell people what a great engineering company Ford is, and that all that engineering is going to our product and then to get people to put us back on their consideration list. And it’s not just a Mustang thing; it’s a Ford thing. Those are the biggest surprises and opportunities.”

2. Can you describe the value of the racing program to Ford Motor Company?

“Well, obviously racing is appropriate in marketing. I myself am a sportsman racer, and I like to say that racing can be entertainment to some, and of course we use that entertainment to sell cars and trucks. We don’t just do it for the fun part.  Of course, it’s fun and there’s nothing wrong with having fun, but if we didn’t use that to sell more cars and trucks, it becomes a hobby. Like I said, I can go racing on the weekend myself, and that’s just Brian Wolfe racing his own car not looking for any sponsorship. But really what racing is here for us at Ford is to help get the message out and the favorable opinion of Ford improved so as to improve consideration in new cars. Once you consider us and make it into our showrooms and drive that showroom traffic, they’re going to buy our products because they are superior to anybody else’s.”

3. Can you give an overview of the two major professional series that Ford is involved in?

“In NASCAR, we are really focusing on Sprint Cup; that is the premier series within NASCAR. We have three very, very capable teams starting with Roush Fenway, who is fielding five cars.  We had a second-place overall finish last year, winning 11 races, including the most of any with one driver with Carl Edwards. So we’re expecting very, very good performances out of the Roush Fenway camp. Then we have Yates Racing, which is fielding three cars this year - up from two cars last year - which is an improvement in tough economic times. They picked up Bobby Labonte and Paul Menard, in addition to keeping Travis Kvapil. I’m expecting their cars to be in the top 15 at every race. And of course we have the Wood Brothers, where we have the longest-running manufacturer-team alignment than anyone else has ever had in the sport.  I think they started in 1950 with Ford, so they have 59 years of uninterrupted partnership in one way or another [with Ford]. Now there was a time when Ford was out of NASCAR racing, but they stayed loyal to Ford and kept racing our products and got a lot of wins. And they’ll have Bill Elliott driving that car. They’re going to do very well. They’re running a partial season this year due to the current economic climate, but I expect them to also be extremely competitive at every race they’re in. We’re looking pretty good going into the 2009 season.

“For NHRA and Funny Car, we have Team Force, with John Force being the biggest and arguably the most colorful character in motorsports, and most definitely in NHRA. His daughter, Ashley, is also extremely popular and the first female to a win Funny Car race. Robert Hight is also racing on that team along with last year’s Rookie-of-the-Year, Mike Neff. All four of those cars made it to the Countdown to 1 last year for Funny Car, and we’re expecting nothing less this year, so that’s looking good. We also have Bob Tasca who had just come into Funny Car racing last year, and he’s helpful because he’s also a dealer that knows how to sell cars and trucks, and he’s a racer that is helping and advising us on how we can get more out of our involvement with NHRA. Bob also made an alignment with Tim Wilkerson, who used to run a Chevy body on his Funny Car, and now is switching over to Mustang. Bob just missed the Countdown last year, I think he was 11th going into the Countdown; he was the top person who didn’t make it. So we’re expecting all six of those Funny Cars to be competing for the title at the end of the year.

“Those are the big sponsored areas.  Again, I mentioned some of the places that Fords are racing in very popular series that are unsponsored, but still giving us some great bragging rights.  That would be places like Grand-Am, and we’re doing some in Pro Stock as well.”

4. Talk about Ford’s commitment to grassroots racing and why that’s important.

“Grassroots racers, being one myself, I’ve always felt are some of the most loyal customers. They also have an enormous ability to influence their social circles and people they interact with daily. And as we try to reach out to them and show them that we appreciate what they’re doing, we talked to them, and said if they need help with the sanctioning body, then we’ll talk to the sanctioning bodies. They’ll be more encouraged to help us sell cars and trucks in their social circles and that becomes very important. Not to mention when people are seeing them on the track, they’re seeing winning Fords. So it kind of gives us a double-whammy that way. So those racers are very important and acknowledging them and maybe giving them some tools they can use to help sell, or give them special offers for cars and trucks, gives us a large opportunity. In addition, as we can reach out to them about our service deals, like our Quick Lane dealers that are out there now.  So we try and help them to give special incentive deals to their social circles and say ‘Hey, here’s a free oil change at a Quick Lane dealer.’ So we’re trying to pull that whole package together and really get the sportsmen racers to help be our mouthpiece.”

5. Can you talk about Ford’s work with safety within NHRA and why that’s important?

“Well, safety is already within Ford’s DNA. We have more five-star rated crash vehicles than any other manufacturer on the planet. That’s means a lot to us. We all have families; we all make sure our cars can be as safe as can be. When we start to use our engineering resources to assist NHRA, whether it be with our Blue Box program, or with data logging in the vehicles, we understand what happened in an incident and understand the data and it helps us recommend design changes or give design changes to the chassis to make them more robust from those events.  Or it might be helping with the NASCAR Car of Tomorrow on with safety technology. By taking our CAE tools and applying them to those extremes, it makes them all more reliable for road cars. So it really helps us supplement our CAE tools. That’s really big. This year we’re also working with NHRA on some of the next steps on safety within the nitro-burning cars. It’s a little preliminary to say anything about that at this point, but within the next couple months I think there’s more good news to come from within Ford to help make race cars safe.”

6. How are Ford Racing engineers helping race teams be more competitive behind the scenes where people may not know?

“One of the key things that a manufacturer can offer that a financial sponsor can’t is the technical ability of Ford Motor Company. With the engineers we have on staff, it may be aerodynamic development to get the right downforces and the right drags to make the cars competitive in NASCAR and drag racing and Daytona Prototypes in Grand-Am. Those things are important and with our engineering resources, you can’t really buy that type of vast knowledge. We also work on the computer simulations as I’ve already mentioned, whether it’s helping make cars safer or making the cars handle better. Our proprietary FRAMS software we think is superior to anything else out there, so we have this enormous software power that we then train our teams in, and help run those simulations to get the right setup on the tracks. Today’s age in racing is just like today’s age in engineering.  You can’t afford to do this:  I’ll build it, I’ll test it, I’ll refine it, I’ll build it, I’ll test it, I’ll refine it.  You don’t have the time or money to do that so you have to use computer engineering to make that efficient. And we offer that to the teams. Not to mention we worked in conjunction with Doug Yates at Roush Yates Engines with our new NASCAR engine, code-named FR9. And we have an engineer stationed down there that has access to the assets of Ford Motor Company up in Dearborn. We run simulations and work with what the developers are going to do to really offer a superior hardware set for NASCAR.”

7. Can you talk about technology developed for this year?

“When you talk about this year, first and foremost it means the new NASCAR engine. And that has the latest technologies in there from casting walls thicknesses to being designed for manufacturing, which are going in to make this new NASCAR engine the very best it can be. And we’re already coming off of an engine that is the leading engine, I think, from a power and reliability perspective in NASCAR, so we had a really good foundation to build from. Some of the other pieces of technology that are coming include doing a new 2009 Mustang Funny Car body, which we put a lot of effort in as far as wind-tunnel-wise and engineering-wise, along with the John Ford Racing team to reduce drag while maintaining downforce. And that’s going to really be a big help for us out on the track. We also used a lot of our engineering tools to provide non-sponsored, but new products for Pro Stock racers. So we’re going to be introducing a new Pro Stock cylinder block and head later this year. We also are going to be offering a new Pro Stock body kit based off the 2010 Mustang, which will have the very best aerodynamics to give us a very competitive product to have out there. So those are some of the new things that are coming.”

8. Can you discuss the importance of the Ford Racing Performance Parts program for the company?

“Again, the performance parts program has to mean multiple areas, but that really helps us to move the needle forward. First, when we talk Mustang, we offer performance packs for those cars. So if someone buys a brand-new Mustang, a dealer could install a handling pack, a super pack or a supercharger, a drag pack; all these things that are designed and engineered by Ford Racing engineers with our suppliers to appeal to those aftermarket customers. So, a lot of folks with these cars want to make them their own. While the race product is fantastic, they may want to take it to the next level, so it allows them to help personalize it, which is important and it helps drive incremental sales. The other thing that it does is a lot of our performance enthusiasts over the years are looking for performance upgrades for some of their push-rod engines and handling packs for some of their cars. So again, we offer some very superior cylinder blocks for our 02, 03 and 351. We have this BOSS 302 block, BOSS 351 block. We’re also doing a new block for the old 429 or 385 series as they called it, to offer really well-engineered, well-manufactured parts to keep those guys that are running the more historical cars healthy. And again that helps to build their brand loyalty, which again helps us to sell new cars and trucks, which is again what we’re all about. It’s all this virtuous circle of performance and new car purchase and driving show room traffic.”

9. Who should people be looking for in the Ford Racing lineup as stars in the next couple of years?

“The first one that comes to mind, and I think that he’s coming into his own is David Ragan.  He’s doing a fantastic job and improving every year.  He has a great personality, a lot of integrity and he is almost certainly one of those people that is on the watch. And then Colin Braun is probably hot on his heels, racing in the truck program this year. Colin is another a truly up-and-coming youngster and I think he’ll be making his way through truck and showing what a great driver he is and what a great personality he is. He’s just really exciting. Moving on to NHRA, again much like David, is Ashley Force. She is really coming into her own, but as she wins more and more races, she’s going to be probably the most popular female driver in motorsports today. I believe that she is just doing great and her performance is getting better and better every weekend out. And then another one that is coming, and we’re pretty excited about, is in the Pro Stock world and it’s not a factory-backed program, but we’re really excited that Jim Cunningham has picked up Erica Enders to race his Pro Stock Mustang this year. Again, she has a long history as a racer from Junior Dragsters; she starred in a Walt Disney movie about racing and is an excellent driver.  I was really impressed when I saw her race Jim’s Pro Stock Mustang last year at the U.S. Nationals and we’re really excited to see what she can do for Jim this year. So we’ve got some youngsters out there that we think are really help spread the good word on Ford for us.”

10. What’s your perfect day at the race track?

“Well, I’d say it starts with a sunny morning and probably a little briskness to the air, maybe 65 degrees and getting to the track early and making the rounds.  And, of course, it ends with a Ford in Victory Lane.”

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