Dodge's demise in NASCAR was years in the making
Ask NASCAR fans what single image over the years best represents the sport and a lot of them would say the Superbird.
|Brad Keselowski won for Dodge in both Nationwide and Sprint Cup this year|
That's the modified 1970 Plymouth Road Runner with the ridiculously high rear wing that was built specifically for NASCAR and to lure Richard Petty back to Chrysler/Dodge.
It's one of the coolest muscle cars ever made and it's such an iconic image that it was used in the Disney movie "Cars."
It's a legend. But being legendary doesn't guarantee continued success and it doesn't pay the bills.
Just ask the Wood Brothers, the legendary NASCAR team with Hall of Fame owners and enough trophies to fill a warehouse. Wood Brothers went from NASCAR powerhouse to part-time team struggling to find sponsors.
In most professional sports, NASCAR included, you have to work constantly to stay on top. Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Richard Childress know what happens if you let up for one second -- you get run over.
Dodge got run over.
On Tuesday the company announced that it is pulling out of NASCAR -- not because it makes bad cars or bad engines that no one wants. Dodge is gone at the end of this year because it let up.
Dodge was down to one team at the start of this season -- Penske Racing. Roger Penske isn't just any race team owner. He's one of the best there is. But he didn't get to that position by sitting around.
So when Penske figured out that his team would be better off competing with Fords, he did just that.
Ralph Gilles, the CEO of Dodge's SRT Motorsports division, says the company tried diligently to find a new team but just couldn't pull it off.
"We could not, unfortunately, put together a puzzle or a structure that made sense to continue our business and competitive objectives for next year," he said. "This decision was not based on budgets. Even though we have diversified in many sports this year, this was really a NASCAR-centric discussion. It was a case of the different pieces of the puzzle not fitting together to satisfy the structure we needed to fit our overall business and competitive objectives."
Translation: We couldn't do a deal.
Dodge had no fallback position. All its eggs were in one basket.
Dodge was caught flat-footed. The Penske announcement came in February, just a month before Dodge rolled out to great fanfare the redesigned 2013 Charger it spent a boatload of money to develop, but now it had no one to drive it.
The scramble was then on to find a replacement team. But NASCAR 2012 is not the same as NASCAR 2001, when Dodge re-entered the sport 24 years after the first time it withdrew.
Back then Dodge had persuaded one of the biggest names in the sport -- Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham -- to come on board as a team owner. Penske soon followed. So did Petty.
But these days the economy has taken a huge bite out of NASCAR. There just aren't any major teams waiting to sign up and there wasn't enough time to start a new team from scratch and be ready in time for Daytona.
"Really, this issue started many, many years ago as we consolidated down to one team," Gilles said. "We had a very, I would say, an elegant situation with the Penske group, having a one-stop shop, an engine, everything, a very high-quality team to work with."
Dodge had options. IndyCar owner Michael Andretti was interested in starting a NASCAR team. But fielding a competitive NASCAR team costs a whole lot more than an IndyCar team and Dodge balked at the price.
Chrysler is owned by Fiat, the Italian company that bought it when it looked like the company would go under in 2008-09. Fiat, which also owns Ferrari, is not convinced of the value of NASCAR involvement.
And without an all-in commitment, it just won't work.
Dodge could have gone with a smaller team. Furniture Row Racing was interested in moving from Chevy to Dodge. But Dodge wasn't interested. They were spoiled by Penske.
Going from a team owned by an icon nicknamed The Captain to a team that holds its annual Media Tour event at one of its furniture stores amid dressers and mattresses just wasn't in the cards.
Competing in NASCAR isn't necessary for Fiat. Honda manages to sell plenty of Accords on Mondays without winning on Sundays. But it might be necessary for the Dodge brand.
Hopefully that will become apparent enough that Dodge will be back -- and that it won't take 24 years this time. AL.com