NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: U.S. Army Deserting Chevrolet & Defecting To… Toyota?

The rumors circulating in the garage area and beyond this week are that the Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 Chevrolet team will be looking for a new sponsor for 2009 and beyond. The car that has been co-driven by veteran Mark Martin and rookie Aric Almirola currently has a year-to-year sponsorship agreement with the U.S. Army, but it looks as though that is coming to an end at the conclusion of the 2008 season. And while the Army maintains it could be back to sponsor the team for ’09, it’s looking more and more like it will be headed to a Toyota Camry – likely one of the Bill Davis Racing entries or possibly even a Michael Waltrip Racing ride. Caterpillar’s recent announcement that it will move its funding to the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing car makes a move even more likely, as the pool of non-Toyota teams this sponsor would be willing to align itself with has dwindled down to near zero.

At first, I was skeptical. How could the U.S. Army, of all organizations, leave Chevrolet to sponsor a Toyota team – and a semi-competitive one at that? But things changed once I received an email from a noted racing merchandise website, advertising blowout deals on all U.S. Army No. 8 paraphernalia. It reminded me of the time I got an email over Labor Day Weekend on my Blackberry from a former employer, inviting me to an impromptu meeting with the Vice President and Human Resources Director the following Wednesday.

Oh, how timely!

With regards to the driver situation at DEI, there appears to be changes afoot as well. The likely scenario reported this weekend has Almirola going full-time in the No. 8 for ’09, with Martin replacing Casey Mears in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 entry next season – continuing in a similar driver/mentor capacity as he had with Ginn Racing and DEI. However, the sponsorship situation Martin leaves behind is not so simple to reconcile; in truth, that joke about “Military Intelligence” being an oxymoron in The Hunt for Red October seems to not be such a stretch after all.

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In military parlance, this at first glance appears to be a tactical error for their sponsorship effort. With the DEI No. 8 Chevrolet entry, there stands a car that is a weekly top-10 threat, one that has contended for wins on a few occasions this year and is the flagship entry for one of the iconic Chevrolet teams (with an iconic nameplate, to boot). And let’s not forget that the Army and General Motors relationship has extended far beyond racing for generations. During WWII, General Motors factories were converted to crank out tanks, rifles, pistols, aircraft and ships – among other armaments – to bear against imperialist Japanese and Nazi forces. Those factories, and the workers who ran them, helped produce over 1,300 airplanes and a quarter of all aircraft engines.

With DEI’s current driver lineup, you have in Martin the ultimate spokesman for that relationship. He’s a fan favorite and respected veteran who, when he does hang it up, will have the “legend” tag applied to him in short order. Not only that, his co-driver Almirola is an up-and-coming rookie with tremendous upside, one who’d make just as fine a representative for the Army as Martin has been. Not only is he a rising star in NASCAR’s top series, he is also of Hispanic descent, which further adds to his marketability in NASCAR’s diversity initiatives. About the only thing he is missing is Martin’s trademark buzz cut.

The U.S. Army has used motorsports as a recruitment tool for several years now, having sponsored Tony Schumacher’s ubiquitous “Sarge” in the NHRA Top Fuel ranks – but the Sprint Cup program has been perhaps their most high-profile effort since becoming a full-time sponsor in 2003 for the now-defunct MB2 Motorsports team. Since then, MB2 became Ginn Racing and was absorbed by DEI in the summer of 2007. That merger was the final piece of the puzzle for the Army: it was finally allied with a top-tier Cup program, the most successful nameplate in NASCAR, and with one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever known. The formula was any sponsor’s dream, particularly for the military. It wasn’t that long ago that recruitment levels were suffering with extended troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan dominating the headlines.

So, with that in mind, why would the Army want to leave for a team that hasn’t contended for a win since Ward Burton won at New Hampshire in 2002 – or one in MWR that was the laughingstock of the garage area just a year ago?

But when you stop to think about it, I guess their financial change of heart shouldn’t come as that great of a surprise, especially considering how the military has taken to awarding contracts to foreign interests of late. In February of this year, it was announced that the United States Air Force awarded a contract to EADS – the European consortium that holds AirBus – rather than Boeing, for a new fleet of in-flight refueling tanker aircraft. The contract, worth an estimated $108 billion over 25 years, would provide 44,000 new jobs at a critical time in our nation that is witnessing soaring fuel and food costs – to say nothing of the fact that a foreign company building “our” planes just sounds flat wrong. The proposed replacement for the Colt M-16 rifle, the main battle implement used since the mid-1960s by the U.S. Army and Marines, is the Heckler and Koch XM8, a rifle developed by the German firearms manufacturer.

Even the fleet of U.S.-made Sikorsky Marine One helicopters that the President uses are in the process of being replaced by those of a foreign entity. The new aircraft are derived from a model built by AgustaWestland, a British-Italian manufacturer, and are used by five NATO countries and Japan.

With Toyota we have a company that, although it does build more American-made cars than most domestic manufacturers (check the transmission in your rig… it’s probably stamped, “Made In Mexico”), it is still a foreign company, and there is just something intrinsically wrong with a Japanese stock car carrying the colors of the United States military. And that says nothing of the fact that Toyota, at any moment, could deal a knockout blow to General Motors as the clear No. 1 auto manufacturer in the galaxy. Now, it is receiving one of the most honored sponsorships in motorsports at the expense of the Chevrolet team that carries the name of one of NASCAR’s most beloved figures.

I don’t mean to go all Jimmy Spencer or Jack Roush on everyone by comparing Toyota’s entry into NASCAR to Pearl Harbor, or its racing efforts to those of Japan when it goes to war. Racing is not warfare; it is sport, entertainment that serves as an avenue for advertising. And let’s face it: racecars don’t run on gas, they run on money. There could be no more “green” machine on our supposedly ever-warming planet than a racecar.

But I am a traditionalist, and I still have certain views on things as the way they ought to be. You stand and take off your hat during the national anthem, 22″ rims on a car look stupid, and if you have a barbed wire armband tattoo, you had better be in prison – or stuck in a time warp from 1997. I would also venture to say that there are probably a number of surviving veterans of World War II and beyond that are less than enthused about seeing the U.S. Army’s name emblazoned upon a Toyota. Particularly one that crashes, suffers mechanical failures, or sometimes has to load up and go home on Friday following qualifying.

But come this February, those vets may have no choice, experiencing a fear they never would have imagined would become reality: a U.S. military-sponsored Toyota Camry.

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