NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Whither Art Thou, Ford Motor Company?

Whither Now, Ford Motors?

Lately, the Ford Motor Company, the corporation that put America on wheels, has been on a bit of a roll. The new Taurus has been such a hit that dealers in trendy California, typically a bastion of import buyers, can’t keep them on the lot. It’s a repeat of the rollout of the then-risky 1986 model that redefined midsize cars in America, one that went on to be the best-selling car in America for many years. The SHO variant of the Taurus is a darling of the Walter Mitty types who dream of being a racecar driver while ferrying Junior and Buffy to Gymboree. These are the same folks who, a few years ago, were developing ulcers trying to decide between a Camry and an Accord without a thought towards a domestic car.

The new F-150 with its “man-steps” is selling well. The upcoming new diesel engine in the Super Duties is a technological tour-de-force that fascinates me, even if it has to inject what amounts to piss into the exhaust system to meet emission standards. (Look it up. “Urea” is a polite term.) The Fusion and Escape Hybrids have become the darlings of ecologically concerned domestic buyers and Polar Bear huggers to the point even Al Gore, his hysterical old self, takes his Starbucks runs in a Mercury Mariner Hybrid when the Lear Jet is down for service – and so does the Prez when he’s home in Chi-Town. Meanwhile, the new Mustang is just flat out gorgeous to the point I’ve calculated payments on one more than a few times. And the Ford execs who color outside the lines have bought to fruition several niche models like the Raptor off-road pickup, the Cobra Jet racecars and the Shelbys that keep us car guys programming the number of the local Ford franchise into our cells and playing the Powerball lottery. Ford’s market share is up, and the latest JD Power numbers indicate that Ford has equaled, if not surpassed, Hondas and Toyotas as far as reliability and owner satisfaction. (Lately, Toyota has been revealing their feet of clay to give the home team a little breathing room. Can I interest you in a used set of floor mats?) Yeah, in the bottom of the ninth Ford has hit an out-of-the-park grand slam that would make Ryan Howard weep with envy, even if the game still isn’t over.

Perhaps most importantly to the war-winning, pickup driving, tattooed, beer-drinking backbone of the American population, the sort that made the name Harley equal to Locklear for desirability, Ford forewent the dole when the current administration was handing out government bucks – our tax dollars – to car companies like Halloween treats to fat kids. Ford was confident enough they had the product in the pipeline to swear off the government handouts that make GM and Chrysler look like the Welfare Mothers of the Universe… and they did. That gave them some important street cred amongst those with concerns their great-grandkids are going to be paying off the debt for short-sighted investment types of our generation.

Before we go forward, let me admit a certain degree of affection for Ford. My first car was a silver ’70 Mustang Mach One 428 Cobra Jet four speed, slathered with the requisite shaker, spoilers and slats. (And there’s not a day that goes by I don’t daydream of finding that car under cover in the back of a barn, in the same shape I had it when my dad sold it out from under me because I got caught street racing for the third time.) My first new car out of college was a 1982 Mustang GT. Along the way I’ve owned Bosses, a Shelby, numerous GTs and such Blue Oval oddities as a 428 four-speed Ram Air Ranchero and a 1969 Mercury Cougar Eliminator Cobra Jet that could lift the front tires on cheater slicks. (I had “Mercury Poisoning” lettered in gold leaf on the rear decklid, and more than a few Mopar and Chevy guys succumbed to the disease on Front Street.)

I’m not a dyed in the wool Ford fan. My current fleet includes a GMC half-ton pickup, my ’76 455 Trans Am, a ’63 Nova SS convertible, a ’70 SS Nova clone and a ’72 big block Chevelle. (I just haven’t bought a new GM vehicle since my brand new Z28 left me and my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend walking in the pouring rain after my sister’s wedding.) Over the years, I’ve owned Road Runners (one a six-pack), Chargers and Darts. Hell, once when I was broke, I bought a Toyota Celica that was serving as a doghouse for $150, then drove it for three years and over 100,000 miles while I got my financial house in order. Yes, we all have our shameful pasts we need to fess up to.

So to sum it all up, I’m a car guy. If it’s got a big engine and it lights my fire, I’ll survive on bologna sandwiches and generic beer a few months to own it. But if I were to bet the 401k (what’s left of it) on one of the Big Four right now, I’d have my chips down on Ford.

But let’s look at NASCAR racing. (Gentle readers, you know eventually through a roundabout way I always return to topic like a retriever with wanderlust always returns to the porch.) The 2009 season started off great for the brand. Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500, which is sort of like Don Knotts winning a prize fight. He followed that up with a win at Fontana the following week, making Roush look like they were on top of their game. But since then, Ford has been blanked in 29 straight races. They’ve won zero, zip, nada Cup races (their worst slump since 1982-83) even while Chevy has hogged the limelight and Toyota and Fiat-Chrysler (as unholy an alliance as has ever been seen since Pamela Anderson married Tommy Lee) have enjoyed their moments in the sun.

In years past, the sort of domination that GM is enjoying this year would have had NASCAR rewriting the rules on an hourly basis to try to restore parity. Ask Bill Elliott. By now, the Fords would be allowed to run superchargers and the Chevys would be forced to tow 30-foot travel-trailers behind them.

But in the brave new world of the Car of Sorrow, the bodies of the cars are so similar, even NASCAR can’t justify tweaking spoiler or roof heights to equalize the racing to the least common denominator. So what’s gone wrong for Fords?

In Cup racing, Ford has basically put all their eggs in one basket, Roush Fenway Racing, and its affiliate, the once proud Yates Racing. Sure, we still have the Wood Brothers part-time effort with Bill Elliott, but when the cards are on the table, Ford’s NASCAR efforts center on Roush. So as Roush’s fortunes rise and fall in NASCAR, so do those of the Blue Oval faithful. That’s a far cry from an era where Robert Yates Racing, Junior Johnson, the Wood Brothers, and the Elliott single-car team all carried the flag to great heights. When Fords seemed all but dead in the water way back when, privateer Ernie Elliott’s high swirl cylinder head work simply caught the GM teams asleep at the wheel in what would be a renaissance for their brand (Remember 1985?) Some would argue that there was some aerodynamic chicanery (the seven/eighth scale Thunderbird that allowed Bill Elliott to rally back from three laps down without a caution at Talladega) or rear-end geometry (Junior Johnson’s cambered rear ends) that also gave Ford what Roger Penske used to call “an unfair advantage.” Be that as it may, you had three or more organizations fighting not only their crosstown automaker rivals, but each other for supremacy back then – which greatly increased the frequency of innovations.

Likewise, GM has put the majority of their eggs in the basket of Rick Hendrick and friends, though RCR still soldiers along like a three-legged dog chasing pheasants. Next year, Dodge will have just one supported team – Roger Penske – and Toyota has shifted their focus to Joe Gibbs Racing, while Michael Waltrip and company remain nothing more than an amusing sideshow.

So let’s face it: Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs are the key players here, and that’s not good for the sport. As one of the organization’s ships come in on an annual basis, the tides of the others tend to go out. This year, it’s Hendrick’s time to dominate? Why? In watching the races with the new cars, it seems the Rick Hendrick bunch have figured out something with the front end geometry that allows them extra speed in the corners – even with the coil springs wound up so tight the splitters are dragging the track. That allows those Chevys to carry extra speed through the corners, and it was clearly evident at Charlotte down the straights the Hendrick engines were in a class of their own. Johnson could outrun Kenseth in a straight line so handily it appeared the No. 17 car was dragging an anchor.

In the good old days of which I am so fond, there would have been two or three organizations affiliated with the various carmakers looking for new tricks to avoid having their asses handed to them again next week. But as I mentioned above, Ford has only Jack Roush. I’m sure Roush is about to launch into one of his accusatory rants that Hendrick and his boys are not only cheating, but screwing sheep in acts of pagan worship to the demons that run NASCAR today – but that’s not going to help any. Horsepower would, and both Ford and Dodge actually have new engines ready to go – but the teams seem hesitant to use them for fears of reliability, one of the unintended consequences of the testing ban. Well here’s a hint, guys… you ain’t beating Rick and friends for the title this year. So go ahead and throw the dice on the new engines in an attempt to salvage a little dignity with an eye towards next year. Work out the bugs now, so you can come hard out of the gate in 2010. And while you’re at it, screw around with the front end geometry to try to find out that secret HMS has. Because it’s over for 2009: You’ve had your asses handed to you in a hat with a big red bowtie on the TV panel.

Compounding the problem for Ford is off song seasons by some of their top pilots. Carl Edwards, last year’s most prolific winner, has yet to win a race. Greg Biffle, who has won at least one race per season since 2003, has yet to hoist the hardware this year, either. Since winning the first two races of the season, Kenseth has enjoyed just four top-five finishes in 29 races. UPS may be sold on David Ragan, but he hasn’t delivered.

In the first year of the Chase, Kurt Busch won the title driving a Roush Ford. All four of Roush’s teams made the Chase. (Though Jimmie Johnson finished just eight points out of the hunt.) In 2005, all five of Roush’s drivers finished in the top 10 in points, despite Kurt Busch having been handed his walking papers with two races left to run. Roush won three of the last four races in a quixotic attempt to wrest the title from Johnson some way or another. But since then, it’s been an all-Chevy and the all-Johnson show at year’s end.

Ford’s showrooms might be crowded, but the stands at NASCAR races are increasingly barren. Because of that, we need a good Chevy-Ford-Dodge rivalry to reignite interest in some fans for the good of the sport. Meanwhile, if you know of a certain silver and black Cobra Jet Mustang with wads of Kelly Murphy’s Dentyne chewing gum stuck under the glovebox, I’d love to hear from you.

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