Race Weekend Central

Peculiar Penske Defection From Dodge is Disheartening

Many theories abound as to why Penske Racing bid adieu to Dodge last week, announcing that following the end of their contract for the 2012 season, they are going to join the blue oval brigade next year with Ford Motor Company. The lone leftover of the Mopar camp after Evernham begat Gillett, and Petty Enterprises long ago shuttered operations at Level Cross. Robby Gordon has signaled he’d love a factory supported Dodge effort – however don’t expect Chrysler SRT group President and CEO Ralph Gilles to toss him the checkbook just yet.

So why did Captain Penske go Captain Schettino and abandon ship a week before the 2013 Dodge Charger was to be rolled out?

I might be pulling at straws here, but it could go back to something that happened a few years ago in the midst of the auto industry collapse of 2008-2009.

During the auto bailout of 2008, the Saturn auto division of General Motors along with Pontiac were both on the chopping block. Roger Penske had all but engineered a deal to purchase Saturn, a supply of parts, and had a deal in place to source an entry level compact sedan and a family model. The deal was all but consummated, with a joint venture car from Nissan and Reanult to be imported into the United States as a new Saturn offering. While Uncle Sam had just spent a lot of money (i.e., ours) to save the UAW-engineered shipwreck that was the American auto giants General Motors and Chrysler, they were probably none too interested to learn that Penske was about to import a family sedan that would retail for under $18,000 – and clean the clock of anything that government owned General Motors or Chrysler had to offer at the time.

Word came down at the 11th hour that the deal was off, primarily because there was no way the United States would allow the Penske-owned Saturn cars to be imported into the US. Renault backed out and the deal was off. Connecting the dots further, Italy-based Fiat now owns part of Chrysler, which is the parent company of Dodge. Perhaps they had a say in if a competing fellow European manufacturer would be stealing sales away from them?

Might there also be some lingering ill will between Penske and others who helped to scuttle the deal to save Saturn? Ford after all was the _one_ US automaker who resisted government involvement. Or is it my fellow countrymen who control the purse strings do not understand the importance of NASCAR and motorsports marketing in the United States as some have surmised? Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler (who turned down a salary and bonus for 2011) and his sweater weren’t seen around Daytona a couple of weekends back – though he does drive a black Dodge Challenger and is ostensibly Canadian. Then again, Fiat also owns Ferrari which is also synonymous with Formula One, whose annual motorsports budget could power Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, and a couple of the Roush Fenway entries for a season.

It would be a shame if Dodge is not available to attract any top-flight talent in the Cup Series, and uses that as an easy-exit strategy after having just returned barely a decade after a much-heralded return. As Kyle Petty has made the case recently, the biggest stumbling block is that of an in-house engine program with an existing Cup team. With Penske being the last Dodge holdout and Red Bull beating a hasty retreat back to Austria, there are few teams willing to either start an entirely new engine program, or switch existing team/brand strategic alliances.

If Dodge is committed to staying in the sport, they may have to go the route of establishing a factory team, or at least provide engines for all potential Dodge teams, much like Toyota has done through its TRD program. Dodge has the SRT nameplate under which to operate under, however now it is suddenly starting from scratch with only Arrington Engines being the other outlet besides Penske who have as much expertise in making Pentastar power at a professional level.

Peculiar timing to say the least, what with the debut of the new 2013 Dodge Charger, the latest iteration of the second generation COT – and arguably the best looking and most closely resembling the street model. The last time Chrysler bowed out of the sport was in 1980, as the newer downsized cars made their first appearance. By then they had all but left anyway after Richard Petty’s short-lived and fruitless season driving a 1978 Magnum, with only Buddy Arrington left to fly the five-star flag in the coming years in a Dodge Mirada. Whatever the hell a Mirada is. _(Editor’s Note: Arrington raced the Miradas, purchased from Petty Enterprises until 1982. They were then rebodied as Chrysler Cordobas and raced until 1985)._

Here’s hoping that Gilles and company can find a garage to house a Dodge or two by the end of the season. With the state of the sport in such a perilous position and listing back and forth, we need all hands on deck to power forward back into prosperity.

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