Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Mopar to No Car – Dodge’s Departure Sickens the Mopar Faithful

Longtime readers at Frontstretch are no doubt familiar with Matt McLaughlin. Our resident gearhead, legitimate car guy and certified Harley Head has told numerous stories of his Trans Am, F-150 and many a summer spent riding H-Ds along the Eastern seaboard. It is my duty, however, to inform you that there is also a Mopar maniac among our ranks and in your midst, and he is crestfallen, inconsolable and unstable at best following the announcement that Dodge is leaving NASCAR at the conclusion of the 2012 season.

That individual is me. When did I first become aware of this affliction? I guess in some ways, I always knew.

I was born into family where it truly was Mopar or No Car. My Dad was a Plymouth man, favoring Furys, ‘Cudas and Satellites, but eventually migrated to Dodge. When I was a colicky baby, I am told that rides in my Dad’s 440 Challenger would get me laughing and relieve the pain. My first memories are riding in my Mom’s B5 blue 1971 Charger SE, and even though it was only five years old, I can remember looking down and seeing the white stripes on the highway through the floorboards of my Dad’s 1976 Power Wagon.

His brother always had a Dodge in his garage, be it a Dart, Polara or Power Wagon, and to this day still has the Sunfire Yellow 1969 Charger R/T he purchased new in February of ‘69 – still wearing the original plug wires with just a shade over 100,000 miles registering on the odometer next to the Tach-Tock clock.

My mother’s youngest brother (my uncle for those in Kentucky) caught the bug too, and due to a close proximity in age, I vividly recall the 1972 GTX with Air Grabber hood that came rumbling up our driveway when I was five years old – and at seven years old, riding shotgun in his 1971 Challenger R/T as the starter fell off the 340 at 6,000 rpm, resulting in the bell housing shattering on the A-883 4-speed.

It was the first and only time I’ve ever had the pleasure of hitchhiking.

As I neared driving age, I was bound and determined to have a hot rod as my first car. In January 1991 at 13 years of age, I spotted an ad in the Bargain Corner for a 1972 Plymouth ‘Cuda for $500. $300 later it was mine, in all of its rusted, rotted, acorn and squirrel-crap infested glory. Lemon Twist yellow with a seized up 440 sitting between the fenders – because that’s what every male needs for his first car: 480lbs/ft of torque and drum brakes. No skinny jeans allowed here friends – you legitimately need a large pair to wield something with 400 horsepower and intermittent brakes.

My Dad and I spent the better part of the next three years restoring the car from the ground up, enduring his bout with kidney stones, a robbery that saw all of his tools and welders stolen, as well as me earning a whopping $5 an hour as a high-school student working at a gas station and car wash. It’s OK it was 1993 and gas was $0.85 a gallon – not like it was The Grapes of Wrath or something. During this same time, my cousin Joe was undertaking a similar feat with a 1973 Dodge Challenger Rallye.

Once completed, it literally was hell on wheels, as we both spent the better part of the next six years drag racing, street racing, bench racing and making Go Pro and YouTube videos look like Sesame Street popup books, as the chase scene from Bullitt was recreated anytime we were within a quarter-mile of each other.

Think The Dukes of Hazzard meets Goodfellas and you’ll have a pretty accurate illustration of what our families are like.

What then, pray-tell do 383s, 440s, 727s, and 3.91s have to do with Dodge bailing on the biggest car commercial in North America? It is this sort of passion for the Pentastar that has so many of my fellow Chrysler comrades weeping openly in their oil-puddle stained streets this week. You would be hard pressed to find a group of automotive enthusiasts as dedicated, loyal and steeled with a manufacturer as Mopar fans are to their brand, their cars and the drivers who wheel them in competiton.

When Dodge made their way back to circle-track racing in a competitive form in the ARCA Series with Bob Keselowski’s Chrysler LeBaron (which is French for, “The Baron”), hope sprung eternal that one day they would return to the big show and pick up where Petty left off before he abandoned his 1978 Magnum for Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and ultimately Pontiacs – or as the King called them, “Punnyacks.” When the Craftsman Truck Series was announced for the 1995 season, it was the modern-day incarnation of the Prodigal Son returning, as Petty Enterprises fielded a No. 43 Dodge in NASCAR for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Rumblings soon started about the same time the first LA-motor fired to life in their reborn Rams – when will they field a Cup car? After all the new Intrepid was shapely and snarky enough to compete with the Monte Carlos and Thunderbirds of the day. Heck Lincoln nearly made a stab at it with their Mark VIII about this same time.

That day would come at the Daytona 500 in 2001, when Petty Enterprises, Chip Ganassi Racing and Evernham Motorsports took to the track in the new Intrepid.

It would be Sterling Marlin who would capture Dodge’s first victory in the largest racing series in the western hemisphere at Michigan International Speedway conveniently enough – just an hour outside the headquarters of what was then Daimler-Chrysler. He would back it up again at Charlotte in October, taking the checkered flag – and the United States flag – at the same time military operations began on a large-scale in Afghanistan, following the attacks on September 11th.

After years of suffering and having only privateers such as Buddy Arrington to look to, Chrysler fans had something crow about again in motorsports besides NHRA Pro Stock and anything Hemi-powered in Top Fuel or Funny Car.

By 2008 however the automotive industry was in the toilet, and things were circling the drain with the plunger of unemployment, sagging sales and skyrocketing labor and benefit costs forcing the Big Three into the septic system of insolvency. Only Ford was able to bail itself out – mortgaging the family farm and the Blue Oval badge itself to remain afloat. General Motors became known as Government Motors, while Chrysler went a similar direction, ultimately with assistance from the Italian auto giant Fiat.

During their respective restructuring, the issue of paying for racecars to go play became a bit of a non-sequitur, with taxpayers on the hook for some dumb decisions over the course of the past 25 years.

Couple this with the green movement reaching a crescendo, passing something off that burned gas and rubber was not going to work as a hybrid.

While a compelling case could be made for NASCAR being an effective marketing arm to move metal and keep people interested in each brands respective models, money dried up mighty quick, which affected the Dodge bunch most of all. Petty Enterprises – the most successful marque in the history of the sport folded.

With the help of some investors, Richard Petty Motorsports came to life – although there was suddenly no room left for Kyle Petty. Ray Evernham decided he had enough of the rat race and soon after George Gillett took control of his team, it folded as well, leaving only Robby Gordon’s manufacturer-of-the-year program and Penske Racing, who had been with the brand since 2003.

As the only competitive Dodge team in the series, Penske was on a plain unto their own; sure they had the sole attention of the remaining Dodge engineers, but there were no other teams to baseline or bounce ideas off of.

Recall the struggles of Roush Fenway Racing in 2009-2010. It was not until the gang at RPM tipped them off to the proper front-end geometry after two years of flawed data acquisition did they return to their winning ways. It was not until Brad Keselowski broke his foot in a testing crash at Road Atlanta last summer and suddenly became awesome that Dodge had anybody other than Kurt Busch that was competitive and a race-winning title contender.

Coming off his 2010 Nationwide Series championship and running clearly the coolest car in the series with the Challenger, things looked to be turning around for Dodge and Chrysler as a whole, posting consistent double-digit sales increases month after month.

Sadly, this story doesn’t have such as happy ending.

With the unveiling of the new 2013 Charger at Las Vegas this March, there was much hope that teams would come-a-callin’ to be the newest member of the Fiat family, what with Penske’s announcement of a move back to Ford for next season. Rumors swirled that Richard Petty Motorsports would be more than happy to be back with Mother Mopar, and there were rumblings of Andretti Autosport expanding to NASCAR – what better fit than another American-Italian group, Chrysler by way of Fiat as the manufacturer of choice.

As late as this weekend it was rumored that Furniture Row Racing would be acquiring the Penske engine program, with Kurt Busch and/or Ryan Newman as candidates to expand Barney Visser’s Colorado-based organization. After all, the NHRA Mile High Nationals are sponsored by Mopar – clearly it was all coming together.

Just as quickly, it all fell apart. On Tuesday, Ralph Gilles, SRT CEO and Brand President who heads up Chrysler’s motorsports endeavors confirmed that Dodge would be gone from NASCAR after 2012. No Charger. No Challenger. No Ram. There was the cursory, “keep our options open for the future” statement, which is a lot like a girl telling you, “I’ll call you later.” Don’t bother texting either champ; it’s not going to matter.

Perhaps what is most unfortunate and borderline insulting is the timing of the announcement. This weekend marks the 32nd annual Mopar Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. For the uninitiated, imagine placing Woodstock, Vatican City, and a Metallica concert alongside Woodward Avenue, with late-night burnout contests in the Hooters or Motel 6 parking lot. It is the Mopar Mecca if there ever was one, born of the days when you could pick up a Hemi-powered anything for chump change – the same cars today that roll across the blocks at Barrett-Jackson for $250,000 – and not that long ago were going for two to three times that amount.

Want to see a guy with the Roadrunner tattooed on his calf? This is the place.

With Dodge announcing that they’re closing the doors on NASCAR – yet initiating their ALMS Viper program, we may be seeing the Euro influence on what was the most American of car companies. From helping to win WWII, to rising from the ash heap of automotive obscurity not once, twice, but three times in the last 20 years, followed by a host of tear-jerking, heartstring tugging, chest-thumping ads that have been appearing for the last two years.

From George Washington power sliding into battle in a black SRT8 Challenger, to Clint telling us during halftime at the Super Bowl that the fight’s not over and the world will once again kneel at the altar of Walter P., and the love letter from a wife to her between jobs husband that makes you ashamed to look in the mirror if you don’t own something imported from Detroit (even though the Charger and Challenger are built in Canada – with made in Mexico engines), it had appeared that Dodge was in it to win it, and not going to bail on NASCAR.

This week they did just that, and burned a lot of goodwill within the racing community with teams who were eager to join the cause, while breaking the hearts of millions of longtime friends, fans and followers.

I for one am among the latter group. I hate goodbyes, so I guess we’ll just say, arrivederci

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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