Monday, March 5, 2012

Early Start to Silly Season

Roger Penske is on the move again
Silly Season seems to start earlier every year, but less than a week after the season opener?  That’s just plain silly.

And it’s game changer.  Penske Racing is on the move – again.
Roger Penske announced last week his team will join the Ford family in 2013.  Actually, he’ll be returning to the Ford family, having run the brand in past.  Since Penske Racing first ran a car in NASCAR, an AMC Matador back in 1972, it has raced Chevys, Mercs, Fords, Pontiacs and Dodges.  It has 27 Cup wins with Ford, one more than with Dodge.

Why the move and why now?  Penske was the lone dog at Chrysler, which was good and bad.  He had the complete focus of the company and received all of its financial and technical support.  But there was nothing to compare his team with.  Penske said he needed a benchmark.  Penske’s contract was up for renewal at the end of the year and not only wasn’t Dodge ready to make a long term commitment to Penske, it gave no indication of growing its NASCAR program.  And with the new cars coming for 2013 already under development, Penske figured the sooner he let everyone know of his plans, the better.   That’s Penske, never one to burn his bridges.
Where Penske Racing fits into the Ford hierarchy still needs to be worked out.   Right now Ford’s program consists of Roush-Fenway Racing and a bunch of satellite teams, led by Richard Petty Motorsports and the Wood Brothers.  Roush/Yates provides the engines. 
What happens to Penske Racing’s engine program?  Penske stressed that using Roush/Yates engines was not part of his deal with Ford.  But given several opportunities to clarify the situation, Penske said repeatedly they would evaluate their engine program against Roush/Yates engines.  The door was left wide open regarding the possibility of using Roush/Yates engines.  He compared his team’s relationship with Roush to that of Rick Hendrick and Tony Stewart.  But Stewart-Haas racing is clearly a Hendrick satellite team.
Penske said the move wasn’t about money.  Maybe it wasn't about the amount of money paid on a yearly basis, but it’s always about money.  He said repeatedly he was looking for a long-term commitment, which Ford was willing to make.  With auto sales running at a 15 million annual pace in February and approaching the good old days, auto makers are suddenly looking at a big year.  The Detroit 3 marketing dollars are starting to flow again.  No one is better positioned to spend some of that money than Ford. 

So what’s in it for Ford? In the past Ford has been all-in on Roush.  When the team missed the mark – and it has at times – Ford missed the mark. With another primary team, the company is hedging its bets.  Jack Roush isn’t getting any younger and there’s not a lot of management depth at the team.
Ford also has a lot riding on the launch of the new Fusion later this year. You can bet the company will be pulling out all the stops, just as Toyota is doing with the launch of the new Camry this year. Look for Ford to take a play out of Toyota’s launch playbook and supply the pace car for the Daytona 500 next year.

And then there's Penske's automotive empire.  His dealership group operates more than 150 dealerships, but only a handful of Ford stores.  Penske owns the world’s largest Toyota and Lexus dealerships and is close with Jim Farley, a former Toyota executive, who is now Ford’s group vice president for global marketing, sales and service.

Farley is a racer, running a Cobra in historic car events.  After winning the Daytona 500 last year, an emtional Eddie Wood credited Farley with helping save his team.  And he is frequently mentioned as one of several possible successors to Alan Mulally when he decides to step down as Ford CEO.  Farley also was one of those thanked by Penske during the announcement.  Their relationship is a plus for both Ford and Penske.

So what becomes of Chrysler's NASCAR program?  Chrysler’s first reaction was less than enthusiastic, noting its motorsports involvement isn’t limited to NASCAR and that the company “will be evaluating opportunities availability moving forward.”
Still, the manufacturer appears to be going ahead with plans to unveil its new 2013 Charger at Las Vegas next weekend.  It’s a great looking car according to several who have seen it.  But who will develop and race the car?  The early money is on Richard Petty Motorsports.  Petty has a personal history with Chrysler and the team’s contract with Ford is up at the end of the season.  RPM wasn't happy when Roush swooped in and grabbed the Best Buy sponsorship from the team at the start of this year.   
RPM showed new life last year, including a road course victory.  But it is strictly a customer team, running cars built by Roush and engines built by Roush/Yates.  It will take a significant investment of money and technology by Dodge to bring RPM close to the same level as Penske.  A more likely possibility is Earnhardt/Ganassi Racing, another former Dodge team.  Although it had a miserable 2011 and isn’t off to a much better start this year, Earnhardt/Ganassi at least has its own engine program. 
Stay tuned.  One thing for sure, more silliness will ensue.  

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