Those 2013 NASCAR Dodges, unveiled at Las Vegas in March, are now officially mothballed
By Mike Mulhern
Dodge is history.
After months of silence, Dodge executives Tuesday announced the automaker would withdraw from NASCAR at the end of the season, a major blow to the sport.
Dodge, with a storied history in NASCAR in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, pulled out of stock car racing in the late 1970s but then returned in 2001 amid great fanfare, with Chevy star crew chief Ray Evernham hired away from Rick Hendrick to lead the effort.
Now it's all history...again.
Ralph Gilles, the president and CEO of Dodge's SRT racing operations, made the announcement, calling it "an extremely difficult decision."
Gilles said the decision was actually made last Friday, follow five months of study about NASCAR, which began in March when Roger Penske, after 10 years as Dodge's lead team owner in Sprint Cup racing, announced he would be moving to Ford at the end of 2012 because Dodge would not agree to a five-year contract, but Ford would.
Dodge stars Brad Keselowski (R) and crew chief Paul Wolfe, heading to Ford next season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
When Penske made his move, it appeared that Dodge executives, principally Gilles as the point man, had made a major error, since there was simply no other major car owner in the sport in a position to move to Dodge.
Since March Dodge officials have scrambled to put together some new package, but to no avail.
Michael Andretti, who runs an Indy-car team, was brought into the negotiations as a potential new NASCAR team owner, but Penske himself pointed out to Andretti that a NASCAR effort would require three times as much money to run as an Indy-car deal, and five times as many people.
Dodge apparently balked at the price tag to bring Andretti into the sport.
Lately Barney Visser, the up-and-coming team owner who runs Regan Smith in a Chevrolet, has pitched Dodge for a two-car package with Kurt Busch joining and with Penske's own engine shop providing motors.
Richard Petty too has been negotiating with Dodge.
However Dodge is owned by Italian car maker Fiat, and Fiat officials apparently simply haven't bought into the NASCAR marketing mystique.
Gilles said "We could not unfortunately put together a puzzle or a structure that made sense to continue our business and competitive objectives."
He insisted the decision "was not based on budgets.
Roger Penske (L) and Brad Keselowski. So how did Dodge's Ralph Gilles lose The Captain to Ford? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"It was a case of the different pieces of the puzzle not fitting together to satisfy the structure we needed to fit our overall business and competitive objectives," Gilles said.
It is not clear what Gilles was talking about.
And it has not been clear all along if Gilles really understood NASCAR.
And in letting Penske get away, Gilles and Dodge made an obviously fateful mistake. There was simply no one else available with Penske's racing credentials, and if Dodge were interesting in continuing as a player in NASCAR Gilles clearly had no other option except to sign a new contract with Penske.
Gilles concedes the problem: "Really this issue started many, many years ago as we consolidated down to one team.
"We had a very elegant situation with the Penske group -- a one-stop shop, an engine, everything, a very high quality team to work with.
"When that changed, the equation changed dramatically."
For that, however, Gilles may have no one to blame but himself. He either grossly underestimated the NASCAR world and Dodge's situation, or he was asleep at the switch.
For a Detroit insider's look: http://www.autoextremist.com/fumes1/
Dodge racing boss Ralph Gilles, seldom seen in the NASCAR garage this season, and he even skipped the Daytona 500, an ominious sign for MoPar fans (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And the way it has now all played out, those who long considered Gilles both naive and uncommitted to the NASCAR project, would appear to have been right on target.
Gilles' naiveté may be seen in this comment: "It's not as easy as you would think to configure a team at the level that we are accustomed to racing and at the level that we want to perform.
"The whole thing was very complex, more complex than we thought at first, to try to put something together again at the level that we would like to be at."
Gilles, rather than seeing Penske's defection to Ford as a game misplayed by Dodge, says it was "an aggressive decision on Ford's behalf to really have critical mass."
Read that as Ford wanted more NASCAR teams. Chevrolet has more than a dozen, for example; Dodge on the other hand has had only Penske and Robby Gordon – and Dodge support for Gordon was virtually non-existent.
Gilles said losing Penske "caught us by surprise, and we have not recovered since.
"The house of cards kind of fell apart.
"We really apologize to our fans..."
NASCAR's Brian France offered a brief statement on Dodge's departure: "Dodge has been a great partner to NASCAR for many years, and they have been part of numerous memorable moments throughout our history.
"They made a business decision not to return in 2013, as they did in 1977 before returning in 2001. We wish them well and hope they again will choose to return to NASCAR at a later date."
Ray Evernham, the man who brought Dodge back to NASCAR prominence (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)