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Ford racing boss Brian Wolfe says NASCAR is key to marketing...and Len Wood says efficiency is key to getting back on track

By Mike Mulhern

   Chrysler's future, and just not in NASCAR, may be a major issue at the moment, and General Motors and Toyota are both making cuts in their NASCAR programs because of the weak economy. But Ford racing boss Brian Wolfe says NASCAR is still a very important marketing tool for car makers, particularly his.
   "As part of our strong future, obviously having a strong marketing platform is key, and NASCAR is very important to us as part of that marketing platform," Wolfe told the annual NASCAR tour Thursday, during Ford's time at bat in showcasing its stock car racing talent
   "But to make that platform a success, we have to have a very strong foundation -- and the strong foundation is having a championship-caliber team and program. When you look at our team owners, the integrity they put behind their teams, the way they select their people, I couldn't be prouder. And I guarantee you that any manufacturer would in a heartbeat change lineups with us.
   "It is also very important, though, with industry sales down a bit because of the overall economy, that we do deliver our return-on-investment. So now it's more important for our fans and our co-sponsors to really influence their social circles, so that when you're looking for a new car, go out and drive a Ford."
   Yes, it looks like a year of the hard-sell, for everybody in this sport, from Daytona executives on down the ranks.
   And, while car owner Jack Roush is certainly delivering, with what Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle were able to do last season, the other two parts to the puzzle – team owners Len and Eddie Wood and Doug Yates – clearly have to step up their games.
    Yates has shaken things up, added Bobby Labonte and Paul Menard as drivers, kept Travis Kvapil, but sidelined David Gilliland.
   The Woods, on the other hand, have decided to cut back and revamped their operation to feature Bill Elliott in just a dozen Cup races. The Woods will of course open at Daytona, but they plan to focus the rest of the season on mid-sized tracks.
   "Daytona is the Super Bowl…then it's going to be the intermediate tracks, and Michigan and Indianapolis," Len Wood said of Elliott's schedule. "That way we can take advantage of Ford's (computer) simulation programs.
   "Not throwing off on any tracks, but it makes more sense to stick with the intermediate tracks, focus on those, rather than throw in half-miles for example.
   "And we're checking hotel rooms in making our schedule too: If the average weekend package of rooms we'd need is $8300, well there's one track where they charge $16,000. But then you can go to Atlanta (where there are a lot of inexpensive hotel rooms) and only have to spend $4500.
   "That's our goal – to make this whole thing more efficient.
   "I made another list that had the purses for each event…and one track has a fall race that doesn't pay very well, so we'll scratch that one and go to another track that pays better.
   "It's the same thing that Daddy (Glen) and Leonard used to do.
   "If you go to a track where it pays $62,000 to start, and another track pays $95,000 to start, well I think I want to go to the one that's paying $95,000 to start.
   "We're trying to make sense of this like that.
   "And we're going to drive to Daytona and drive to Atlanta. That's no big deal. Now driving to California might not make sense….
   "But everyone used to drive."
    In fact Jeff Gordon flew commercial to Daytona last week for FanFest, rather than crank up his jet.
   But flying commercial, team owners say, simply isn't efficient in the long run, since in this sport time is money, and flying commercial takes the better part of a full day each way.
   "Now don't get me wrong – I'm going to be sick when I'm sitting home on a Sunday when there's a race," Wood went on. "But our intent is to get our team back running again. And we ran well in the second half of last season.
   "Testing? Hey, we tested 20 days the first half of the season, and missed eight races.
   "The second half, we tested only four days, and yet ran a lot better and never missed a race. We were simply better prepared.
   "When we missed those races last season, it was humiliating. It hurt.
   "But I've been on the other side of it, in victory lane – like four races in a row with David Pearson.
   "We've been on both ends of it."
   Without testing, there is more work to do, however. "We do seven-post (computer simulation) testing," Wood said. "We do simulation stuff with Ford. We've been in the wind tunnel three times already. And we're going back in a few days. We've done chassis dyno stuff; we've done drive-line testing.
   "But actual track testing, no.
   "We have a pretty good system now for building all our cars to the same designs. We have two new Daytona cars, two new intermediates ready.  And we'll have 10 cars ready to go.
   "Now if a sponsor comes up and says they want to sponsor us somewhere, we're ready to go. We can make about 10 phone calls and be ready to ramp right back up."
   Wolfe: "How many manufacturers can say they have had a partnership for over 50 years with one of the greatest teams in racing?  I just can't be more proud of that, and the way that Ford, being a family-owned company, when we set an alliance with somebody it sticks.
   "When sponsorships were getting pretty tight last year, and they were chasing sponsors and trying to pull the whole season together, we kind of asked them to take a step back and say 'Hey, let's focus on the competitiveness of the team and your car. Let's just go out there and worry about that. 
   "A lot of you remember in the Seventies that's exactly what the Wood Brothers chose to do (run a limited schedule).
   "And wherever they show up, I'm very confident they're going to be competitive."
    Of course, hanging over NASCAR's manufacturers this season is the currently uncertain state of the buying public.
   "It's a pretty tough time for the entire economy, and the auto industry is not excluded from that," Wolfe says.
   "I want to talk a little bit about the Washington, D.C. hearings -- and want to make it clear that Ford did not request any funding, we did not take any funding or loans at this time. 
    "When Alan Mulally came on board (as Ford CEO), he put together a very aggressive business plan that will take Ford to a very, very strong position in the industry.  Now of course with the global economy that becomes ever more challenging. But we definitely have the right plan in place, and we will come out of this stronger than ever. 
    "Having such a strong leadership team is key. 
    "We also have the right plan in place, not only from a business perspective but most importantly from a product perspective. Customers want great products; without great products, we don't have a company, regardless of how good the leaders are or the individuals within the organization."
   And Wolfe says the new NASCAR engine, unveiled here but not expected to run on the tour until later this season, "is going to really be the benchmark for all others to look at."

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