Robby Gordon, driver of the No. 7 Jim Beam Ford Fusion in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was scheduled to compete in the Dakar Rally this week until the race was cancelled due to terrorist threats. Gordon spoke about the cancellation prior to the first day of testing at Daytona International Speedway.
ROBBY GORDON -- No. 7 Jim Beam Ford Fusion: "From the time Homestead stopped to Friday at 1 p.m. Portugal time, I know the NASCAR team has been working on this side, but the off-road team and myself have been just slammed testing and working out all of our systems. We built a really neat little race car, actually not one of them but two of them, and to build those cars -- we have over a million dollars in each car -- we were built to win this year. We optimized every piece of the rules we could. When you knock 20 percent of the weight out of a vehicle in one season, you've made big strides. There wasn't any pieces of aluminum on the race car. Everything was carbon or Kevlar, and to have a race cancelled is a hard one to swallow. It puts us in a very precarious situation with our sponsors more than anything because, obviously, contracts have things like acts of God or terrorists and stuff like that, but you don't like to put your sponsors in that position either. They stepped up for a marketing program which was gonna go out there and perform at top level and don't even get the opportunity to do that. Obviously, we're trying to recover from it and figure out what we're gonna do to make some sense out of it for everybody and keep everybody happy. As far as contracts go, I think we're in OK shape as far as that goes, but it's not always about the contracts, it's about what's right and what's wrong and it puts us in a unique situation for sure."
Q: WHAT ABOUT THE RALLY?
RG: "I'm extremely disappointed in the ASO. I can completely understand their decision to not go to Mauritania or not want to put competitors in an awkward or dangerous situation. That I understand 100 percent, but for them -- with as many years as they've been doing this rally -- not to have a back-up plan, a B-plan, a C-plan, a D-plan -- if this was gonna happen. Obviously, my opinion -- this is the marketing/promotional side coming out in me and why not say it, why didn't we run 10 days in Portugal on the same course, something. All of the equipment was there. All of the teams were there. Television was set up. All of the stuff was done and Portugal is not a dangerous area to race. It's a safe country, it's a beautiful country, and we had the permits to run on those roads and those trails. Some of it was military proving grounds and we had what we needed to do to race there. Why didn't we go into Morocco and run a few stages in Morocco? The guys who are the extremists and want to ride the Dakar on their motorcycle, give them their money back if they don't want to participate in a 10-day race, but it seems like the Hummer team with ours or Volkswagen or Mitsubishi or Mercedes or BMW and all these other teams, we do it as a business. It's not a hobby for us. Don't get me wrong, I love to do it, but at the same time it's a business for us and we spent an awful, awful lot of money. I explained this to someone the other day and I think some people misunderstand all the way until you start explaining it like this. It was 16 races. It was half of a NASCAR season in a 17-day period, so all the parts are bought. The transmissions, the axels, all the stuff is bought. The trucks were shipped. We were gonna run two cars so we were basically gonna cram a full NASCAR season into a 16-day period. You can imagine the amount of preparation it takes to do that. It was a 6,000-mile race. We had 10 gear boxes, 20 sets of axels and CV joints, and parts that just aren't cheap. Gear boxes for those cars were like $40,000 apiece. They're GTP cars or Formula One cars for the dirt and to have them cancel it and not just postpone it or re-think of a way to make the race happen and keep everything on track, it puts a lot of people, not just myself, it puts a lot of us in a very awkward situation."
Q: WILL THAT STUFF BE OBSOLETE NEXT SEASON?
RG: "You can and that will obviously help us, but salaries and all the stuff getting prepared for it. You just don't leave the stuff sitting on the truck for a year and say, "OK, we're gonna go race next year.' Obviously, with any form of motorsports -- heck, look at our COT cars when we rolled them out at the first race and look where we're at seven months later. You're gonna learn more about your cars. Yeah, it's gonna make our race team better because we're gonna get some more opportunity to test, but I've got to be honest, and this is the part that scares me even more, is I think they're out of business. I just don't understand how you can recover from something like this going forward. So now it makes all of these cars obsolete. They're not good for what we do here in the United States. My trophy truck that we race in the desert will destroy these cars. These are built to race the Dakar Rally. It would be like taking a speedway car in the old days and bringing it to a road course. It's like bringing a sword to a gun fight."
Q: HOW MUCH DO YOU FIGURE YOU LOST?
RG: "I think we spent $4.5 million."
Q: YOU THINK THE RACE PROMOTERS ARE OUT OF BUSINESS?
RG: "They're big. Don't get me wrong, they do two sporting events per year -- the Tour de France and the Dakar Rally. I don't know what their insurance policies look like, but we have severe loss at Robby Gordon Motorsports. I don't know what actions we're gonna take, but I think they misjudged as a sanctioning body on what they needed to do for the event. They could have had a race of some sort and went on with the show for the first seven, eight, 10 specials and pro-rate the entries or do something like that. You look at our NASCAR entries and those are cheap. An entry for the Dakar is $12,000 per person, not counting the vehicles. I think our entries were $360,000 and that's just the entry fees. That's not shipping trucks. That's not flying people there. That's not hotels in Lisbon. It's a big deal and it's got me completely messed up right now in the head. Obviously, I'll recover from it like I always do, but I'm just extremely disappointed on how a sanctioning body could not be better prepared."
Q: THERE'S BEEN NO REFUND?
RG: "Yeah, they say they'll give you your entry fees back, but, at the end of the day, the entry fees are the cheap part of it."
Q: YOU DON'T MAKE MONEY OFF THE PURSE DO YOU?
Q: YOUR BUDGET IS BASED ON YOUR SPONSORSHIP?
RG: "Yeah, and for us we had a bunch of things in place -- what if. If we win, this happens, this happens and this happens. That's where we make our money. We were working on a deal with Microsoft, where people could race the rally next year via the internet with X-Box, and now that's out the window. There are so many other side programs that are messed up because of this."
Q: WOULD THIS COLOR WHETHER COMPETITORS WOULD DO THIS NEXT YEAR IF THERE IS A RALLY?
RG: "The competitors will always come to race. I think NASCAR has seen that in the past. If you produce a good race, people will come. The problem is how do you get sponsors to sign up now for going forward? Our deals with all of our Dakar Rally sponsors are through the 2010 Dakar Rally, but, obviously, this causes a problem so now we've just got to sit and discuss it. Those are some of the conversations that are gonna go on this week."
Q: DOES THAT AFFECT CASH FLOW ON THE CUP SIDE AT ALL?
RG: "No, they're two separate companies. One operates out of California and one operates out of North Carolina. Does it affect us? Of course it affects us, but we'll figure it out like we always do."
Q: YOU THINK THE PROMOTERS ARE AT RISK BECAUSE OF TEAMS WANTING TO RECOUP THEIR INVESTMENT?
RG: "I think so. I don't know how to say that any other way. I would like to recoup some of my lost expense because even if we go back and do the rally next year, you've still got to ship cars back and forth. You've still got to ship trucks back and forth. You've still go to have hotels, personnel. We had contracts with all of our guys to go to the Dakar Rally. They went to Paris. How do you recoup from each one of your guys? They spent that money. When you do a deal with somebody, you do a deal. A deal is a deal. How do you find yourself back out of those deals and keep everybody happy at the same time?"
Q: DO YOU BRING SECURITY FOR THAT RACE?
RG: "Yeah. We were hooked up." HAVE YOU EVER HAD A CLOSE CALL? "I have had in the 2005 rally, since then we've had threats on my car because we're the United States or Robby Gordon as a driver. Knock on wood, nothing has ever happened. It doesn't mean they're not gonna get me next time there because I talked to all of you guys and you go out there and put stuff in their paper, but there are obviously some pluses to it. We're back here in Daytona with two cars. Our Cup team was ready to go anyways, but now I'm here. I don't know if it's gonna help us or not. When you come to Daytona it's about a race team pretty much. A driver has to make the right decisions late into the race, but stuff you learn at the test isn't gonna help you make those decisions late in the race. The stuff that you learn here at this test is how to make the race car go fast, how to make it handle, how to make it run wide-open for full-tank runs at a time or make it to where it sucks up. They could have done that without me."
Q: IS IT WEIRD GOING FROM A RACE THAT CHALLENGES YOUR MIND TO A TEST THAT MANY THINK IS BORING?
RG: "I'm glad you said it instead of me, but it's not boring for our engineers or for our crew chiefs. They like it. With restrictor plates you're looking for hundredths or thousandths of a second per lap and that part of the challenge everybody obviously likes, and that's what makes Daytona the Daytona it is. But then it comes down to the driving at the end and, hopefully, you get in the right line and the guys go with you and stuff like that. It has a bunch of different sides to it, but I know it'll help build team morale because I'm here and it will help build our race team going forward in 2008. It's only gonna help things. We've got a bunch of new guys here."
Q: YOU WERE IN PORTUGAL ALREADY WHEN THEY CALLED THE RACE OFF?
RG: "We were in the line for tech. Our scheduled slot was 1:45 and they called the race at one o'clock. We were probably one of the last 30 cars to go through tech. Now I'm just gonna speak hypothetically. I've just done the math over and over in my mind. We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars the sanctioning has of everybody's money. There are 570 entries -- that's car entries. That's not the 26 people that it takes to run two cars. That's just the cars -- 570. You guys go back and do the math. It's big numbers. Sponsors that they have obviously collected checks from. What do you do if they file bankruptcy on you or what if they shut the doors? We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars they have of people's money."
Q: IS THERE LEGAL RECOURSE?
RG: "It's in France. If we were racing here in L.A. or Charlotte, I don't even like talking like that because that's not the way I wanted to go about the Dakar Rally. We went to the Dakar Rally to win and to even have to think about how we're gonna get our money back is obviously a huge disappointment -- not just for me but there are guys that worked on this program for a year. We've got guys that started last year working on this program. The amount of time that GM and Hummer spent with this car in the wind tunnel and their engineers trying to optimize every piece of the equation, it's mind-boggling. How do you ever recoup from that? That's just guy's desire to be competitive. It's not just me. I'm gonna say on this program there were hundreds if not thousands of people who worked on this program for a year. From all the little support shops around L.A. to my machine shop in North Carolina to GM to the engine department at GM to the transmission guys over in Australia to the guys that made the hubs for us in Riverside. There are just machine shops that have gone crazy for a year.
"In a lot of these things, people are just helping us because they want to see us succeed as a race team and they're not charging us what it really costs to make these parts. You might buy parts for half off because they're fans and they're part of the program. They want to see a USA team win the Dakar Rally -- it's never happened before. Those are the ones that frustrate me because there are so many of them that have made this possible for us to even think about participating over there."
Q: HOW MANY FULL-TIME GUYS IN YOUR SHOP HAVE WORKED ON THIS PROGRAM?
RG: "For the last three months we've had 40 guys there. That's in our shop in Anaheim and they've just been pumping. The work weeks that these guys put in. I mean, 100-hour work weeks just aren't a big deal. That was normal and it's only because they wanted to do it and they had the desire to do it. How do you recoup those types of things? That's the part that is making me mad because I had so many guys step up to this program, just flat step up and say, 'Alright, we're gonna be part of this and we're gonna make this happen. We're gonna try to put you in the best car you've ever been in.'"
Q: WHAT ABOUT FRANK KERR AS YOUR NEW CREW CHIEF?
RG: "This is my third time with Frank Kerr, so he's not a new crew chief to me. I was looking for what made our program competitive in the past. We won Busch races with him and ran really good with Frankie and Greg (Erwin). There were two of them there, but they were a team. This is not a one-guy sport anymore. Even guys like Chad, they have good support staff underneath them. Frank has been the support guy for a long time. Obviously, he was the best-running Toyota last year hands-down. If you look maybe not where they finished with a rookie, but they were the best qualifying Toyota. They made the most events. They did a good job. They really and truly did. I know Frank. Frank knows us. He was part of our team when we started it when it was a Busch car and I'm glad to have him back in the house."
Q: MORE ON DAKAR.
RG: "The thing I'm mad about is they didn't have a back-up plan and they didn't give anybody an opportunity to even discuss a plan. They just came in and said, 'Alright, the race is cancelled.' At the point they cancelled the race, I had 40 people sitting in Lisbon, Portugal and 28 of them were going on the rally. We didn't have flights for them. We didn't have hotel rooms. We were checking out the next morning. They just completely threw a lot of people in awkward, awkward situations."
Q: AND THERE WERE 570 TEAMS IN THE SAME SITUATION AS YOU?
RG: "Yeah, 570 teams -- not counting the people. Each person probably has a minimum of 10 people per car, so now you're talking 5,700 team members. We had 14 members per car in our organization. So let's just say other teams had eight or 10 on the low end. I know Volkswagen might have had 20. They put a lot of people in some serious trouble. And I look at some of the other press releases that have gone out from people and it's like, 'We understand. We're standing by them.' It's like, 'What are you guys thinking?' I want to race next year too, but that doesn't help me this year. I'm in some trouble."
Q: SO THERE WAS NO TALK AHEAD OF TIME ABOUT POSSIBLY CANCELING THE RACE ?
RG: "No, they should have just adjusted stages. That's basically what I said to them."
Q: DID THEY JUST LET YOU KNOW OVER THE RADIO?
RG: "No, they called a meeting a 12 o'clock and they did it in French. The way they do their stuff is top end, so they had headsets that would translate what they said into English immediately, which was pretty cool. But people bought it. It was like, 'What are you guys thinking? The rally just got cancelled.' There are a lot of guys who ride motorcycles that have worked their whole life to race this race."
Q: DO YOU THINK BECAUSE IT WAS AL-QAIDA THAT IT MADE A DIFFERENCE?
RG: "It's just that they didn't have a plan. They did not have a plan. That's the part I'm mad about. Cancel the race for safety, I'm with you. Good. But there was no reason to cancel the whole entire thing. It was 16 days of racing. We could have run Martinsville or a couple of specials. Us racers, we love to race. Get creative. Right there in Portugal they have a Formula One track down the street. Go run us a day on the Formula One track. Get creative. Do something to keep the show in place and save face. Not only does it put us in a situation, it puts them in a situation too. I can't believe they gave up that easy."