Fernandez, Wehrly, Flack interview, part I

Dodge Trio bring passion for racing to motorsports program. Part 1 of 2. The 45th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 16, 2003 at Daytona International Speedway will mark Dodge's third season back in NASCAR Winston Cup competition since leaving in 1980.

Dodge Trio bring passion for racing to motorsports program. Part 1 of 2.

The 45th annual Daytona 500 on Feb. 16, 2003 at Daytona International Speedway will mark Dodge's third season back in NASCAR Winston Cup competition since leaving in 1980. Dodge teams combined for 12 poles and 11 victories in 2001 and 2002, including wins in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 last season.

Dodge's involvement in NASCAR Winston Cup Racing is all about winning, and the No. 1 goal for 2003 is winning the NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Three former drivers who are now Dodge engineers take racing very seriously. It would be an understatement to say they're passionate about motorsports, but all three are focused on helping a Dodge team win the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Championship.

John Fernandez, Director, Dodge Motorsports Operations; John Wehrly, Engineering Manager - Dodge Motorsports and Mopar Performance Parts; and Ted Flack, Manager, NASCAR Engine Programs, Dodge Engineering will combine their passion for racing and their engineering backgrounds to keep Dodge at the front of the pack in 2003.

JOHN FERNANDEZ (Director, Dodge Motorsports Operations)

Fernandez was named Director, Dodge Motorsports Operations on Nov. 1, 2002. He is responsible for the Dodge Motorsports Operations business, while also leading the Chrysler Group's Performance Vehicle Operations' (PVO) motorsports and performance parts engineering efforts. Prior to this position, he was Director, PVO. Fernandez joined the Chrysler Corp. in 1969 as a co-op intern. He became a full-time project engineer in 1972 after receiving his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from University of Detroit. Five years later, he earned his MBA at his alma mater. Fernandez came to Team Viper as Executive Engineer in 1997 and has specialized in specialty vehicle engineering ever since. As PVO's first director, he pioneered high-performance, low-volume such as the Dodge SRT-4 and Dodge Viper SRT-10.

Q: Racing is your passion. How long has it been that way?

A: Since I went back with Carroll Shelby in '85 I've been involved in the performance side of the business. In '93 and '94 I was back strictly in production stuff. Really, I guess racing has always been my passion since I was eight years old and went to my first race at Fonda Speedway in New York.

Q: How did your passion for racing develop?

A: A lady up the street from where my parents lived in New York asked if I wanted to go to the races with her. We ended up at this little track called Fonda Speedway. A book just came out about the track. It's a well-known track in upstate New York. NASCAR used to go there. They were there three times. Junior Johnson won there in 1955. Richard Petty won there in '67, and Buddy Baker won in '68. I got into racing and used to wrench a lot on cars when I was in high school and right up to just before I went to college.

I went to the University of Detroit for my engineering degree and actually didn't do much in racing for probably 10 years. Then I got the assignment to work for Carroll Shelby out on the west coast in 1985. We moved out in '85 with the family, and I started doing high performance cars for Carroll. Carroll wanted to have a little showroom stock race team. We went up to Willow Springs with a couple of cars and were auditioning a couple of guys for the cars. Then I got in the car and turned second-quickest times. That's how I got into actually driving.

Carroll sent me to Bondurant's school out there. Parker Johnstone was my instructor. He used to work in CART. I started racing in '86 with a showroom stock A car, which at that time was a Shelby Charger Turbo Charged version. We ran at Riverside, and I hold the record at Riverside for showroom stock A on the long course. We raced at all the tracks around there. I finished second in '88 in the runoffs.

In 1990 I came back to Detroit and worked on the Neon. I didn't race for a couple of years and then we got into doing this Neon ACR package. We called it the American Club Racer. We did that a couple of years and did the test driving on those cars. My kids at that time were just getting to the age where I didn't need to spend a lot of time with them. They were in high school and had a lot of things they wanted to do getting ready for college, so I got back into racing again. We picked up a Neon and started racing nationally again in '97. We've been doing that ever since with the Neons. The last three years have been the best years.

I actually won it three years ago and they threw me out for a little technicality on the grille bar, which I thought was bull. Two years ago we finished second in the national championship and this year we were on the pole and I got punted off on the first lap. I went from first to last, and we came back up and got third. We've had a lot of fun with that.

Q: What racing philosophy did you get from Carroll Shelby?

A: We used to talk a lot. I got to be very close to Carroll when I worked for him. He told me once, he said, 'John, you've got to remember. Racing isn't a matter of life and death. It's much more important than that.'

Q: What will be different for the Dodge motorsports program in 2003?

A: I think we could do a lot of things differently. If you look at the technical side of it, you never have enough horsepower, so you're always going to work on getting more horsepower. On the aerodynamic side, I think there's still some work to be done there, but I think it's probably less on the top of the car than other places and we're going to experiment with that. On the chassis side of it, I'm working on the LTS, lap time simulation. We're going to work harder on getting a better lap time simulation and working with the teams and making sure they can use that and improve. When they show up at the track on a weekend, they've got three opportunities - two practices, qualifying and then they go racing. If you come to the track and you're not good, the guy who can get there quicker is going to be better in lap time simulation. Another thing we're working on is a winning attitude, the drivers feeling like every time they get in the car they can win.

We had enough wins last year. What we didn't have was enough consistency, enough top fives and top 10s. That's really the focus this year. You can look at Bill Elliott's record in 2002. He had a couple of wins and totally Dodge had seven wins, but we didn't have one guy in the top 10. When you don't win, you've got to be finishing in the top 10 or the top 20. You need to fight for every position. Every position out there, whether you're fighting for 42nd or first, it's three or five points. We've got to push a little bit harder.

Q: This is Dodge's third year back in Winston Cup. Is it realistic to expect a Winston Cup title or manufacturers' title this season?

A: I'm very optimistic this year that we've got the drivers and cars and teams to win the championship. I think driver-wise we've got some young guys coming along that we need to keep maturing. You never quit working on the cars. I thought the Pettys came a long way last year. They've still got a lot to go. In talking with Kyle, he's got some big plans. Ray is going to continue to improve his program. Ganassi was there last year. Sterling is back, and he's looking good. I'm very optimistic.

Q: Are you ready to tackle NASCAR politics?

A: You've got two aspects you're dealing with from the political side. One is the NASCAR side of the business. You make sure you have an equal chance of winning. In fact my first meeting with Mike Helton, I told him we were on opposite sides of the fence because my job is to try to win 36 races and your shop is to try to make sure I don't win 36. In truth, what we're interested in is to make sure we've got an equal chance of winning the race on any given weekend. If we've got that, I'm not going to be in Mike's office at all. We've got to be sure we're not making excuses that aren't real.


Dodge, part II

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , John Fernandez , Richard Petty , Junior Johnson , Mike Helton , Buddy Baker