This Week In Ford Racing Feb 22, 2000

This Week in Ford Racing February 22, 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup A little more "historical perspective" from your friends at Ford Ford introduced the NASCAR Taurus to competition at Daytona in February 1998. The complete re-design of Ford's...

This Week in Ford Racing February 22, 2000

NASCAR Winston Cup

A little more "historical perspective" from your friends at Ford

Ford introduced the NASCAR Taurus to competition at Daytona in February 1998. The complete re-design of Ford's race car resulted in competitive difficulties similar to those experienced by one of Ford's year-2000 competitors in the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

Recall that the 1998 NASCAR Ford Taurus placed only two drivers, Rusty Wallace (8th) and Lake Speed (10th), among the 10 fastest qualifiers on pole day. The Taurus then failed to win either of the Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying races, and led just four laps in the 40th Daytona 500, three of those under caution. Dale Earnhardt won his first career Daytona 500 that afternoon, leading a whopping 104 laps.

A quick review of history reveals that, as Ford's drivers discussed their difficulties with adapting to the new Taurus that week, Ford's competitors were quick to deny any on-track inequality in the three makes of vehicles.

Felix Sabates (Feb. 7, 1998, Associated Press) - "They cry wolf, wolf, wolf, and they snookered everybody. I'm not worried about Daytona, I'm worried about when we leave here."

Mike Skinner (Feb. 7, 1998, Winston-Salem Journal) - "There's nothing wrong with the Fords. And if we're not careful, they're gonna kick our butts. I think Ford has a lot of downforce, too, so when we get to Rockingham, Vegas, Loudon, these flat tracks where you need all the downforce you can get, the Taurus is going to show up strong."


Bill Elliott, driver of the No. 94 McDonald's Taurus, will be celebrating his 25th anniversary as a NASCAR Winston Cup driver this weekend at North Carolina Speedway. Elliott made his first official start in the Carolina 500 on Feb. 29, 1976 at North Carolina Speedway driving a powder blue Ford Grand Torino. The car was sponsored by Dahlonega Ford, which was the dealership his father George owned in Dahlonega, Ga. Elliott qualified 34th and finished 33rd that afternoon, which enabled him to receive a check for $640. Elliott, coming off a third-place finish in last weekend's Daytona 500, was this week's guest on the NASCAR Winston Cup teleconference.

BILL ELLIOTT --94-- McDonald's Taurus -- THE MONEY IS A LITTLE BETTER NOW ISN'T IT? "I'd say no doubt. Six hundred and forty dollars wouldn't buy you a good steak at the local restaurant, you'd have to go to McDonald's. But things have come a long way. I've seen a lot of changes in the sport, both good and bad, but for the most part it's been good."

YOU WON THE FIRST WINSTON MILLION IN '85 AND NOW YOU'RE ELIGIBILE FOR THE NO BULL 5 MILLION AT VEGAS. YOUR THOUGHTS ON THOSE TWO PROGRAMS. "The competition has changed a lot since '85 and it was quite a bit different format what we ended up having to go through in '85, but I'm just tickled to death to be a part of it. I would have been eligible for it several times in '97, but they didn't have the program announced until last year, but now that it is announced we have an opportunity to go to Vegas. I run very well at Vegas. We're gonna put every bit of effort we possibly can into going to Vegas and running as well as we possibly can, even if we don't win it at least getting eligible again for it for the next race. That's where we're at now."

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT NASCAR HELPING YOU FINANCIALLY IN THE EARLY DAYS? "Back then everything was a struggle. My dad, we ran a building supply business and kind of at the end of that when we sold it in 1972, my dad acquired a Ford dealership in just a small, local town. We didn't have a lot of money, but my dad was always involved in racing. I mean, we struggled week-in and week-out just to show up. We bought used tires, we did everything we possibly could just to make it to the races. If a person came in today, there would be no way on earth that he could survive like we tried to survive back in those days. There weren't a lot of cars and there was quite a bit of difference from the pole speed to the last car. It didn't cost you as much to race back didn't go to the wind tunnel like they do today and you didn't have all the technology and all the race teams. If you have got good people they're trying to buy them away. We'd go and sleep in the back of a truck, we did everything. It was pretty incredible for what we came through and being able to survive it and be able to be where I'm at today and look back on that and reflect on that years later."

DIDN'T SOMEONE FROM THE FRANCE FAMILY HELP YOU FINANCIALLY SO YOU COULD MAKE A RACE? "Yep, Bill France, Jr. My dad and I drove from home to Daytona Beach one afternoon and got there real late in the morning. We slept in the parking lot, went in and saw Bill France, Jr. and asked him if he would help us run Talladega. I'll never forget, he gave us $1,500 to help us get there. I mean, all we could do was maybe pick up a sponsor here or a sponsor there and get a little money here and a little money there. He said he'd help us, so we turned around, got back in the car, and drove back home. It was incredible the things that we went through. That was a great deal of money to us back then and it sure did mean a lot to us. Daddy was so involved around what NASCAR's nucleus was all about. He knew all those guys -- France, Sr. -- and a lot of the people that were instrumental in getting NASCAR started. He always felt like that was the future and that's always the direction that he led me into."

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT RACES ENDING UNDER CAUTION LIKE THE DAYTONA 500? "I kind of read it the same way Jeff Burton did at the end of the race. We race 500 miles and to get down to the end of a 500 mile race and go another five or 10 laps or whatever, like he said, it's a recipe for disaster especially at Daytona and Talladega. We had several things happen there in the very late stages of the race and I don't think the results of the race would have been any different. I don't know that anybody could have passed Dale Jarrett. I might have been able to make a move on Jeff Burton, but, then again, what I could have gained I might have lost. I'm just glad it turned out to be a good, safe weekend for everybody concerned. It's unfortunate that sometimes circumstances like that happen, but I don't know what you can do. It was so late in the race, I mean you were already coming virtually for the white-flag lap anyway and you don't really have an opportunity to do anything."

ON A SCALE OF ONE TO 10 HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO PASS SUNDAY? "Well, as equal as the cars are it rated up pretty close to a 10 to try to pass. I think everybody hit it on the head, unless you had couldn't pass anybody on your own. It was difficult enough to even get side-by-side and it depended on how many cars helped each other to keep you behind them and that's what it ended up being. With a few laps to go when Mark passed me with Jarrett and everybody else helping them, and then Jarrett and Mark had been working together to gang up on me. I was a sitting duck and they got by me off turn four and was able to get back in and hold Rusty off, but, then, it turned out being that Dale was supposed to work with Mark and then he hung Mark out and we all got by him and he ended up going back. It's a difficult situation. You're sitting there trying to determine everything you possibly can to do, but you're not gonna do it on your own."

DOES NOT OWNING YOUR OWN TEAM HAVE SOME APPEAL TO YOU LIKE RICKY RUDD? "I do in some ways, but as I said at Daytona, I've got a great group of guys that has taken a lot of the burden off of me. Between Eddie (D'Hondt), the general manager here, and a lot of people they've really taken a lot of the load and the burden of the racing off of me. I tried to do the two-car deal two years ago when I started with the FirstPlus deal and that ended up with FirstPlus having some problems. It ended up we lost FirstPlus and that deal kind of fell apart and we tried to make a go of it again at Daytona last year and it took a lot of focus off what we were trying to do. I think I've struggled with a lot of different things through the '99 season saying if this had happened or that had happened. Finally, at the end of the year I said, 'I'm not gonna worry about it. We're gonna run one car and here's what we're gonna do, we're gonna do our best at it. McDonald's is leaving at the end of the year, so we've got to make a 100 percent effort.' And I think that's pretty much what I did. If you run good it gets fun whether you own it or not, but I feel like the group of guys I've got around me has been able to take a lot of that burden off of me, but that could change tomorrow. To get back to your question, yes I probably would envy Ricky from the standpoint that if that happened, but right now I've got a good group of guys that has been able to take the burden off of me."

IS THE MCDONALD'S SITUATION GOING TO BE A DISTRACTION THIS YEAR OR AN INCENTIVE? "Right now it's our intention to go out and run as hard as we can because we've got to start looking at several different opportunities or options of what Bill Elliott's gotta do come 2001. As expensive as this sport is getting, if you've got $10-15 million, whatever a year, you're gonna spend it. There are other guys out there that have unlimited resources and those are the things we're racing against. We've got to continue to work as hard as we possibly can to run the best that we can to say OK, try to create more opportunities or see what our options are for the end of the year."

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF MAKING THAT FIRST START AT ROCKINGHAM? "Like I keep going back and saying, my dad was very instrumental and I really didn't realize this until probably later years of how he was kind of leading me in the direction of NASCAR. I started running short tracks around home and it wasn't long after I was winning some races and he just kept pushing me. He said, 'You need to go over here and run this and you need to go over here and run that.' I'm thinking that I was going at this too fast, I'm just learning this stuff and I'd like to do this a little bit longer, but he had a car that ran Sportsman that Jody Ridley ran some Grand National races back in the early seventies. I was pretty close to Jody throughout those years and Jody went to Rockingham one year, I think it was in '73, and I happened to go over there with him just to work on the car and stuff. So, he went over there and at least I kind of had an idea. I had seen the race track and watched the guys run on it so I knew a little bit about the race track. We decided that would probably be a race for us to go to with my lack of experience and there probably wouldn't be a lot of super-competitive cars there to knock you out of trying to make the race -- that would be a good race for us to try to go and compete in. That was probably one of the key things we did to go there. I mean, it was just the standpoint of where could I go with the lack of experience that I had to make a race because I had tried to make Atlanta in the fall of '75 and I didn't run fast enough. So, we knew Daytona was out of the question because of all the stuff that went on, so we started pretty much at Rockingham. That led us into going into the next race and then the next race. I think Atlanta was the next race we went to."

WHAT WERE YOU DOING IN THE '75 SEASON FROM A RACE STANDPOINT? "I had run most of the season in '74 and most all of the season in '75 at Dixie Speedway down in Woodstock, Georgia. I kind of bounced around. I went to Middle Georgia down in Macon, which NASCAR used to go there and run Grand National events there I guess in the sixties, so I ran there and I ran some over at Jefferson and just kind of moved around. I went to Chattanooga and then, like I said, in the fall of the year I went to Charlotte in October and tried to run the Sportsman race in one of daddy's older cars and we blew up qualifying. We didn't have another engine, so I couldn't do that so he ended up buying an old car from Bobby Allison that Richie Panch had drove in '72 and that was the car I went to Atlanta with in that fall and tried to make the race. We didn't run fast enough, but that was the same car I brought to Rockingham and I ran in February of '76."

WHAT ABOUT THAT ROCKINGHAM RACE, WAS IT A WHOLE NEW EXPERIENCE? "It was a total whole new experience, it was something that was totally out of my realm of thinking. I mean, to me, I was just trying to get in the race and get some experience and learn the cars. I'd always been very good about working on the cars, that was one thing I enjoyed probably as much as driving them was working on them and understanding what they did. They were so much different back then than what they are today it's unreal because they basically tried to run more stock chassis and stuff. The car were more stock, very heavy, hardly no ballast in the cars for us anyway. Some of the better financed teams could buy and do more things, but NASCAR was going through their changes also of starting to make the cars a little leaner and taking another step farther than just a virtual stock car. Man, it was different. I don't know that I had a clue that I knew what I was doing, but I was there to learn."

HAVE THE CARS DEVELOPED TO THE POINT THAT TECHNOLOGICALLY YOU'RE NOT ABLE TO WORK ON THEM ANYMORE BECAUSE OF ALL THE OTHER THINGS GOING ON? "I think you've hit the nail exactly on the head. Up until probably...'87 was the first year I had a so-called crew chief with Ivan Baldwin coming in from the west coast and helping me on the cars. Then, he ended up leaving and I kind of did it back on my own in '88 and '89 and just kind of did more of the hands-on stuff. Then, after we won the championship things got so complex from the standpoint of what the sponsors needed that it was hard to do everything. I know one time I was at Darlington and I was working on the car. I left the car going to the truck and by the time I got to the truck I had been interrupted so many times that I couldn't remember what I was going to the truck for. Then I realized this stuff is getting too overwhelming for me to be able to put it all together. That's when we started trying to bring people in and doing this and that. I've still got a good understanding of the race car, but, still, as far as the technology goes there are too many areas and you need too many specific people in those areas to get every little bit you possibly can out of it. Still, the driver needs to be able to put input into it as far as what he feels with the car, but it's just gone too far. The sport has changed too much. Like I said, you've got to have key people in every area or you can't do it, you can't control it."

IS IT HARD TO KEEP YOUR GUYS MOTIVATED WITH EIGHT STRAIGHT WEEKS OF RACING AHEAD? "My hat's off to these guys pretty good. They've put a real good effort in. They've been thinking ahead as far as what we've got to go into the next several weeks. They're racers, they've come from other teams and they understand it. I would say if it were more of a rookie core group that, yeah, I'd be concerned, but as experienced as most of these guys are at understanding it...yeah, Daytona is over and it's history. This weekend is Rockingham, next weekend is Vegas, next weekend is Atlanta, that's the kind of people you've gotta have around you that can see far ahead. Sure, you're gonna be more prepared for one event than the other event, but I think they've done an excellent job of focusing their energy in the right area and being able to think ahead for this weekend. We won't really know until we get there depending on circumstances because it's just like Daytona. The last 10 minutes of the last practice Dale Jarrett gets spun out in one and two and I nearly hit him. It was so close and that could have been the difference between us both pulling out backup cars and maybe having a mediocre Daytona 500 versus him winning and me finishing third."

WHAT WERE YOUR DAYTONA EXPECTATIONS? "Really, I didn't know. When I went to Talladega and tested, I was the worst car there around the sixth of January. They turned around and built a new car and we went back at it. We went to Daytona and were fourth overall and they came back and went to work that much harder. I really didn't know where my expectations were because I'm pretty much a realistic person. Ford did a great job of designing the new Taurus and getting us a really good race car, but, there again, they were able to put it all together. We were among the teams that were consistently running well last year and that's what we've got to do each and every week. So, if we can at least get these things to where we're competitive each and every week and put ourselves in a position, that's where we need to be and that's what my expectation is this year."

DO YOU FEEL THIS IS A REBIRTH FOR YOU? "I believe it is because a lot of people kind of wrote me off for a while and I think after Daytona we're still a viable team and, I think, given the right circumstances we're as good as anybody out there."

DO YOU FEEL YOUR OPERATION HAS TO BE NEAR CHARLOTTE TO BE SUCCESSFUL? "I don't necessarily think you have to be in Charlotte, North Carolina to do it, I feel like what you've gotta have is the right core group of people. The problem is it's hard to be in Virginia or Dawsonville or somewhere other than here to be able to put that core group of people together because if somebody is gonna move in from another area, they'll probably want to move to Charlotte because there are more opportunities for them there than there is in Dawsonville, Georgia or Virginia or whatever, if they're gonna be involved in Winston Cup racing. I think that's the key that drives them to this area. Yeah, there is a better pool of people around here, but I don't necessarily agree with that (having to be in Charlotte) 100 percent. If you don't have the right people to look over it and can keep ahead of the game and keep those people involved, it's hard to keep these teams in check, especially outside of the Charlotte area."

IS IT MORE OF A JOB THESE DAYS AS OPPOSED TO WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED? "I don't know if it's like a job. I think anything you do long enough it kind of becomes a job, but I still really enjoy driving the race car. Yeah, there is some of the stuff that I don't care for doing, but, still, from the standpoint of still being in it, I'm still a competitive person. I still want to win. I still enjoy that or at least being competitive at the end of the day, at least to say Bill Elliott's gone out, he's tried to run, he's done the best he possibly can. Then when he leaves there that afternoon he's done the best job he possibly can and go on to the next week. Like I said, there are certain things that tend to get old, but, for the most part, I still enjoy it."

HOW HAS THE ROLE OF THE PIT CREW INCREASED OVER TIME IN DETERMINING YOUR FINISHING POSITION? "I don't think you can sum it up in words how critical a pit crew is in today's standards, but I'm gonna tell you -- A, you need to qualify well each and every week and B, you need to have the crew to get you in and out of the pits each and every week. Just like Sunday, we came in and put two tires on and went back out third and, basically, ended up third. The only two guys that ended up losing were Benson and Earnhardt, Jr., but, there again, I think we teamed up on both of them to some extent. Still, I don't think I could say in words how much the crew means week-in and week-out because they're the ones that are either gonna make you or break you, especially as competitive as this sport has gotten. It's so hard to pass and gain positions where it used to be you could have a little bit of a problem, be in the back and overcome it, but you can't do that today."

IS PIT WORK BECOMING MORE DANGEROUS TODAY? "NASCAR has done a lot to help curb that. I was the one that had the guys hit out in Riverside, California -- almost lost a couple of boys out there. Then, I did lose a boy in Atlanta in '90 and then they made the pit road speed rule. So, I'm probably as sympathetic to what they need to do as anybody. I agree, but the drivers need to respect the crews more than sometimes what they do on pit road. Yeah, there is a pit road speed, there is a lot of element of danger on pit road. These guys are trying to get in a small space and then cut guys off and cut them close and this that and the other. I'm surprised that more doesn't happen than what does happen. I think there are probably some things we need to work on and tweak around a little bit, but, for the most part, I feel like we've done a good job. Yeah, it could probably use a little work, but, I think, there again, a lot of people went into Daytona -- it's the first race, a lot of people are not on their toes...had a lot of time, probably a lot of rookies there also and it's easy to make mistakes there."

WHAT MIGHT YOU TWEAK? "I still think if we could work out a deal where we could have a little bit longer pit box and things of that sort that would help the cars get into an area. That's just gonna be stuff we're gonna have to do through evolution and work through."

WE'VE HEARD THE DODGE RUMORS THAT INVOLVE YOU, BUT CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR PERCEPTION OF DODGE COMING INTO THE SPORT AND OF RAY EVERNHAM SPEARHEADING THE PROGRAM? "If he does anything like what he did at Hendrick he's gonna have a heck of a program. I don't know a lot about what they're doing, but from what I understand there's a lot of stuff they're putting in behind him. They've done awfully well in the trick series, so given that in mind and with what Ray has done with Hendrick over they years, I don't see any reason why the shouldn't be competitive coming right out of the box."

HOW STRONG IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FORD AND HOW DIFFICULT WOULD IT BE TO LEAVE? "Well, my dad would probably shoot me if I left. Ford's been great to me throughout the years. That's something I've had real strong relationships with and it would be very difficult to leave."

HOW DRASTIC ARE THE DIFFERENCES OF DRIVING AT DAYTONA AND ROCKINGHAM? "When you go in the gate at a race track, I've been doing it long enough that you pretty much know what to do. The other night I was sitting at the house thinking about running the laps and qualifying and everything you've gotta do at Rockingham. So, I had gone out of Daytona and was already thinking Rockingham. One think that I've got to say about Rockingham is since they've made all of pit road on one side, qualifying isn't hardly as critical as it used to be but it still is. You still want to qualify well because it's only a 400-mile race, but I think I've been to these places long enough that you get one out of your system and you drive in the gates somewhere else and you're pretty much in the mode for that particular race track."

WHAT WERE THE FACTORS THAT TURNED IT AROUND SINCE THE TALLADEGA TEST? "It all comes with the hard work and dedication from the guys in the shop. We felt like we rebuilt some cars for Talladega. We took some of our older cars and tried to convert them into the new body and we didn't think they were that bad, but when we went over there they were terrible. We kind of struggled through some other stuff and we changed and built a new car extremely fast. They came in here and hustled and got a new car built, did some wind tunnel stuff with it, kept working with it, and then we took it to Daytona and tested there around the 20th of January and it was really good then. They came back and just continued to work. I mean, they worked night and day on that thing all the way until we left. I think they loaded it at like midnight when we had to be there at like seven in the morning -- just enough time to drive down there. They're the ones that made it all work and they made it look easy for me. Plus, Ernie getting Tonycola (Tony Santanicola) that came in from the 98 car and getting involved with the engines has definitely helped also. So, with the changes I made here in the shop, plus Ernie's changes down there, I feel like that's been the nucleus of what made our Daytona so successful."

CAN YOU RELATE ANY STORIES AROUND THE HELP ALAN VIGEL (ATLANTA AREA FORD DEALER) HAS GIVEN YOU OVER THE YEARS? "Alan still helps me. I've had a lot of help from a lot of different people, but Alan has been an avid race fan for a number of years and still supports us. He lets us have cars to drive when we come to the Atlanta race or whatever it is. Alan has been a friend with my dad throughout the years, he was in the Ford dealership business, and he's a great guy. I can't say enough good things about Alan Vigel."

WHO WERE YOU WORKING WITH THE LAST FEW LAPS AT DAYTONA AND HOW DO THOSE DEALS WORK? "I don't know if there's anything written in stone. I mean, I was trying to get my spotter to help me get by the 10 car, get Mark and them to help me, but when he went to Mark -- Mark and Jarrett were working on a deal to pass me so I'm just stuck. If you can't get somebody to help you, you're not gonna do it on your own. The thing about it is the 88 car, everybody knows the 88 car had been good there all week and if it gets the opportunity to lead they know it can lead and they're gonna help him. I knew Jeff Burton was gonna help Dale and I didn't have any choice but to help Jeff because whenever Dale got up beside of Mark, we all passed him by and whenever he passed the 10 we all passed him by. If it could have got down to another lap or two in the race, I don't know that I would have done anything differently than what I had unless I could have gotten Rusty to really help me. There again, would he help you just get out and then turn around and pass you at the end of the race. You might have tried to gain one spot, but lost 10 because I think Benson ended up 12th or 13th. I don't know what the answer is, it's just hard, tough racing that's so different than anywhere else we run."

IS BENSON THE CLOSEST THING TO WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN YEARS AGO, ONE THAT IS LITTLE AND TRYING TO GET BY? "I wouldn't consider them too little. The way I look back on where I started, all there was working on the car was me and Ernie and the rest of the people were volunteers. Tim Beverley, from what I understand, is pretty well off and pretty well connected and runs a pretty sizeable business that if the race team doesn't do well, he can pull a little money out of this to make it work. My dad couldn't do it. Yeah, he could pull maybe a $1,000 out, but not a million dollars. People today -- Hendrick and Roush and Yates and a lot of people -- have resources that if they get a little short here they can pull it from another area."

DID YOU EVER QUESTION YOUR DAD'S ABILITY TO JUDGE A DRIVER'S TALENT? "No, you just don't question your dad (laughing) or I didn't mine. My dad had cars that ran, I think they went to Daytona in the early sixties and ran sportsman races. When we ran the building supply business he would take a van trailer and put two cars in it and carry it to Daytona. That's how involved my dad was in racing. He enjoyed it and he loved to do it and he always carried local drivers from around home to give them an opportunity to drive and I don't think he ever thought twice about it. I think he was just glad to help out and, if the guys was serious enough and wanted to work hard enough, he'd give him an opportunity to go on and do what they wanted to do."

DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WEREN'T CUT OUR FOR WINSTON CUP RACING? "I worked so hard at it that I never really thought about it. We just continued to work and I never lost sight of just working hard. I think other people might have given up earlier and gone on to something else, but it seemed like I always got to a point in my career that a door would open and lead me into another direction and we'd be able to take that step that would lead us to another door. I look back on it and it's really weird the way all that happened."

WHEN DID YOU FIRST FEEL REALLY COMFORTABLE IN WINSTON CUP? "Probably once I got into the early eighties because I started running really well. I never really felt uncomfortable in Winston Cup, I felt like I fit in pretty well but I just never felt like I had the equipment until we got later on into my career. I think when daddy bought the stuff from Roger Penske was probably the most critical turning point in my career."


DOES IT SURPRISE YOU THE FORDS FAIRED THAT WELL? "I don't have all the facts, I don't know. If that's what they say, I guess that's good. A lot of people have worked hard on their stuff and I guess it goes to show you how bad the Taurus was to this point (on restrictor-plate tracks)."


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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Bill Elliott , Dale Jarrett , Mike Skinner , Bobby Allison , Roger Penske , Felix Sabates