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Is It a Level Playing Field?

Car Manufacturers Will Always Complain the Other Guy Has the Advantage

April 29, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The shots were fired early, right after the Ford Taurus was shown in its NASCAR configuration at Indianapolis in August.

"If that's a stock car, my aunt is my uncle," said Felix Sabates, owner of two Chevrolet teams.

It sure didn't look like a Taurus, which is a four-door Ford. This was two inches wider in the rear and the lines didn't resemble anything you could buy in a showroom.

And it sure wasn't a Thunderbird, which Ford had been campaigning--and Chevrolet had been beating--in Winston Cup racing for a decade.

"What is this? It's N-A-S-C-A-R. Stock cars, and that's not a stock car," said Darrell Waltrip, for years owner and driver of Chevrolets.

It's what's keeping Ford in the NASCAR business. When Ford announced it would stop manufacturing the Thunderbird after last year, there was a scramble to determine if there was a model in the company's arsenal that would adapt to stock car racing.

There was, but it took some serious adapting.

"The Taurus is the first new car the Ford guys have had in 10 years," says Jack Roush, who owns five Fords, among them those of Mark Martin, Ted Musgrave and Jeff Burton.

"Initially, NASCAR didn't want a different car, but they realized that Ford wasn't going to produce a Thunderbird in 1998, and unless they were going to be able to [compete with] a current car that they would put money and promotion behind, they were not going to be involved in NASCAR racing."

What NASCAR didn't want was a General Motors derby in front of half-full stands every Sunday.

What NASCAR got was a manufacturers' point race that stands at Chevrolet 62, Ford 61 and Pontiac 48 after nine races, four of which have been won by Chevy, three by Ford and two by Pontiac.

What NASCAR also got was some angry Chevrolet Monte Carlo team owners, crew chiefs and drivers.

"I think the new Taurus obviously has an advantage over the Monte Carlo at some tracks," says Ray Evernham, crew chief for the Chevrolet driven by Jeff Gordon, defending Winston Cup and California 500 champion.

"NASCAR has everything in black and white. Last year, the Thunderbird had better downforce than the Monte Carlo. This year, the new Taurus has better downforce than the Monte Carlo. Why, then, don't they do something about it? I don't know.

"I'm not whining. I'm stating a fact. They never give you those numbers, but I've heard some staggering numbers, like 30%."

It's a number that's repeated in every Chevrolet camp. And, added Waltrip, "Downforce is what wins races."

It's the glue that holds a car to the track, keeping it from becoming an airplane at speeds that, at Talladega, Daytona, Atlanta and Fontana, are faster than a passenger jet reaches at takeoff.

Roush, an engineer by trade, acknowledges the downforce disparity but says that it has been more than offset by NASCAR changes since the season began, and besides, the Ford also has more drag, which slows the car.

"Starting at Daytona, the Ford Taurus was a car that had substantially more downforce than a Chevrolet Monte Carlo and a Pontiac Grand Prix, and substantially more drag," Roush says. "It was not a competitive car."

It got competitive, fast.

Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in a Chevrolet, followed by Bobby Labonte's Pontiac. Fords driven by teammates Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace finished third and fifth, respectively.

And then Gordon won at Rockingham, although Ford showed it was getting its legs on its new car, taking the next six places.

And then came Las Vegas, where Ford took the first seven places and 13 of the top 14.

It was embarrassing.

"The results didn't look good to us, and we took a quarter-inch off the top of the spoiler, based purely on what we saw on the racetrack," says Gary Nelson, NASCAR's technical director. "You have to remember that the car had only been raced three times ever: Daytona, Rockingham and Vegas. Taking a project from a clean sheet of paper in August of 1997 to the racetrack in 1998, we expected some changes would need to be made. We didn't know whether we would have to give or take."

NASCAR took, but, the Chevrolet guys say, not enough.

"You go and ask the Ford guys and they say, 'They made us do this and they made us do that,' " says Waltrip. "Let me tell you what the deal is: You go ask NASCAR and they'll say, 'It looks pretty even to us. Chevrolet has won a couple, Ford has won a couple, whatever we've done.'

"Yeah, but look at what races we've won. See, NASCAR's pretty smart. I'll give them credit. They've got it fixed so we can win races that don't pay nothing. They got it fixed so we can win Bristol, we can win Rockingham, because aerodynamics don't mean diddly squat there. On a short track, it don't make a hoot.

"But when you get to tracks that pay $350,000 to half a million dollars to win, we don't have a prayer of a chance."

Atlanta in early March: Bobby Labonte's Pontiac wins, followed by eight Fords. So much for a quarter-inch of spoiler.

The parade went right into the wind tunnel in Marietta, Ga.

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