Ford, Chevy, Dodge Trucks Ready For Battle
by Bob Hagin
February 19, 2001
The NASCAR season of big-time racing is underway and as it has for the past half-dozen years, the Craftsman Truck series looks to be as hard fought as ever with relatively well-financed teams fielding pickups from Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge.
But as race fans know, the vehicles used in "stock" car or truck races bear only a superficial resemblance to those that are found on showroom floors. The grills are the same and identifiable, and the fender lines are similar too, but beneath the fiberglass "skin" lays a no-kidding race car.
But they're close enough for their fans to identify with and if brand loyalty is any criteria, the Craftsman Trunk series should be the most popular type of automotive competition in America. Two of the top three competitors in the series are labeled with the same names as the best selling vehicles in America. The Ford F-Series outsells every type of passenger car in the US while its arch rival, the Chevrolet C/K is a close second. Both are pickups.
Races that match these most-popular vehicles against each other should outshine their sedan-like counterparts in NASCAR Winston Cup races if sales numbers count for anything, They don't, of course, and the pickups actually draw third billing behind the wildly popular Winston Cup events and even trail the slightly-less powerful Busch Series sedan look-alikes.
The reason for what appears to be a paradox is simple: the focal point of the races for Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge "passenger cars" isn't the cars and the brands at all. It's the drivers that pull in the crowds (and they're huge) and get the TV coverage for NASCAR. Over the years, NASCAR has developed down-home, folksy personae for it's drivers and the cars are really secondary. Tony Stewart, the father-and-son Earnhardts, Jeff Gordon, the brothers Labonte, Rusty Wallace and the rest are becoming as well-known to TV audiences as baseball stars. They appear on cereal boxes, on motor oil TV commercials and in a plethora of other promotional venues that push a product but push their own images as well. This scenario doesn't transfer over to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series.
Although it's a true nationwide circuit with races held in nearly a dozen different states, it's really a sort of minor league venue. The Craftsman Trucks run on the premiere Daytona Speedway, the same track as the Winston Cup heavy-hitters, but they also run on much smaller tracks like the less-than half-mile South Boston Speedway.
The drivers fall into several categories. They include grizzled veterans like 56-year old Joe Ruttman who has no chance of going into the Winston Cup but needs and likes the work, has-beens like Willy T. Ribbs. the former SCCA Trans Am star of the '80s who is making a comeback, Ron Hornaday III, whose father is a current Winston Cup regular, and 36 other journeyman pilots. They race for money but not for really big bucks like the Winston Cuppers.
And while a Canadian like Randy MacDonald occasionally slips into the mix, for the first time ever, a true foreigner in the person of Mexican Carlos Contreras will be on the starting line, The Dodge Contreras is driving is owned by the Richard Petty team and came about through a Mexican-based deal that involves Hot Wheels toys.
This brings up another evolving aspect of the Craftsman Truck series. While some of the teams are owned by true independents, several of them are part of larger, more prestigious teams. Jack Rousch, Bobby Hamilton, John Menard and several other big names in racing are listed as team owners. And in the convoluted financial world of big-time racing, it's hard to tell if these connections are tax write-offs, training vehicles for future Winston Cup drivers or just some of the "good ol' boys" looking for a place to have some fun as car owners.