FORD IN MOTORSPORTS
by Larry Roberts
May 23, 1997
The original proving grounds for the automobile were race tracks around the world. Early races provided thrills and spills for a world population that was interested in anything new and mechanical and it idolized its new "heroes", the men who drove the race cars.
And even in its early days, Ford was in the thick of it. The photo of old Henry himself hunched over the wheel of his gigantic "Old 999" doing over 100 MPH at the turn of the century defines the era.
Ford Motor Company is still involved, but now factory participation in motorsports isn't to prove the reliability of the product. Modern cars are past that point. Today the factories race to win the minds, hearts and checkbooks of racing enthusiasts around the world. And no company is more involved in the various aspects of big-time racing than Ford. Succinctly, the company is into everything:
FORMULA ONE - Few race fans will argue the fact that international Formula One is the pinnacle of the sport. The cars are the fastest, cost the most to build and very costly to field. F1 drivers sign the fattest contracts and make the most money, and most importantly, F1 draws the biggest crowds world-wide. Last year over six billion spectators and TV viewers in 200 countries watched the series and were aware that Damon Hill was the F1 world champion. They were also aware that the engine in his winning Williams was a product of Renault engineering. That doesn't mean much in the U.S., but Ford is a multinational company and would like to have Renault fans in Europe switch their allegiance to Ford's European products through the subliminal message that Ford engines can win F1 races too. At the recent Grand Prix of Monaco, four of the top ten finishers were powered by Ford, while the Ford-powered Stewart split the first and third place Ferraris in what was only its fifth race ever.
CART - Our own home-grown premiere racing series, the PPG CART championship, isn't as widely viewed as the Grand Prix circuit, but 1.2 billion viewers and race-goers in 186 countries in 1996 isn't bad. Those race fans watched as Honda won the Indy car championship and powered the mount of Jimmy Vasser to win the Driver's Championship crown as well. Ford wished it had been its "blue oval" on the side of Vasser's car, but the Dearborn company is off to a good start with the outstanding win on the Homestead, Florida oval by Michael Andretti in his Ford-powered Swift in March. And it doesn't hurt that four of the top-ten finishers at the CART Rio race a few weeks ago carried Ford engines.
NASCAR - In no other form of racing is an American auto maker more visible than on NASCAR's Busch Grand National Superspeedways and road circuits and here, Ford does very well indeed - but it's close. Mark Martin and his Thunderbird won the NASCAR road race at Sears Point some weeks back, and then again two weeks later on the high-banked oval at Talladega, Alabama. Half the top-ten finishers at Talladega were Fords and no doubt Ford sales saw a jump on the Monday mornings following those races. NASCAR fans are more like football rooters than those in either Formula One or CART and those T-Bird wins probably sold lots of F-150 pickups.
SCCA TRANS AN - The Trans Am series for American-built-built "pony cars" has seen better days, but Ford still enthusiastically backs Mustang competitors. This is evident because during the first two events for 1997, the Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles weren't even in the same league. Tom Kendall in his Roush-built Mustang won two in a row and the only contest was between which of the other Mustangs would be second, third and fourth.
SCORE off-road racing, Ford-powered FF 2000 "entry level" competition and half-dozen other venues are all part of Ford's integrated program and Campbell & Company (Ford Motorsports P.R. firm) keeps my fax machine overflowing with weekly Ford racing information.
So for nearly 100 years now, Ford has been involved in some type of auto racing. Let's see if it can last another century.