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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

August 22, 1997

It's going to take Ford racing fans a little time to adjust to the change, but the front-wheel-drive revolution has grabbed a piece of the NASCAR racing turf. For 1998, the premiere Ford NASCAR Winston Cup race car will be shaped like that quintessential corporate lease car, the Ford Taurus four-door sedan.

Before you Blue Oval enthusiasts assemble for a mass march on NASCAR headquarters to hold demonstrations, I should qualify the above statement with further elucidations. NASCAR is not getting into CART's Super Touring support race program of two-liter, front-drive racing sedans, although that category could use a few dozen more entries. The NASCAR Taurus uses a traditional 358 cubic-inch V8 engine driving an equally traditional Ford nine-inch differential in the rear through a traditional four-speed transmission. The chassis will also be the traditional lion-cage tube frame with all the traditional racing accouterments like a fuel cell, fire extinguisher system, etc.

But it doesn't take too much imagination to see the resemblance between the NASCAR Taurus and the 9000+ 1998 "corporate" Tauruses that Ford will be delivering to Hewlett-Packard soon. One whimsical design feature added to the racer is in the execution of the back door handles. Since NASCAR race cars are all coupes by definition, the "rear" door handles of the NASCAR Taurus are painted onto the body work.

As for the pur sang concept that the racer Taurus is rear-drive while the "street" Taurus is front-drive, one need only look under the skin of any of the NASCAR Winston Cup Chevrolet Monte Carlos and the new Monte Carlos presently on the showroom floor of local Chevy dealerships to see an parallel dissimilarity.

Ford Motor Company decided last year to phase out the Thunderbird name along with the car itself in mid-1998 and as a result, the Ford Thunderbird NASCAR stock car racers will go with it. As TV race fans know, big-time racing is, in reality, show business, and corporate sponsorship is the name of the game. Ford would like to sell lots more Taurus sedans to the general public and the idea that what wins in NASCAR on Sunday will sell well at dealerships on Monday has been market researched many times. So the rationale is simple: Ford won't be selling T'birds anymore, so it's pointless to promote them.

The highly competitive NASCAR Thunderbirds will continue to be raced in Winston Cup events in '98, but then they'll be phased out and assigned to lesser series competitions.

The first of the NASCAR Taurus racers has had no track time and was only introduced to the motorsports press at an unveiling at the end of July. In fact, Ford's Special Vehicles Operations (SVO) and Motorsports Technology Department only received "official" company word that the Thunderbird would be history a few months ago. Obviously, it didn't come as a complete surprise to SVO as work on the new Taurus racer had begun in December of last year.

Two NASCAR teams are currently in possession of the new chassis. Roush Racing and Penske South (who else but the all-powerful Penske?) were both involved in the presentation but to field a complete NASCAR Winston Cup team next year, Jack Roush said that he'll need 40 chassis for the superspeedways, short ovals (paved and dirt) and road circuits as well as backup units. And this doesn't take into account that there are almost 20 other Winston Cup teams under contract to field Fords, and that they too must have a full compliment of vehicles and parts.

Ford is savvy enough to get the full measure of publicity out of the new NASCAR Taurus and Ford head honcho Alex Toutman has recently brought it to a Ford/Hewlett-Packard charity function in California. It naturally created a sensation, but there was one drawback: many of the younger H-P executives wanted replicas as their company cars. That would definitely make exiting the company parking lot at 5 p.m. every afternoon very interesting.