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Dodge Racing In Jeopardy

by Larry Roberts

January 8, 2001

If I were a dyed-in-the-wool Dodge racing fan, I think I'd be getting a bit nervous about the competition future of my favorite marque. These enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the February 18 running of the Daytona 500, the event that opens the 34-race Winston Cup stock car series, with good reason: It marks the re-entry of Dodge into the ranks of big-league NASCAR racing with a flying phalanx of specially- constructed race cars that somewhat resemble the standard Dodge Intrepid R/T that's on the showroom floor of your local dealership. It's the first time since the early '70s that a Chrysler product has been on the grid of the Daytona 500 for stock cars and in view of a huge (and expensive) onslaught of nearly a dozen first-class cars, Dodge has a good chance of pulling off the NASCAR coup of the half-century.

But the reason for the anxiety can be found on in our business section or in the latest copy of BusinessWeek. The merger of Daimler and Chrysler a few years ago has become the corporate nightmare of the century. Amid accusations of fraud and stockholder deception, high-level firings and personnel defections at the top as well as planning goof-ups at DaimlerChrysler, the formerly high-flying company is wallowing in multi-billion dollar losses.

Somewhere on the periphery of this high-level, multi-national maelstrom is Mopar, the performance parts and competition division of DaimlerChrysler. Over the years, Mopar has struggled against great odds to establish a base of enthusiastic Dodge supporters and customers for its drag-racing speed equipment. In recent years, it has branched out into the field of wheel-to-wheel competition by supporting Dodges racing in the second-level NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. It has also openly supported Mark Kinser in the World of Outlaws sprint car races, an unusual, but exciting, venue for an auto manufacturer.

In addition, it has supported the French Oreca Viper program which has proven itself to be virtually unbeatable in international GT endurance racing. For the coming season, Team Oreca has stepped up the ladder and is entering the top-level Prototype class with a program that could lead to an overall win at Le Mans, Sebring or any of the other world-class sports car endurance races.

The newest reason for consternation among Dodge fans is the upcoming retirement of Lou Patane, Chrysler vice-president in charge of motorsports for DaimlerChrysler. Patane has been the guiding force behind the success of Dodge in the field of motorsports but he professes that his departure has nothing to do with the shake-up within DaimlerChrysler management. His reason for leaving is to "pursue personal business ventures."

Racing fans all over the world are hoping that Mopar and its programs will emerge unscathed from the turmoil at DaimlerChrysler. We'd hate to have to wait another three decades for it to rise again.