By David G. Firestone
I wouldn’t normally post something during the weekend, but last week, Uni-Watch ran a very brief column discussing the Stewart-Haas Racing announcement concerning the 2017 switch to Ford. Specifically, the fan’s reaction is what stunned a lot of people. People were really upset that Stewart is making the move to Ford. The comment section included a number of really good observations concerning the move.
I got to thinking about this subject. While I understand the manufacturer loyalty, the average non-racing fan or non-car guy wouldn’t. Now let’s get the obvious out of the way. We are all brand loyal to some extent, I am, you are, we all are. We all have brands we like, and we all have brands we don’t like. For example, I live in Evanston, Illinois, and I am very partial to Gulliver’s Pizza, WBC Craft Sodas, and Green River. I have a good friend who HATES Gulliver’s, and will only drink Pepsi. We all have brands we are loyal to, and brands we avoid.
When it comes to vehicles, brand loyalty just seems to run a little deeper. Car guys are very, VERY brand loyal. It’s common for whole generations to be loyal to one brand of car. The same way generations of people root for sports teams, is the same way car guys feel about manufacturers. In the 34 years I have been alive, we have ALWAYS had at least one GM brand car in our driveway, and have never had a Ford, or a Nissan. In my dad’s case, he had a terrible experience with a Datsun in 1985, and to this day will never have a Nissan in our driveway. Growing up Jewish, my dad HATED the fact that Henry Ford was a raging anti-Semite, and so we will never own a Ford.
Hot rodders, car guys, and car collectors can be VERY loyal to one brand. Much ado was made about the condition of the Corvette Collection of artist Peter Max. There were a lot of Corvettes that were in bad condition that were covered in dust. Bill Stroppe was a long time Ford racing builder, who revolutionized off-road racing with the Rough Riders. Tim and Pam Wellborn run the Wellborn Muscle Car Museum and have one of, if not the biggest collection of Dodge muscle cars in the nation. Toyota has a fan club, the T.O.R.C., or Toyota Owners and Restorers Club. Every make has a deeply devoted fan base.
With loyalties that stretch for generations, it comes as no surprise that Chevy fans reacted the way they did to the announcement, but there is a bit more to it than that. In the world of racing, rivalry takes a much bigger scope than in most other sports. For example, when the Cubs play the Mariners, there are two major rivalries, the team rivalry, and the city rivalry. In a NASCAR race, there are the drivers, the teams, and the manufacturers. 40 individual drivers, as many as 30 different teams, and three manufacturers. All the drivers and teams racing for one manufacturer are considered technical partners.
To better explain the rivalry of manufacturers, I’ll use the analogy that each manufacturer is a team. Each individual team and driver is a member of that team, even if they against each other on track. So on a technical level, RCR, Stewart-Haas Racing, and JTG Daugherty Racing are teammates. Even though Richard Childress Rracing, Stewart-Haas Racing and JTG are all different teams, and have no connection with one another. This breeds an interesting partnership, which is knows as “coopertition” which is a portmanteau of “cooperation” and “competition.” All of Chevy’s teams have factory support, even though they are mostly independent teams. RCR supplies engines for JTG Daugherty Racing, Germain Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, and Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing. Former clients included Furniture Row Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing. Hendrick Motorsports has a partnership with SHR, and The Motorsports Group has independently built engines.
Over on the Ford side, Roush Fenway Racing is one of the bigger Ford teams, and their engine program, known as Roush-Yates Engines, and has technical partnerships with Team Penske, Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM), Front Row Motorsports, Leavine Family Racing, Premium Motorsports, and FAS Lane Racing. While the Wood Brothers doesn’t have a partnership with RFR per se, they do have a partnership with Team Penske, so all of Ford is running the same equipment.
When it comes to Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota Racing Development supply engines to Gibbs, and Furniture Row Racing, and BK Racing has an in-house engine program, though it has factory support.
The reason manufacturers are as neck-deep in their racing programs as they are is because of one six-word phrase that the auto industry lived by for decades. That saying is “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Long before the days of the internet, auto racing was seen as a way for manufacturers to show off their products, and whatever make won the race would see an increase in sales after the event. Since the majority of auto racing fans are car guys and car gals, this isn’t that far fetched. The other thing that manufacturers got from winning a race was bragging rights. If a GM won the Daytona 500, or the Southern 500, they had the right to gloat.
The point is that fans don’t just root for the driver, they root for the badge. The fact that Stewart-Haas Racing is seemingly turning their back on the Chevy badge is why Chevy fans are upset. I’m badge-neutral, I don’t have one specific badge I root for. I actually agree with their decision. Stewart is the team owner, and as such, his primary goal is to get his cars into victory lane, and achieve on-track success. If that means switching from Chevy to Ford, so be it. I disagreed with Joe Gibbs switching to Toyota, and when Penske switched to Dodge, but it paid dividends for the teams. If this switch is voluntary, then he obviously thinks he made the right move for the future of the team.
When I interviewed Jack Beckman back in January, he had a quote that I thinks help explain the move. When I asked if he taped the visor to remove distractions, he referred to it as the “Clydesdale Effect ” and said “…I’m a big proponent of doing anything that you think will make you perform better. If you think a red glove will make you drive better than a blue glove, it will.” That’s the logic Stewart uses. It’s why he’s the only team in the Sprint Cup, and in fact all of the major leagues of auto racing, who doesn’t have a team driver suit supplier. Stewart is a Simpson stalwart, Kevin Harvick is partial to Sparco, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch wear Alpine Stars driver suits. If each driver thinks that wearing the brands of uniform they are partial to will help them win, Stewart supports it. If Stewart thinks switching badges will help them win more races, he’s all for it.
However, there is something that does need to be addressed. I’m thinking that there may be other forces at play here. Most of the time, a manufacturer change isn’t voluntary, or there is more than meets the eye. I’m not fully sure, but I have a couple of theories. The first theory is that at some point, Ford realized that they needed a better team than Roush-Fewnay to lean on, and that’s when negotiations started. The other theory is that at some point, Hendrick Motorsports made the decision to stop providing engines for satellite teams. The Hendrick theory is supported by the fact that towards the end of the season last year, Furniture Row Racing announced a similar switch, this one to Toyota. Hendrick provided the equipment to Furniture Row, as well as Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s also telling that Hendrick announced that they would not be replacing either team in their engine department.
One last thing that I need to address, because this has been irritating me. According to most people, Stewart might be seen as “GM stalwart.” He could be, provided you overlook 2008, where he raced 38 events, including the Budweiser Shootout, Gatorade Duel, and All-Star Race, and won the wreckfest that was the 2008 AMP Energy 500 in controversial fashion, and had 10 top 5’s and 16 top 10’s. If you wanted to argue that Jeff Gordon or Kevin Harvick are “GM Stalwarts,” I’ll agree with that. Gordon raced 797 consecutive races from 1992 to 2015, 93 wins and 4 Sprint Cup Championships, Harvick race 545 consecutive races, 32 wins and one Sprint Cup Championship, ALL OF THEM IN CHEVYS! I have a hard time taking the idea that a driver who had success in Toyota not too long ago could be a GM stalwart.
I’m not going to wrap this up in a nice little package, because there really isn’t one here. I also want to state that I’m working off the information I have as of right now. There could be something that changes in the future that would shed some more light, and if so, I’ll address it. I’m going to do another My Thoughts On this coming Tuesday.