The new NASCAR Nationwide Series car will debut this week at Daytona International Speedway in Friday’s Subway Jalapeno 250. Ford has decided to run the famed Mustang as its new entry while Dodge has opted for its sporty Challenger. Jamie Allison, director, Ford North America Motorsports, and Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Dodge, both participated in a NASCAR teleconference on Tuesday to discuss their new models.
Q: CAN YOU BOTH TALK ABOUT HOW THESE NEW CARS LOOK MORE LIKE THE SHOWROOM MODELS?
JAMIE ALLISON: Thank you for that introduction. You used the word "historic." We are using seismic but any way you slice it, this is a major event of its own right. From Mustang's perspective, Mustang has been involved in all forms of motorsports from land speed records to drag racing to sports car racing and recently in drifting, and now we are adding to it, stock car racing. There have been nine million Mustangs sold since 1964, and I consider every one of those a potential fan for watching Mustang make its appearance in Nationwide. So we are very thrilled and excited, working with NASCAR to return some of the brand identity into the cars that are raced in comparison to the cars that we sell. So we are very thrilled and excited. It will be a fantastic race and looking forward to the event at Daytona.
RALPH GILLES: Hats off to the NASCAR and Nationwide series managers and for making it look easy. I think it looks easy when it's all said and done; but three years in the making, lots of collaboration behind the scenes to make sure the parity was there, a lot of aerodynamic tunnel work, spent a lot of time, working and making sure with Ford that we are all Even Steven, so that we can have fun and not ever lose this advantage we now have. As a carmaker, we are happy. For us, it's the return of Challenger. We have been absent almost two decades from racing. My hat's off to Ford for such a prolific racing program. For us, it's a big deal. We like the fact that our customers are connecting. We are already seeing some very good noise, or I guess, feedback or excitement, so to speak on the social media side of things, so it's pretty cool. It's exciting.
Q: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE PROCESS THAT HAS GONE ON OVER THIS PERIOD TO GET THE MUSTANG AND CHALLENGER TO THIS POINT?
RALPH GILLES: In our case, working with Roger's teams, Penske and our engineers. No. 1, it's very rare that we get a relatively clean slate like this. We wanted to make sure we addressed a lot of issues. A lot of it is also cost management. There's a lot of things that we are - not redundant, unfortunately a lot of unique things on our Saturday and Sunday program. So there's a lot more consolidation and a lot of safety advancements that have come from the Sunday series are now in the Nationwide Series. We are pretty excited to see some of these very, very diver-centric safety moves, moving the seat further to the middle of the car, balancing the car a little better, longer wheel base. A lot of lessons learned that make the car safer but easier - I shouldn't say easier but more appropriate to racing at that level at that speed; so we are very happy with that. It also helps Roger's team, and ultimately, all of the competitors, save a lot of costs. They don't have to develop now triplicate stuff or duplicate stuff. That's No. 1. But most of the work, I have to admit, went into aero; a lot of wind tunnel time, and keep in mind, we only have one full-size wind tunnel. So we had to squeeze it in between normal production work, so it's very critical. Probably got more attention than any other racing program we have ever done because of the aero; it's so critical when you are trying to get such a distinct front end, but yet not to have any loss in parity. So that's really where most of the focus was. The rest of the stuff was pretty black-and-tackle, safety-oriented stuff.
JAMIE ALLISON: I want to echo everything Ralph mentioned in terms of making sure as we include the brand identity to the car, not to compromise its ability to be competitive on the track, because not only now will you have a Mustang versus a Challenger going against each other, but also, they are going to have to compete with the two other cars that have basically remained unchanged. Competitiveness was very key, emphasis on aero. Also, I'm sure, and within Dodge, because I've seen the Dodge car and it looks just fantastic, clearly, there was - at Ford we did a lot of work with the brand team to make sure that the car is recognizable as a Mustang as is the Challenger recognizable as Challenger. So the inclusion of the brand team, the integration of the brand cues, to make sure that the car, when you see it go around the turns, that it's recognizable as a Mustang is the added element on top of what Ralph mentioned in terms of the competitiveness of the car.
Q: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHETHER YOU’RE STARTING ANY SORT OF SHOW CAR PROGRAM WITH THESE CARS AND WHEN DO YOU THINK YOU’LL BE ABLE TO IMPLEMENT THEM IN TV ADS?
JAMIE ALLISON: We already have a show car working with Conway, who is one of the sponsors in the Nationwide Series, and we have -- when we have taken the car out on shows, there have been people who have come out to literally stand next to it and take a picture with it. Something that we have not seen when we have taken the traditional NASCAR Car of Tomorrow. So clearly, there is a lot of interest, a lot of piqued interest in seeing what the car looks like and a lot with the affiliation that it's a Mustang in an historic entry in NASCAR. Yes, we have a show car program, yes people are interested and yes it's working.
RALPH GILLES: We have had the very same experience over here at the Challenger. We have a show car, as well. We debuted it last year, showed it mostly to the media not, so much the public; but very, very positive feedback. And one image that leaked out and went crazy on the Internet, a lot of it - especially the existing fans for Challenger really celebrated a lot and there was a lot of debate and discussion about, is this really going to happen. They couldn't believe that Nationwide NASCAR would look this way. I think the conversation out there is fantastic to see what Ford and Dodge are doing out there, it's great.
Q: JAMIE HAS SAID MUSTANG MAY ONE DAY MOVE UP TO CUP. RALPH, IS DODGE CONSIDERING THE SAME POSSIBILITY?
RALPH GILLES: I think the Challenger, the look of the Challenger is part and parcel with what happens with the Sprint Cup Series. It would be up to NASCAR, because that's another game altogether is to go to the Sunday race. We have to really change the rules there. So part of the experiment here; it's obviously a public experiment. We have four races this year and an entire season next year. I have always said this to my friends at NASCAR; that eventually the fans will kind of tell us what to do. I think the excitement will be very loud and clear, and then we'll have to see what happens. But in the meantime, I'm enjoying - I'm lucky that I have two very nice muscle cars in my portfolio. So I enjoy two avenues for which to promote them, so I couldn't be happier.
Q: WE HEARD KEVIN HARVICK TODAY AND HE THINKS THAT BRINGING IN THE PONY CARS WILL EVEN OUT THE PLAYING FIELD. I WAS TOLD AFTER SATURDAY’S RACE A COUPLE OF FORD DRIVERS WENT TO THE TRUCK, I WON’T SAY COMPLAINING, BUT PERHAPS LOBBYING AGAINST THE TOYOTAS. IS IT YOUR CONTENTION THAT EVERYONE IS KIND OF AT SQUARE ONE AND YOU JUST GO ON FROM THERE?
JAMIE ALLISON: To answer your question, I think the question centers more on performance and engine - I think NASCAR has taken out and noted (ph) to the various engine manufacturers in Nationwide, and that effort is going to prove itself out in terms of appropriate parity around horsepower and performance. So I don't think the fact that we are bringing in a Mustang bodied entry and a Challenger is re-opening a clean slate of paper. The bodies have changed, but my understanding is the chassis are still carryover and the engine is still carryover. So the competitiveness of the various entries in the current state is being evaluated, independent of what they look like.
RALPH GILLES: It's always tough to talk about this kind of stuff, but I'm curious to see what happens. That's kind of why there's only four races. We need to kind of see how everything plays out, and there will be a lot of discussion, a lot of post-race analysis to find out what's going on. So we really, really won't know until the end of Saturday night. So we'll have to see what happens.
Q: DO YOU FEEL THIS NEW CAR WILL MAKE FANS ENGAGE IN THE MANUFACTURER BATTLE AGAIN? IT SEEMS TO HAVE DIED DOWN A LITTLE BIT.
RALPH GILLES: I'll take that one on. Yes, and I hope that's what happens. I've said it already: I think the drivers have taken quite a bit of limelight, and there's nothing wrong with that. They are great personalities, and we are finding the drivers, they are almost superstars amongst themselves, and it would be nice to get the cars get a little limelight again and then start talking about branding. Over the years, the cars have become somewhat of a template, and it's hard to argue with some of the fans shifting the interest towards the drivers. But I remember being the kid, even recently the movie, the cars movie, re-introduced this idea of having branding, very obvious and branding on the cars. You could recognize them as old cars and whatnot. So there's something really cool about being able to identify the car that you may want to drive or your dad may drive or whatever. I think it's very powerful and it's what the whole industry was invented for in the first place was to market vehicles.
JAMIE ALLISON: I'll add to that. This is the case where the cars are going to be the stars. We all buy cars. We are all - one from another, tend to affiliate with our cars. I'm a Mustang kind of guy, and when I drive a Mustang, when I bought my first Mustang there was a deep emotional connection that I have with that car. And I think many of the fans feel the same way is that when you see a Mustang or Challenger going around Daytona, it's a different type of connection that you have with it, because either your friends or neighbor or somebody you know has a Mustang and you can relate to it versus what has transpired over the years of taking away that brand identity that people could relate to. So, you know, we have gone through an era where obviously it was a manufacturer's battle, and then gone to an era where the drivers were the stars, and now we are entering an era where the cars are the stars, and I think it's good for the sport. We will see how it turns out here in the next few races and into next year.
Q: WHEN DO YOU THINK THE DRIVERS STARTED BECOMING THE STARS?
RALPH GILLES: There's one guy with a mustache who really did the whole thing. (Laughter).
JAMIE ALLISON: Yeah, and obviously once the brand identity was removed from what's on the track, naturally as human beings, we all gravitate to kind of attaching ourselves to something, and the something that we are attaching ourselves to was these heroes, these cars, the man with the mustache, going out and meeting everybody, it's a natural progression of identifying with somebody when you can no longer identify with the car.
RALPH GILLES: And I think over the time just like some superstars are identified by some of the cars that were in their movies, there's room for both. I think the drivers and the cars can coexist beautifully as a team. And I know my guy on Sunday, Kurt, he races Challengers privately a hobby, so he's really a Mopar guy through and through. There's some good back stories behind, this too, and we hope to develop that as time goes on.
JAMIE ALLISON: I agree, Ralph, that's a good addition, it could be cars and drivers as stars in a good way.
Q: THE OLD ADAGE USED TO BE ‘WIN ON SUNDAY, SELL ON MONDAY.’ HOW WILL YOU MEASURE SUCCESS WITH THIS NEW CAR?
JAMIE ALLISON: Today what we do, we track from the race on Sunday, hopefully win on Sunday and sell on Monday, and a lot of that activity shifts itself into the activity off the track in terms of being able to display data capture and match that to sales. So we have a pretty prolific method of tracking our participation in the sport to actual sales of our products. I think this adds another dimension. We have legions of fans who have followed the nine million Mustangs that have been born at Ford. We have a lot of clubs, and so does Challenger. There's a lot of clubs out there. We have a total of around 40,000 club members that are a part of a specific club or another, and all of a sudden, they are rising up, affiliating with what we have done here, putting the car in NASCAR. We will measure success in terms of affiliation. We will measure success in terms of hand-raisers. We will measure success in terms of all of the social media chatter that we'll take on and all of the PR, so there's other levels of metrics that will rise up because of this occurrence, because the actual selling of being affiliated with the sport is already taking place through our other metrics.
RALPH GILLES: I will build on that; we are doing the very same things as Jamie, and on top of that we recently spiffed up our motorsports site and watching the lower funnel activity really closely, and there will be a spike after the race. And we will watch this weekend very carefully. The other thing is merchandising. We have created some new merchandising to go with Challenger, and we will see if sales pick up. There's definitely a love affair starting to build. And then listen to our dealers, talk to our dealers and get some feedback, if they saw any action or commentary about the races. It's a brand new thing in a way so we are going to have to find new ways to measure it.