Thursday was a huge day at Ford Racing headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. As has become traditional on the week of Sprint Cup racing at Michigan International Speedway, drivers and big shots from the company’s North American racing programs were invited to town to see, feel and schmooze.
During an early morning phone conversation, Jamie Allision, head of Ford Racing North America, suddenly, in mid sentence, asked if he could call back. When he did, five minutes later, he explained: Fire Alarm.
“I’m going to take that as a good omen,” Allison said.
The good-omen hunt in the NASCAR wing of the Dearborn offices has been dialed up to 11 in recent weeks. Ford teams and drivers are winless in Sprint Cup. Things are worse in Nationwide where two top hopefuls – Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – are not only winless, they have been wadding up cars out of all proportion.
Though not sounding panicked about the situation, Allison did sound disappointed.
“Winning,” Allison said, “may not be everything, but losing sucks.”
Things have sucked in Cup for well over a year now for Ford. The last victory came at Talladega last fall and that one was with now-departed Jamie McMurray behind the wheel.
This year, Ford’s are 0 for 14.
Allison does’t need to be reminded of any of that.
“We’re kind of approaching the half way point of the season and it’s no secret, the fact that we have had some struggles this season in terms of not having the win,” he said.
While it may not be a secret, it is rather shocking. Especially to the head man at Ford Racing.
“If somebody had asked me in January if we would be half way through the season and still chasing our first victory with the great lineup of drivers, with RPM (Richard Petty Motor Sports) with Kasey Kahne, A.J. (Allmendinger) and Paul Menard and on the Roush (Fenway Racing) side, having Carl (Edwards), Matt (Kenseth) (Greg) Biffle and still anticipating our first win, nobody, nobody could have handicapped that.”
There is a difference between something being shocking and something being unbelievable and Allison says it is not unbelievable that his all-star lineup is winless. He says all you have to do is watch races to see why it’s possible. The competition, he said, is “amazing” in Cup these days.
“I was down in Turn Four down in Charlotte,” for the Coca-Cola 600, Allison said, “and there was Biffle passing Jeff Gordon – for 19th place! It just shows you the level of competition in this sport. It just shows you that if you are not flawless, if you are not flawless on adjusting to the new landscape, whether it’s simulation, whether it is the engine, whether it’s the latest hardware, if you are not flawless in your pit stops, if all those don’t come together, if you are off in one dimension, you are going to get beat up by somebody else.”
Ah, the new landscape. It’s chewed up Ford teams and drivers. Allison said the decision by NASCAR to ban testing represented a major tar pit for his folks. With physical testing trimmed way back, teams have turned to computer simulations as they sought to set cars up prior to race weekends.
Some teams got the “sims” elbow in the side, some did not. Ford has not.
“Our troubles have been honing in with our predictive simulations,” Allison said.
Ford’s latest generation of Cup engine has also been targeted – mostly from outside of race shops – as an area of concern.
The FR9 V-8 was introduced on a limited basis last year. It will be used in all nine Fords this weekend for the first time as it has slowly – some note, really slowly – been phased into widespread use.
Allison said the expansion of Ford in Cup – that is, the addition of RPM and its four cars – was a major reason for an expanded phase-in period.
“We didn’t have ample production to cover them,” he said.
The engine itself is good, Allison said. It does not give a major horsepower boost but it does feature a design that facilitates better cooling. That means teams can use more tape on front ends and that will improve grip.
It also has a lower center of gravity and that should allow for higher cornering speeds. A third benefit appears to be improved fuel mileage.
Ford currently has three drivers in the top 10 in points in Cup. They appear Chase bound. And there have been several of races this year where victory appeared to be in the offing.
“I do see progress,” Allison said.
But what he really wants to see is confetti covering a Ford in Victory Lane.
“Personally, I’m competitive,” Allison said. “I played sports and in sports…winning is important. We are a company built on winning. We have 595 Cup wins since we have been involved with NASCAR. We have a tradition of winning in all forms of motor sports. We will win again. I have no doubt.”
He hopes that victory will come this weekend.
Up until last season, MIS has been a place where Fords contend. Fords have won at least one of the two annual races at the 2-mile oval in Brooklyn every year between 2001 and 2009. They won five straight times there in the mid 1990s.
Victories at MIS are special, Allison said, because, “It’s in our backyard.”
“Oh, God, yes,” he said when asked if this would be the perfect weekend to end a 17-race drought in Cup and a three-race skid at Michigan.
But it won’t be until late Sunday whether he and the rest of the Dearborn folks find out of the fire alarm turns out to be a good omen or a bad one.
Jim Pedleyis a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who has worked at, among other places, the Boston Globe, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Kansas City Star. Pedley spent more than 10 years covering auto racing for the Kansas City Star. Pedley can be reached at