CUP: Penske-Dodge Relationship Bearing Fruit

At the Dodge headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., six people work full-time on motorsports and another 30 or more have a hand in the motorsports programs.

One of the 129 engine dynamometers is dedicated to racing and there’s a $38 million wind tunnel built in 2002 that Penske Racing can use to test its cars.

That, and an undisclosed amount of cash, is enough to keep Roger Penske happy with Dodge’s contribution to his race team.

And Penske has two Sprint Cup wins and an all-star race victory this year by Kurt Busch, three Nationwide Series wins by Brad Keselowski and one by Justin Allgaier, which is enough to keep Dodge interested in NASCAR.

The reliance on manufacturer involvement is heavy in NASCAR, and Dodge executives and Penske invited media last week to Dodge’s technical center to show the investment they have in each other.

Ralph Gilles, who took over as Dodge chief executive officer eight months ago, was more a sports-car aficionado when he took the job. He records races and watches them regularly. He has gone to the infields of Daytona and Talladega to learn more about the NASCAR fan. He also has spearheaded the development of a Dodge Motorsports website to generate interest in Dodge vehicles from race fans.

Is he sold on NASCAR?

“I know we’re spending the least we’ve ever spent and we’re getting the most we’ve ever gotten,” Gilles said Thursday during the media visit. “We’re paying attention differently. We’re using social media more than ever before, we’re activating the events in a different away. We’re doing things to leverage what we’re already investing instead of just going racing.

“It’s a multiyear deal [with Penske]. I have a couple of years to figure that out. I’m not going to say right here in the media [about the future]. I’m sold on 2010. We’re very pleased with 2010.”

Dodge is by far the smallest manufacturer involved in Sprint Cup racing. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, its market share of new vehicles sold in 2010 through May was 5.1 percent compared with Ford at 15.1 percent, Chevrolet at 13.9 and Toyota at 13.3.

In the Sprint Cup field last week at Michigan, there were 14 Chevrolets, 13 Fords, 12 Toyotas and four Dodges. The fourth Dodge was from Whitney Motorsports, which bought the Richard Petty Motorsports fleet after last season but doesn’t get factory support.

With only three supported cars in Cup, Dodge is getting a great deal of mileage out of Penske. Busch is fourth in the Cup standings while Keselowski is 24th and Sam Hornish Jr. 27th. Keselowski is first and Allgaier third in the Nationwide standings.

“Kurt is blowing me away,” Gilles said. “Brad is impressive. … What Brad is doing in Nationwide is outstanding. He’s No. 1 there. He’s great to watch. It’s just awesome.

“I’m on the edge of my seat every weekend watching this stuff. It’s great to see, and I think our brand is getting a lot of air time, which is fantastic considering three cars [in Cup] and two cars [in Nationwide].”

Team owner Roger Penske said what he gets most out of Dodge is engine development and wind tunnel data.

“We get the support when we design an engine block – the heads and all that’s done in conjunction with Dodge and the engineering people,” Penske said. “They’re very key on the basic engine components. Pistons and rods we’ll continue to re-engineer to get maximum power.

“Aerodynamically, when you look at the wind tunnel capability we have here, it’s been a terrific asset for us. There are not many tunnels that we can have full-scale [cars]. So we run in here in a full scale and it’s repeatable and the data is secret; it’s our data, which is so important. … You get technology, you get pieces, you get financial support. We’re in a great spot.”

Penske said while he likes all the attention he gets from Dodge – “I’m the prettiest girl in town, I guess, right now,” he said – he expects Dodge eventually will want more teams in NASCAR.

“They’d like to have more cars, but at the present time, they’re going through a re-engineering of the company,” Penske said. “What I don’t want to see is they try to do too much and spread too thin and we don’t get the support we need and we all go down the drain.”

The reorganization of the company came a year ago when Fiat became the majority owner of Chrysler as Chrysler reorganized through bankruptcy.

A year ago, it was uncertain whether the company would stay in NASCAR. It didn’t renew its deal with Richard Petty Motorsports and opted to have Penske as its lone entry.

“We have no intention to change the situation we have right now,” said Joe Grace, a Dodge executive who works directly with its motorsports programs. “We’ve got a good rapport, we’ve got winning cars. … We hope that some independents will pick up and run our cars. We enjoy that. But I think in terms of the larger scale teams, we’re with Penske and that’s where we want to be.”

So far, that’s enough. On the track, Gilles is pleased that Penske has run stronger this year in both the Cup and Nationwide series.

Off the track, Gilles said he spent a lot of time in the infield at Daytona and Talladega talking to NASCAR fans about the cars they drive.

“It was a lot more family oriented than I expected it to be,” Gilles said. “A lot of women were there. It was very cool to see the demographic. As a marketer, I’m interested in how to reach those people.

“It’s a bit of a conundrum because they’re very brand loyal. It’s going to be hard to wrench a Chevy guy out of a Chevy. But at the same time, I want to be able to tell them when I have a new product how to find their local dealer.”

Gilles has met with Dodge dealers on how to get more out of NASCAR. The website and Miller Lite are running a promotion to give a Dodge car to a fan after Busch wins.

“We’re doing a lot of things to support the racing after the race on Sunday, to continue the story,” Gilles said. “The drivers themselves have been so much fun. Brad has been a piece of controversy all of his own, so he’s getting more airtime than ever. Kurt has been winning all-star races and regular races, so he’s getting a lot of airtime.

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