Dodge back on track as a driving force

Winston 2001 team directed by Evernham

January 21, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ray Evernham has been given one huge job.

He is the man in charge of putting together a brand-new, two-car team for Dodge to re-enter the world of Winston Cup racing one year from now.

"This is an unbelievable opportunity," said the former crew chief, who directed driver Jeff Gordon to three Winston Cup championships before taking on this project last October. "I could say I have nothing to prove to anyone, but I do have something to prove -- to myself.

"I want to find out if I can get the job done. There comes a time when you have to find out: Are you really any good or are you just your own media hype?"

Evernham is dressed in a brilliant red Dodge shirt and black slacks. He smiles easily and says he misses the daily competition, and even some of the media hounds, who have stayed at bay while he has worked to put his new program together.

DaimlerChrysler contacted NASCAR about the possibility of returning to the sport in the latter part of 1998. The official announcement was made in New York last October. Dodge unveiled its new race car, the Intrepid R/T, at the 2000 North American International Auto Show 11 days ago and will be returning to Winston Cup racing for the first time in nearly 15 years in February 2001.

The reason for the return, said Bob Wildberger, senior manager of Dodge's NASCAR Operations, is that there is an increased emphasis within the company to build Dodge as a performance brand, a brand that demonstrates its abilities each week on a Winston Cup racetrack.

Wildberger also said that many of the company's near 3,000 dealers "expressed an interest" in getting back into the fray with Chevrolet, Ford and Pontiac in racing and, by doing so, possibly influencing car buyers to consider Dodge more often.

To give itself a shot at quick success, Dodge reportedly will spend from $5 million to $10 million per team. Dodge spokesman Michael Rosenau would not confirm those numbers, but said, "We're going to spend whatever it takes to be competitive."

Following that philosophy, Dodge has hired Evernham as a team owner and as the developer of the overall program.

"When we hooked up with Ray," said Wildberger, "we bought the Book of Knowledge. We have no doubts about his ability to get us where we want to go."

By next February, Wildberger said, Dodge hopes to have two or three multicar teams. After that, it also hopes to bring along two to four more single-car teams to round out the field.

Building a team

In the past five months, Evernham has put together the structure he hopes will deliver the finished product. His key hires are: Ed Guzzo, the former chief mechanic at Hendrick Motorsports, to be in charge of power and drive trains; Bill Dees to head research and development; Butch Lameroux, chassis; and Chad Knaus as the car chief for the test program that begins in March.

Though Dees, Lameroux and Knaus have varied backgrounds, Evernham worked with all three at Hendrick Motorsports. Added to those is engineer Ron Vicarro, who built the engines for the late Alan Kulwicki's championship team in 1992.

"I believe you start with three things -- your head, your heart and your backbone," Evernham said. "If you use those three things to their fullest, you'll be successful. Right now, I'm looking for people who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to getting the job done. If I can find them, we'll be all right."

He said he doesn't need a driver until qualifying begins for the Daytona 500 in February 2001. But he does need a complete team long before that. Right now, he has 12, by then he'll need 100.

In the past, Evernham has complained of other teams trying to steal members of his Gordon crew. Now he is on the other side of the fence.

Where will he get his crewmen?

"I'm not going to sneak up on people and whisper, `Meet me behind the [truck] to talk about a job,' " he said. "I'm making it clear, I am looking for crew members. If someone comes to me, I'll talk to him. My door is open, but I am not going to be a headhunter."

Maintaining friendships

He also said he would not further raid the Hendrick teams. He would not disclose details of his departure agreement with Hendrick, but said he and his former employer agreed on whom he would take with him.

"Now, if some of the people still there come and approach me, the first thing I will do is call Rick and tell him I've been approached," Evernham said. "Rick is still my friend, and I am not going to tear that team apart."

Evernham said Gordon, too, remains his friend, even though all of their racing connections have been severed. In fact, Evernham said he continues to look on Gordon as a son.

The two spoke after the holidays and Evernham said: "You don't be as close as we've been for nine years and simply stop being close.

"The split did cause hurt feelings, but no hard feelings. But even in father-and-son relationships goals in life change. We're going in different directions now, but that's not saying we're not friends. We're always going to be friends."

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