BROOKLYN, Mich. - Given the financial hardship of parent company Chrysler, it seemed the demise of Dodge in NASCAR was a matter of when, not if.
But Dodge president and CEO Mike Accavitti showed up Sunday in the Big Three's backyard, Michigan International Speedway, to reiterate the company's commitment to stay in the sport for the "foreseeable future" - albeit on a smaller scale than its competitors.
Accavitti emphasized that the decision to stay in the sport was up to him, not a U.S. government official or somebody with Chrysler's new management in Italy.
"We don't have to sell it to anybody but myself," Accavitti said. "And I have to believe that this is a wise investment. And as I have stated before, we feel that we are involved in NASCAR at the appropriate level."
The marketing adage that has driven automakers' involvement in NASCAR for decades - win on Sunday, sell on Monday - is suddenly under scrutiny.
Today's NASCAR seems to be driven more by a driver's personality than the kind of car he drives. And at a time when taxpayer money is being used to keep automakers afloat, spending millions on NASCAR is tougher to justify.
After receiving government aid, Chrysler has emerged from bankruptcy protection with new management controlled by Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA. Despite the changes, Accavitti said NASCAR remains an important marketing platform for Dodge.
"We want to continue to talk to the fans in NASCAR," Accavitti said. "And we want to continue to provide them with good performance and exciting days at the races, which is what the Dodge drivers have been doing for us this year."
In a sense, Dodge's racing program faces some of the same big-picture questions the U.S. auto industry is coping with. Big, bold budgets are a thing of the past, so they have to figure out how to become leaner and meaner.
"We're not a big organization," Accavitti said. "We haven't really been. We need to start acting like the organization that we are. We're nimble and we're smaller than the other guys. And we feel like if we focus our resources on fewer teams, that we can produce better results."
Dodge currently backs only two major teams, Penske Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.
Its NASCAR presence almost certainly won't be expanding next season, and might even be shrinking from two major Dodge-backed teams to one. There is widespread speculation that the Petty team will defect to another manufacturer next season.
Accavitti said Dodge tried backing more teams in the past, but it spread their resources too thin.
"You really only need (about) three good drivers - good cars, I should say, good teams - and that would be sufficient for us," Accavitti said.
Penske driver Kurt Busch said Dodge teams simply have to work harder.
"Richard Petty Motorsports and our team at Penske Racing, we're not the powerhouses like you see with the Hendricks and the Gibbses and the Roushes," Busch said.
Busch described Dodge's support as "consistent," noting that there have been cutbacks. But Busch added that he met a new engineer over the weekend, an indication that resources aren't being cut to the bone.
"They shaved some positions here and there, and not sending people on the road," Busch said. "But there's still phone calls that are being made and communication lines that are open, and it helps everybody really got into more detail when you're required to be on teleconferences on Tuesdays instead of, 'Oh, yeah, I'll see you at the track."'
NASCAR, Big Three, Fiat Group SpA
U.S., BROOKLYN, Italy
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