In 1997, after a 20-year absence from the auto racing scene, Chrysler Corporation started a full-scale motorsports effort with the Viper GTS-R, Stratus touring car, Neon and the NASCAR Dodge Ram, in addition to its long-standing support of Team Mopar racing efforts such as NHRA drag racing, with Pro-Stock Car & Truck, Funny Car and Top Fuel, and short track racing in World of Outlaws and Sprint Car. This wide-spectrum effort would not survive long after the Daimler-Benz takeover, as resources were funneled into the unsuccessful NASCAR car races.
Chrysler's motorsports philosophy was to go racing with vehicles that represented their production counterparts. Each race vehicle was a product of an in-house program that used the same engineers and craftspeople that work on production vehicles. This approach allowed the company to improve its people, processes and consumer products through racing.
"Chrysler's involvement in racing is more than just for publicity or image. There must be tangible benefits to the company that extend beyond the racetrack," said Lou Patane, Executive Director, Chrysler Motorsports Operations. "Our motorsports programs are truly an integral part of our product development processes."
Chrysler's engineers, designers, technicians, teams and sponsors operated within a virtual extended enterprise and interacted daily to make racing programs one unified effort - a platform team approach. Each series demonstrated the Company's technical excellence as a cross-functional team was responsible for the technical development of each vehicle, as opposed to 'buying' specialized expertise.
"In the end, our engineers, who are tested in the most intense learning environment, the race track, become better engineers. With better engineers, we are able to build better cars and trucks for our customers to buy," said Patane.
"We had a banner year in 1997, capturing our first NASCAR win in 20 years with the Dodge Ram and winning a championship with the Stratus touring car and our first world championship with the Viper GTS-R," said Patane.
In addition, positive returns are evident with Chrysler's people, products and processes involved within the Company and its racing efforts.
"Engineers who have worked directly with our race teams have improved personally and professionally in areas such as time, project and stress management, and technical experience and empowerment. And, as we better our people, the products and processes also improve," said Patane.
Dodge Motorsports announced their lineup of teams for the 1998 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Six teams fielded Dodge Rams full-time during 1998, one more than in 1997.
Lou Patane, Executive Director of Motorsports Operations, Chrysler Corporation, emphasized Chrysler's "race what we sell" philosophy and how the Dodge Rams racing in the Craftsman Truck Series fit that philosophy. "As a manufacturer, Chrysler returned to NASCAR racing because it is one of the most competitive racing arenas in the world, and it fits with our philosophy and strategy. Since trucks dominate a large segment of the marketplace, it's a natural fit for Dodge to go to the track and race the Ram against its marketplace competitors."
New to the Craftsman Truck Series was the MCI-backed PacWest team, with Dominic Dobson driving. Dobson had spent two years piloting a Dodge Stratus sedan in the now-dissolved North American Super Touring Championship, where he won six races and nine poles. He finished second in the 1996 Drivers' standings and fourth in 1997. Prior to that he had a long career in open-wheel cars and sports prototypes. The PacWest Touring Car team is co-owned by Dobson and Bruce McCaw. McCaw owns PacWest Racing Group, which campaigns cars in the CART and Indy Lights open-wheel series.
Westbrook Motorsports joined Dodge and the Craftsman Truck Series in 1998 too, with Tommy Archer handling the driving duties and acting as Vice-Chairman and co-owner. Bill Westbrook was Chairman and co-owner. Archer spent much of 1997 driving Viper GTS-R sports racers in the FIA GT2 Championship, helping Chrysler Corporation secure its first international racing titles for both driver and manufacturer in that division.
Oklahoma City's L&R Motorsports had a two-truck effort, taking over the #18 Dana-sponsored Dodge Ram. Series veteran Butch Miller was brought on board as driver. Miller finished the 1997 season 11th in the overall standings, with five top-5 and 12 top-10 finishes. Lance Norick continued to pilot the #90 Dodge Ram.
With two victories and more than 600 laps led in 1997, Dodge proved they were once again a serious player. The competition was fierce for 1998, but the Dodge teams expected to build on the success of 1997 for an improved, highly competitive season.
The #29 Team Mopar Dodge was back with the K Automotive team and driver Bob Keselowski. K Automotive is owned by Bob and his wife, Kay. The team used their long and successful history in racing to take the Team Mopar Dodge to Victory Circle in 2007 in Richmond, Va.
The other team unchanged for 1998 was the Richard Petty Motorsports #43 Cummins Dodge, driven once again by Jimmy Hensley. Hensley, a veteran of NASCAR's Busch Grand National and Winston Cup divisions in addition to the Craftsman Truck Series, was consistently a front-runner during 1997 and placed eighth in the final points standings, the highest rank achieved by a Dodge driver.
In 1997, Chrysler Motorsports returned to the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series with clearly defined goals and expectations. Represented in three professional classes Top Fuel, Pro Stock Car, and Pro Stock Truck, Team Mopar quickly sent the message that they were again ready to rule the quarter-mile track.
After posting career bests in both EIT and speed in 1997, the Darrell Gwynn owned Top Fuel race team with driver Mike Dunn, returned in 1998 for their third consecutive season wearing the Team Mopar colors.
Although winless in 1997, highlights of the Ken Veney-tuned dragsters include a runner-up finish at Gainesville, and semi-final appearances in Phoenix, Richmond, and Denver.
"We are cautiously optimistic about our chances in 1998," said team owner Darrell Gwynn. "We share in Chrysler's commitment in dedicating our resources and efforts in providing the very best opportunity to win for our team and sponsors. We feel that we are amongst the most competitive and experienced team competing each weekend."
Mike Dunn, 41, from Wrightsville, Penn., returned for his sixth season behind the wheel of the of a Gwynn dragster. Dunn's ability to combine lightning-quick reaction time and skillful driving makes him recognized as one of the sport's best drivers.
Dunn. "We certainly look to improve on our eighth- place finish of a year ago. Consistency will be a huge factor as we continue to perfect our engine and clutch programs. Our progress the last half of the season gives our team tremendous confidence in preparation for the 1998 NHRA season."
The Dodge Boys of Scott Geoffrion and Darrell Alderman were back, claiming wins in Englishtown and Denver. "What a great feeling it was to jump back in the seat and win again," said Geoffrion. "With Mopar's support, our new Pro Stock Dodge Avengers give Darrell (Alderman) and I the best opportunity to compete for a win every time we sit behind the wheel."
Now with one full year under their belts together, the Eicke-tuned Dodge Avengers look to reclaim the prominence of a few years ago.
"I know we have the two best drivers in Pro Stock," said Eicke. “Combine Darrell and Scott's accomplishments of three World Championships and 36 national event victories along with our new 1998 Dodge Avengers, our intense engine development program, and the dedication of a great crew, 1998 sets up to be a terrific season."
After debuting mid-season during the 1997 campaign as an exhibition series, the NHRA made the Pro Stock Truck an official professional class which competed in 12 of the 22 NHRA national events in 1998. After dominating the field with six victories out of nine races in 1997, the Pro Stock Dodge Dakotas powered their way to the head of their class.
"We are extremely proud of how the Dodge Dakota performed in the exhibition series this past season, said Lou Patane, Executive Director, Chrysler Motorsports Operations. "Last season we proved that we had the best truck out there. The Dodge brand is recognized by it's performance and commitment to quality both on and off the racetrack. The new Pro Stock division will certainly continue to support the marketability of our Dodge Dakota and the performance it provides."
After capturing the 1997 North American Super Touring Championship (NASTC), Chrysler Corporation took its Dodge Stratus touring car to Europe, continuing its aggressive development and test program.
"Chrysler has always been interested in international opportunities related to Super Touring and we are excited about our program's potential in Europe," said Lou Patane, Executive Director, Chrysler Motorsports Operations. "Although we currently have no formal plans to compete in 1998, we are aggressively pursuing a test program that will allow us to continue our work in developing a world-class touring car."
ORECA, Chrysler's factory-development Viper GTS-R team, which claimed the 1997 FIA GT2 Championship, has assumed responsibility for implementing the Stratus European test program.
"We are pleased to have been chosen by Chrysler to test the Stratus," said Hugues de Chaunac, Owner, ORECA. "I am impressed with the Stratus touring car's performance and the level of technology used in its development. Chrysler's race vehicles showcase the company's technology and innovative people."
"We have had tremendous success with this program considering we built the Stratus from scratch just two years ago," said Tim Culbertson, Program Manager Stratus Touring Car. "We recognize that we still have significant development work ahead of us but we are encouraged with the results we've seen so far and know that in time we will be able to compete with the best touring cars in the world."
In 1997, Stratus touring cars, which were fielded by the PacWest Touring Car Group in the NASTC, posted seven wins and 18 podium finishes to capture the overall Driver's Championship. The Stratus broke nearly every existing Super Touring track record in North America after dominating several qualifying sessions and capturing 12 of the final 14 pole positions.
In its first full season racing the Viper GTS-R, the Viper specifically tuned for racing, Chrysler Corporation and its factory development team, ORECA, captured both the manufacturer and driver 1997 FIA GT2 Championships. With this, Chrysler Corporation became the first American company to win an FIA Championship with a production-based vehicle that was both designed and developed in-house.
"Winning a dual championship, manufacturers' and drivers' titles, in the FIA GT2 class is a terrific accomplishment for Chrysler Corporation," said Lou Patane, Executive Director, Chrysler Motorsports Operations. "It is proof that our global motorsports program, which is still in its early stages, is working and heading in the right direction. Any time you win two championships of this caliber at this level of competition, the world is looking at you."
With seven wins, 18 podium finishes and nine pole positions out of 10 FIA starts, the Viper GTS-R won its first championship. Viper Team ORECA finished the year with 126 points, 43 points ahead of its nearest competitor, Roock Racing. While Justin Bell took the Drivers' title with a total of 66 points, teammates, Philippe Gache and Olivier Beretta were not far behind with 60 points, ending the year in third.
The evolution of the Viper GTS-R into a GT2 class leader took teamwork.
Chrysler engineers and ORECA worked together to develop a road-based race car that challenged the best racing machines from other countries including Germany and Great Britain.
"The Viper's success represents a cooperative win to be shared by all those involved in the development, build and performance of the Viper GTS-R," said Patane. "In order to capture a championship like this, engineers, designers, technicians, sponsors, suppliers and the team must work together as a virtual extended enterprise to execute a successful unified effort."
Viper Team ORECA ran two Viper GTS-Rs in the FIA GT2 Championship for 1998.
The 1998 PPG Neon Challenge featured the top Neon club racers in the country competing for a prize purse of $140,000 on two race weekends. Corporate and media competitors joined the club racers in Minneapolis, Minn. to raise funds for the Children's Health Care Foundation at the Children's Grand Prix. The Detroit Grand Prix featured another Neon Charity Challenge, with corporate executives, civic leaders and members of the media each making a donation to experience the Walter Mitty fantasy and raise funds for local charities.
"Last year's Charity Challenge in Detroit was such a huge success we decided to expand the concept to another venue this year," explains Bill Tracy, Manager Motorsports and Performance Marketing. "We raised $185,000 for PAL (Police Athletic League) last year and the combination of Detroit and Minneapolis races this year could raise nearly $400,000 for charity."
The season started with two PPG Neon Challenge events at the May 22-25 Dodge Dealers Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, with forty Neons and an $80,000 purse.
"We started the two-race format last season in response to concerns for our club racers," explained Tracy. "Our racers aren't professional drivers. They take vacation time to race with us and, with some of them coming from as far away as California to compete, last year's format made things somewhat difficult. With the new format, they only have to come to two venues on two weekends, but the payout is the same."
PPG was the series sponsor and members of its pace-car team participated in the Minneapolis race. "PPG has been a great supporter of the series since its inception," says Tracy. "The company sponsored the very first PPG Neon Super Cup in 1995 and has been part of our team ever since."
Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was an official series sponsor providing free tires, mounting and technical support at all the PPG Neon Challenge events in 1998.
In 1997, the series was televised on ESPN2.
There was something to be said for those nearly 4,700 Neons out there competing week in and week out on the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National Club and Solo circuits around the country ... they were winners. In 1997, Neon Soloists captured five National championships, while a Neon Club racer scored another one in SCCA Showroom Stock C. Neon drivers scored 127 wins and 311 top three finishes in 216 national events in 1997.
Neons competed in SCCA Showroom Stock classes. The Neons these racers drove to victory lane were purchased from their local Dodge or Plymouth dealers with the American Club Racer (ACR) package.
The 1998 ACR package was available on Neons equipped with either the 150 hp DOHC (Coupe) or 132 hp SOHC (Sedan) engine and included power assisted four wheel disc brakes, unlimited speed engine controller, severe duty front hubs, heavy duty radiator, competition suspension with KONI/Mopar adjustable struts, aluminum wheels, a structural oil pan, tinted glass, mirrors, body colored front and rear fascias, power assisted steering and a tachometer. Including destination charges, the base price of the 1998 ACR Coupe was $13,130 and the 1998 ACR Sedan checked out at $13,160.
Safety equipment required by the SCCA including roll cage, safety harness, net, and fire extinguisher; these had to be added by the buyer, adding around $1,000, while racing tires were about $500 per set.
Bill Tracy, manager of Dodge Motorsports, said, "When you factor in our contingency support and special Neon-only programs, it s no wonder that our cars are the most popular in their classes, and the cars to beat week in and week out."
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