by Lawrence A. Cole
Copyright © 2001 by Lawrence A. Cole. All rights reserved. Printed by permission. Feb. 2001.
When the Craftsman Truck Series was first started in 1996, Dodge entered a NASCAR arena for the first time in nearly 2 decades. The highest finishing Dodge in the opening race finished 18th. And while they flirted with a couple of races, Dodge was unable to win in 1996. In fact, it had to wait until 1997 to win its first race. That year they won 2 races. Bob Keselowski, driving the MoPar Performance Dodge won one of those races, much to the delight of the fans that had followed his career in the truck series. Tony Raines driving the Pennzoil Dodge won the other race that year. In 1998, Raines and Pennzoil were gone to Ford. Keselowski returned with this Dodge, and a new driver/team mate in Dennis Setzer. After injuries forced Keselowski from behind the wheel, Setzer stepped in and won in the MoPar Dodge. One of only 2 wins again by Dodge.
In 1999, Keselowski returned to driving, and drove a "development" truck for Dodge, while Setzer, driving for Keselowski, drove the MoPar Dodge. Setzer won 3 races in 1999 (out of a total of 4 Dodge victories), and finished third in the point standings. In fact, he was in the points championship hunt right up to the final race, but an early crash forced him to settle for third.
With hopes high after the 1999 season, the 2000 season was looked forward to with great anticipation. But the 2000 season didn't start as well for the Keselowskis, and by mid season, it was apparent that Setzer wouldn't make a serious run at the championship, finishing in 7th place and having only one win. In the meanwhile, Dodge was announcing its Winston Cup car return. People speculated that Setzer would be moved up to the W/C division. That ride never materialized. And in September of 2000, Dodge announced that it would be backing the Ultra Motorsports team in the year 2001, and that it would not be sponsoring the Keselowski's efforts in 2001.
"Dodge is looking forward to teaming up with Jim Smith and Ultra Motorsports for the 2001 season with only one goal; and that is winning a championship," said Ray Richard, Program Manager for Dodge Motorsports in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. A noble goal indeed. But at what cost?
The outrage heard by fans and fellow competitors is still being heard. It was the work and efforts of the Keselowskis that helped Dodge learn through its rough years. He had remained loyal to Dodge from his days in ARCA to the truck series. He took the time to race an experimental truck, trying out new ideas for the entire Dodge teams to help in their success. Setzer's 2000 season was not an abortion by any means. Even Setzer found the move by Dodge "questionable" and hoped that Dodge would reconsider its position. They didn't.
Dodge commercials claim they are "Different". One had hoped to think so. But they apparently are not. They follow the same corporate cutthroat policies as any other company. Apparently Dodge has forgotten the loyalty factor. They want the loyal Dodge buyers to return to buy their cars and trucks. Loyalty there is a much sought after commodity. Yet they showed little loyalty to the fans that backed Dodge AND Keselowski.
While other drivers changed trucks and teams, Keselowski remained constant. And even as the 2001 season is about to start, Keselowski will still be driving a Dodge, albeit with no sponsorship announced as yet. Dodge "bought off" a team that had raced Fords, and that had shown no interest in Dodge until the dollar signs flew.
It's ironic that an Ultra Motorsports team driver was responsible for a loss of a victory by Dodge trucks when Mike Wallace walled, you guessed it, Dennis Setzer. Dodge also lost the knowledge that Keselowski had in his head, and what was in his heart, Dodge. But perhaps even more, Dodge lost a great deal of respect from the fans. And that after all, is whom they are trying to convince to buy their product.
Once...as Jerry Olesen wrote..."The cars were production line models, which were reinforced at key points...These days, they race 'cars that never were,' so to speak, and much of the relevance to actual automobiles has been lost. "
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