The clicking and whirring of news cameras was quickly drowned out when the engine came to life with a throaty roar. Moments later the primer-gray Dodge Intrepid R/T race car began to roll out of the garage area at Homestead Miami Speedway. As the car made its way onto the track, a new page of racing history was written as Dodge once again prepared for NASCAR Winston Cup racing.
Highly successful in drag, endurance, touring and truck racing, Dodge has been absent from the Winston Cup Series for more than two decades. Today’s inaugural on-track test session follows the decision announced last October that Dodge will return to NASCAR’s top stock car series at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
“Seeing the Dodge Intrepid R/T on the track for the first time was an emotional moment for me,” said Lou Patane, Vice President, Dodge Motorsports Operations and Mopar Performance Parts.
“When you start a program and grow it from its infancy to a point where it becomes a reality, it does touch you emotionally,” he said. “And when I see the effort all the people put in from the team side and from the company side to get us to this milestone — and this is only one of many milestones we will accomplish — it does give you a special feeling.”
Witnessing the event with Patane were more than a dozen Dodge dealers, representing their 3,000 colleagues across North America, and officials of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. The dealers will be the primary sponsors of two of the seven Dodge Intrepid R/T race cars scheduled to compete in Winston Cup racing next year.
The UAW National Training Center is an associate sponsor of the Evernham Motorsports cars.
Test driver Kyle Petty also admitted that emotions were high today as the Dodge and Petty names came together again in a Winston Cup program. The wins of Petty’s father and late grandfather, Richard and Lee, respectively, comprised a large portion of Dodge’s 160 Winston Cup victories.
“You should have seen the look on my father’s face when we met with Dodge people to talk about our truck racing program and learned that they had decided to get back into Winston Cup racing,” said Petty. “I’m incredibly excited. This is a big deal for our family,” he continued. “We view this as a huge opportunity. The sky’s the limit, really.
“I’m also excited about coming down here and driving (the test car) for the first time. I wouldn’t miss this for the world. This is a big day for Kyle Petty personally.”
In addition to his driving duties, Petty is chief executive officer of Petty Enterprises, one of three teams that have announced they will race with Dodge Intrepid R/Ts in 2001.
The others are Evernham Motorsports and Bill Davis Racing. All three teams were present at the track today with Dodge engineers. All are sharing the information being gathered.
Leading the Dodge development effort is champion crew chief and team owner Ray Evernham.
“I’m really happy with the car’s first shakedown runs,” said Evernham after the car had been on the track a few times for five-lap runs. “The car got up to speeds that are competitive with what the Winston Cup cars ran here last year.
“But we didn’t come here to go fast,” continued Evernham. “We came here to gather information about how this car works with the aerodynamic changes we will be making. We’re gathering data we can use in our simulations and to prepare for our next track tests.
“We’re also testing the team,” added Evernham. “The fact that we unloaded the car and put it on the track with no problems, and with all the engineering and test systems working as they should, is really a big accomplishment.”
Bill Davis, owner of Bill Davis Racing, echoed Evernham’s comments about speed not being the critical factor.
“No one expected to come down here and set a new track record,” said Davis. “We’ll leave here with the first set of notes to build on. Kyle will have an impression of how the car runs, Ray will have a crew chief’s perspective on the car and we’ll have a lot of data we can analyze. We’ll put that all together, make some improvements and then test again.”
Dodge officials and the team owners commented repeatedly about all of the various entities operating as a combined Dodge operation.
“The ‘one team’ concept is an important part of what is different about the Dodge approach to Winston Cup racing,” said Evernham. “When we pool our resources and our experience, we’ve got a much broader information base than any one person can have. Working together is what will push the Dodge program to the top and get it done quickly. I’ve been involved with racing for many years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Speaking with reporters a few steps away, Patane expressed the same thought: “Collectively, we’re all smarter than any one of us on our own.”
As the first morning of the two-day test session concluded, Evernham declared the event a success.
“We got to see history being made this morning with the first Dodge Winston Cup car on the track,” said Evernham. “We also know that our test team works. We can now start to test seriously because we know our people and our systems are ready to go.
“We continue to make great progress with our ambitious 500-day countdown to Daytona,” said Evernham. “We have a lot of work left to do but we are right on schedule.”
When the Dodge Test Car is put back in the hauler tonight, there will be 291 days left to prepare for the Daytona 500 in 2001.