Dodge Won't Return to NASCAR

The brand's return to stock car racing is apparently a no-go.

John Harrelson—Getty Images for NASCAR

It was ostensibly a press conference for Ferrari’s 2016 Finali Mondiali at Daytona International Speedway last December 4, but perhaps the biggest revelation to come out of that presser concerned NASCAR, with Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, saying he was interested in getting Chrysler, most likely Dodge, back into NASCAR.

This came as a surprise to Dodge employees at the highest level. But given Marchionne’s revelation, the company did its due diligence, researching what a return to NASCAR would involve. Company executives met with NASCAR officials more than once, including a meeting at this year’s North American International Auto Show.

After all, it was Marchionne who in 2012 made the decision to pull the plug on NASCAR, leaving the Sprint Cup series with just three manufacturers: Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota. He said during that press conference that, at the time, he was trying to balance the books at Chrysler and NASCAR was an expense he could not justify. That said, Dodge had only a two-car team with Roger Penske, and won the season championship with Brad Keselowski.

Dodge had a deal with Andretti Autosport to take over Dodge in 2013, but that stalled with Marchionne’s final decision.

Marchionne said at the Ferrari press conference that the books are balanced, and it may be time to come back. 

“I had dinner with Jim France last night,” Marchionne said, referring to the executive vice president of NASCAR, “and we discussed the possibility.” 

Unfortunately for Dodge loyalists, the analysis regarding a return to the sport showed that it would be too complex and, more importantly, too expensive. Part of the problem would be finding a team with top-tier engine-building capability—and there just aren’t many choices now that the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series has consolidated engine-building among a handful of teams (Or in Toyota’s case, the company itself.) Dodge would prefer to supply the engine specifications and have the engines built by the team, like they were at Penske. But there are minimal options.

Also, re-creating the infrastructure to race at NASCAR’s highest level—which Dodge did gradually starting with the NASCAR Camping World truck series before entering the Cup series in 2001 with the help of then-flush Dodge dealers—would be prohibitively expensive. The bottom line: perhaps the company could afford to return to NASCAR, as Marchionne suggested, but that doesn’t mean it would make financial sense.

Dodge left NASCAR on top, as they did when they dropped the Dodge Viper program from the American Le Mans Series immediately after winning a season championship. The company has now reallocated its motorsports support to the National Hot Rod Association, where Dodge- and Mopar-backed teams are doing well in Funny Car and Top Fuel.

Like he did in 2012, Marchionne could conceivably overrule the recommendation that Dodge not return to NASCAR, but that seems unlikely. Nor is Volkswagen, which came very close to fielding a Cup car based on the Passat, likely to reconsider its decision to not join the series. And for those holding out hope that Honda/Acura might race in NASCAR—always a very abstract possibility—that became more of a long shot this week when Roger Penske and Acura announced they would race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series, the NASCAR-affiliated sports car -anctioning body.

So unless a manufacturer comes out of left field with the money and dedication to make a NASCAR program work, it appears that NASCAR will have to make do with Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota. As one Dodge employee suggested: “We don’t want to come back and embarrass ourselves.”