Ford namesake a big part of the game

6/10/2010 - NASCAR

Edsel Ford II isn't very good at sitting still.

Even in the comfy, air-conditioned, leather-covered Ford Racing motor coach on a balmy day at the racetrack, Henry Ford's great-grandson fidgets, shifts, and tosses his hands excitedly as he talks.

He has a lot to say.

"We're thisclose," the 61-year-old explains of Ford's long losing streak as he pinches his fingers together. "It's frustrating because we're thisclose, and everyone who follows this sport on a weekly basis knows that. But at the end of the day you get out the stat sheets, and it still says zero in the win column."

Then he smiles and winks.

"These aren't tough times for Ford," he says. "These are great times. We've got plenty of time before the Chase starts. The wins are coming."

Home sweet home

Ford spoke those words on May 21, the Friday before the NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The three weekends since have been a microcosm of the 2010 season, hints of in-race hope punctuated by disappointing results.

But this weekend, the cars that bear Ford's last name return to race in the shadow of Detroit -- the city his great-grandfather transformed into a global phenomenon -- and the shadow of the beaten but still standing company with which he serves as a member of the board of directors.

"Racing at the Michigan International Speedway is still our version of homecoming," he says, pointing to Ford's annual fan appreciation events, drivers who fly in early to tour manufacturing plants and the thousands of Ford employees who make the drive down to Brooklyn, Mich., for the races. "And it doesn't hurt that we usually run pretty well there."

That's an understatement. In the 52 Cup races run on the two-mile oval since 1984, Ford has won 30 of them, including two four-race winning streaks and one five-peat. In addition, its new FR9 engine is coming online, and just Tuesday team owner Jack Roush was touting Ford's NASCAR support as "as good as it's ever been" and "a greater commitment … than has been made in the past."

In other words, if the car manufacturer is ever going to break through and finally visit Victory Lane for the first time this season, Michigan feels an awful lot like the place where it needs to happen.

"If nothing else, coming home to Detroit is a chance for the greatest ambassadors of our company to get some wind in their sails," Ford said. "Few things feel as good as a pat on the back from someone who believes in you."

Unintentional heroes

These days, anyone with a Ford logo on his shirt receives plenty of pats on the back. Ford engineers and executives alike practically beam when they talk about walking through airports. How random people, even those who don't know a lick about NASCAR, walk up and admit that they now pull for Ford teams every weekend.

Why? The bailout or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Ford was the only one of America's Big Three automakers that elected not to accept bailout money from the federal government in the winter of 2008.

"That decision and the plan for recovery that was laid out were nothing more than the moves that [Ford CEO] Alan Mulally and his team felt like was the right thing to do," Ford said. "The intent was not to be heroes to make a political statement or anything along those lines. It was just the course of action that they saw as the best way back. But those decisions have certainly connected with people on a level that no one could have possibly foreseen."

No one, not even members of the Ford family, feel the warmth of that connection like the drivers and teams of NASCAR. And during a time when it would be easy for the winless teams to point fingers in frustration, the newfound brand pride has created a bond during a time when it has been needed most.

The day before his Charlotte conversation, Ford made his annual rounds to the Ford teams, including anchor team Roush Fenway Racing and a still-new addition to the fold that makes him grin just talking about it.

"It is so great to have Richard Petty Motorsports in the Ford family," he says, more than a little excited that The King of Stock Car Racing can now be seen walking the Cup garage with a blue oval on his belt buckle. "I have been around long enough to remember when Richard drove a Ford [1969, when Petty won nine races in a Torino Cobra]. Every time I get a chance to visit with Richard, it's like being a kid again. It reminds me that I am a race fan first and foremost."

Race fan becomes curator

Oh, to be such a fan.

Edsel Ford has literally followed his teams to ever corner of the racing globe. He has stood in Gasoline Alley with Jimmy Clark, overlooked the Pacific from the Baja peninsula and watched his company's cars snake their way through the Ford Chicane at Le Mans. Just this past fall he was a member of voting panel that selected the NASCAR Hall of Fame's inaugural class.

Now he aims to gather up all the images, experiences and cars from his fortunate racing life and share them with the rest of us. On Thursday evening he will host a reception at The Henry Ford, a Smithsonian-level decidedly non-automobile-centric museum in Dearborn, Mich., to announce the establishment of a new permanent exhibit titled "Racing in America." It will be a 22,000-square foot tribute to the racing lifestyle, business and technical innovation.

When it opens, likely in two years, the collection of legendary rides will be second-to-none. The '67 Ford GT40 Mark IV that A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney drove to Victory Lane at Le Mans, the '65 rear-engine Lotus-Cosworth that Clark used to win the Indy 500, Bill Elliott's 1987 212.089 mph Talladega Thunderbird … well, you get the picture. By the way, the collection isn't limited to just Ford products. It'll also include the Chrysler Hemi-powered Goldenrod land speed record-setting machine.

"There will also be a chance for people to come in and do research on the history of racing in America," Ford said. "The archives we have in the library at The Ford are just … it's hard to describe how incredibly detailed and rich of a resource that it is."

Then he smiles again, realizing that he's once again sitting on the edge of his seat and tossing his hands about.

"Sorry, I get very excited about this," he said. "Like I said earlier, these aren't tough times for Ford. These are great times. It's very exciting on every level of the company right now."

There's only one thing left to do.


Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.