Untying the bowtie: Stewart-Haas Racing shifting into Ford gear

By Jerry Jordan — CHARLOTTE – In what has to be the best-kept secret in the NASCAR garage since … forever, Stewart-Haas Racing is announced it will switch from Chevrolet to Ford beginning in 2017.

The news broke early Wednesday with a press release announcing a teleconference for 11 a.m. and a conference code of “Stewart-Haas Racing.” At almost the same time, Ford also announced a teleconference scheduled for 11 a.m. and listed the conference code as “Ford/Stewart-Haas Racing.”

“Honestly, it started out as casual conversation in passing and then the conversations got more serious obviously,” Stewart said, of the move during the teleconference. “The more we talked to the group at Ford, the more we realized that our passion and desire to win races and championships, and their approach, is very much in line with how we approach it at Stewart-Haas Racing. There wasn’t anything in this deal that was a disappointment from the Chevy side. We weren’t disappointed with what we were doing with Chevy, but we felt like when we got in conversations with the Ford group that it just really seemed like a partnership that made a lot of sense the further that we went into it. The longer the conversations went, the more excited that both sides were about making this a reality. That’s really how it all evolved and came to where we are today.

“I don’t anticipate any setbacks, to be honest. I fully feel like when we come out of the box next year we’re gonna have our ducks in a row. Sure, there could be growing pains, but I’m pretty confident in our staff and our group here that we’re gonna be as prepared as we can be going into next season.”

However, for the next 35 races Stewart-Haas is all about Chevrolet and making sure its drivers are in the hunt for the Sprint Cup Series Championship. Stewart said he wasn’t worried about any slack from Chevrolet because the manufacturer wants to win a championship, as well.

“Our partnership with Ford doesn’t start until next year, and we’re excited about it, but this year we’re still a Chevy team, and we’re still committed to going out and doing everything we can to win races and a championship for them. That’s what we do. That’s our commitment as a race team. We still respect our partnership with Chevy at this point.

“As you know, we’ve had a great relationship with Hendrick Motorsports. Rick was a big part of helping me meet Gene and Joe Custer and helping me become part of the Stewart-Haas family. We’ve had a great relationship with their motor program, the chassis program and the technical side, and we’re grateful for the partnership we’ve had with them, but, obviously, it will change in some respects for 2016 with this news, but we believe we’ll still have a really good working relationship for another year this year.”

Haas said Rick Hendrick and Chevrolet were both made aware of the possibility the team could switch earlier this year. Even though the news may not have been a surprise to Chevrolet, it was to the rest of the NASCAR community, and the official response from Chevrolet vowed to continue focusing on 2016.

“We are disappointed with Stewart-Haas Racing’s decision, but our focus for 2016 has not changed,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports in a statement released by the company. “We are working with all of the Chevrolet teams, including Stewart-Haas Racing, to win races, make the Chase, and vie for driver and manufacturer championships.”

As far as next year, we’re trying to do everything we can to try to be as self-sufficient as we can going into 2017. We’re gonna be adding a lot of personnel to our organization, doing our own chassis program, and we’re excited about it. We see this as a lot of growth for Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s not just changing OEMs, it’s a great opportunity for us to kind of get out of the shadows and, to some degree, get off the coattails, to a certain degree, and really get out on our own and I think that’s something everybody here at SHR is really excited about and proud that we’re finally in a position to do this and branch out in this way.”

For its part, Ford Performance President David Pericak, said the company is committed to improving the company’s performance on the track and this is just another step in that direction. He said Ford wants to win championships and Stewart-Haas Racing has a proven track record.

“A lot of people have heard me say that we don’t race to race, we race to win and we also race to learn,” Pericak said. “So we’re truly using racing as an innovation test bed in development of new technologies, tools and our people. I think Stewart-Haas brings with it just an enormous amount of expertise and the way that they approach racing is a very technical way, so all of that is going to blend very well with what we’ve been doing within Ford Performance and how we are approaching now our racing program.”

At the same time, the commitment from Ford was something Stewart and Gene Haas couldn’t refuse. Stewart reiterated that despite his past loyalty to Chevrolet, this was a business decision that makes the best sense for the future of SHR.

In 2008, Stewart announced he was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing and it was widely speculated that one of the primary reasons was so he could return to Chevrolet since Gibbs had switched to Toyota. He and Gene Haas struck a deal and Stewart became co-owner of Haas/CNC Racing. The team’s name was changed to Stewart-Haas Racing, where he and Ryan Newman became the first two drivers and used equipment through an agreement with Hendrick Motorsports.

Stewart went on to win the 2011 Sprint Cup Series Championship driving a Chevrolet and then wooed former Indy Racing League driver Danica Patrick to SHR in 2012. In 2013, while Stewart was recovering from a major accident suffered during a winged sprint car race, Gene Haas announced he was signing Kurt Busch and making Stewart-Haas a four-car team as it was already planned for Kevin Harvick to replace Newman the following year.

The changeover from Chevrolet to Ford also interjects another interesting aspect in that Haas Formula 1 fields Ferraris and one of the most famous rivalries in the history of motorsports is the one Ford has with the Italian automaker. In fact, in 1965, Henry Ford II had Carroll Shelby perfect the Ford GT40 just to put Enzo Ferrari in his place – going out and dominating the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1966 to 1969. Before the GT40’s debut, Ferrari had won the previous six races.

When asked if it were odd, or if there were any considerations regarding the rivalry between the two companies, Haas said it never came up in conversation. Still, that doesn’t mean the rivalry is any less intense.

“That was a long, long time ago. You’re talking about something back in the sixties. I think over the years I feel that that animosity is probably gone because I don’t think Ford and Ferrari really compete at the dealership level anymore. It’s kind of humorous you say that, but I don’t think Ferrari is going to say anything about it. I can tell you that the conversations I had with Ford that was never brought up, so that’s really a unique question. It will all be good; I’m sure of that.”

In January, Ford brought back its GT model for the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. Although the car didn’t fare as well as the Ford camp hoped, the team said it was happy to gain valuable information help the car perform better. As if they were using the Rolex 24 as a test session, Ford representatives quickly proclaimed their excitement for a showdown between the Ferraris and the Ford GT later this year when the IMSA series returns to Le Mans.

“We respect all of our competitors, whether it’s Ferrari or Chevy or whoever, and that rivalry is probably going to heat up a little bit when we get to Le Mans with the GT this year, but that really has never come up,” said Raj Nair, Executive Vice President for Global Product Development and Chief Technical Officer, Ford Motor Company.

Not since Kurt Busch won the Sprint Cup Series Championship in 2004, has Ford been on top of the sport. That was when he was at Roush Racing – the one-time powerhouse of the Ford camp. Now, that distinction belongs to Penske Racing but with SHR thrown into the mix, it is possible the new golden child of Ford will be defector from the Bowtie Brigade. But Pericak said the new addition won’t affect its relationship with Roush or any other Ford-back NASCAR team.

“We’re not eliminating or reducing support of any of our current teams,” Pericak said. “We are going to make available to Stewart-Haas the exact same level of support. We’re continually increasing that support each and every day. We’re in this to win it and we’re in this to get back in that winner’s circle, so everyone will get the support that they’ve been getting, and Stewart-Haas will be in addition to that.”

The last time a major team switched manufacturers was when Penske Racing left Dodge to join Ford at the end of 2012 despite Brad Keselowski winning the Sprint Cup Series Championship that year.

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