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Motor Racing Notes : Fords Are Thriving on Short Tracks Lately

United Press International

Ford drivers used to view NASCAR’s short tracks with the same enthusiasm reserved for a trip to the Internal Revenue Service’s auditing department.

The goals were basically the same, namely get in and out quickly with minimum damage. Victory, it seemed, was impossible.

In the 69 short-track (facilities less than one mile in length) races run in the 1980s, Fords have won seven. One of those victories, Kyle Petty’s spring win at Richmond two years ago, came when a late-race wreck wiped out the top four cars and allowed Petty, who was running fifth, to finish first.

But 1988 brings a change of attitude and performance for drivers of Ford products. The Aug. 27 race at Bristol International Raceway was a prime example of the progress Ford teams have made on their short-track programs.

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A pair of Fords -- those of pole-winner Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin -- started in the front row, and Kulwicki, Martin, Petty, and Bill Elliott all held the lead at various times. Although Chevy driver Dale Earnhardt won the race, Elliott was a strong second and Kulwicki and Davey Allison finished in the top five.

Combined with Elliott’s spring victory at Bristol, the first Ford victory there since 1971, it appears the Ford short-track program is coming together. Thanks to his new-found success on the short-tracks, Elliott leads the Winston Cup standings, and Ford executives in Detroit are hoping for their first Winston Cup titleist since David Pearson won in 1969.

“We’re very happy with the way our guys are getting their short-track programs together,” said Lee Morse, manager of performance operations for Ford. “We’re ecstatic about (the Bristol performance).”

Morse said Ford has a chassis engineer, Paul Giltanin, who helps Ford teams with parts and technical advice on setting the cars up. Most of the credit for the improvement, however, goes to the individual teams, Morse said.

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“It’s been primarily the teams, especially the Elliotts, that have determined it is important for them to do well on the short tracks,” Morse said. “We have a chassis engineer that assists the teams in providing setups for the race cars. More and more of the Ford teams have been coming to our chassis engineer and requesting that information.

“Another thing is the involvement of Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin, who have been short track stars in the past. They have brought some more credibility to the Ford short-track effort, and they’ve worked closely with our Ford engineers. From that, Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and the rest have recognized that we can help a little bit.”

Morse said there has been no change in the chassis design per se, but the recommended setup has been changed. Kulwicki said the Fords still have difficulty accelerating out of turns, which hurts most on the smaller tracks, but said great progress has been made.

Elliott knows full well the importance of the short-track program. In 1985 he was the star of the NASCAR circuit, winning 11 superspeedway races and more than $2 million, but his failures on the short tracks cost him a shot at winning the Winston Cup. He finished second to Darrell Waltrip that year, and he and brother Ernie have worked hard since to improve.

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“That makes the championship that much more attainable,” Morse said. “It’s exciting. A couple years ago in 1985, Bill was the points leader, but it was certainly clear to those of us that were familiar with the sport that if you couldn’t get the job done on the short tracks, you couldn’t win the championship. Now, we see a real possiblity of winning the championship.”

--Darlington (S.C.) International Raceway, site of Sunday’s Southern 500, is billed as “The track too tough to tame.” The 1.366-mile track is the oldest oval on the Winston Cup circuit, and despite receiving a new track surface last year, the track’s rugged personality remains the same, said driver Neil Bonnett.

“They can pave it in gold and it won’t make any difference,” said Bonnett, who drives the Valvoline Pontiac. “It’s still the same place -- designed for the 70 mph cars that were racing when it was built in 1950 that we’re running 170 mph on today. It’s a one-groove track and you’re going to flirt with that outside wall on the mainstraight every time you come out of turn four. That will never change.”

What could change Sunday is the point standings. Bill Elliott holds a tenuous 16-point lead over Rusty Wallace in the latest Winston Cup standings, with Dale Earnhardt 126 points back in third place. Earnhardt is the defending champion in the Southern 500, and is trying for his third straight Winston Cup.

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--Championship Auto Racing Teams drivers return to a road course Sunday in the Escort Radar Warning 200 at the Mid-Ohio course in Lexington, Ohio. Though the track is a favorite of CART-PPG points leader Bobby Rahal, who lives in nearby Dublin, Al Unser Jr. also looks forward to getting away from the high-speed ovals.

Unser, who is five points behind Rahal, has excelled on road courses in his Valvoline March-Chevrolet in 1988. He has three victories and a pair of fourth-place finishes on road courses, and with four of the final five races slated for road courses, Unser is confident of regaining the points lead he held before races at Michigan and Pocono.


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