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Ford takes Taurus to the track

Tauruses:  NASCAR and current street version

Automaker taps family sedan for NASCAR

August 4, 1997
Web posted at: 5:57 p.m. EDT (2157 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The Ford Taurus, one of the fastest-selling family sedans in America, is about to become one of the fastest cars in America.

With a few modifications, that is.

The Ford Motor Company has announced that effective next year, the Taurus will replace the venerable Thunderbird as Ford's representative on the popular NASCAR racing circuit.

There are two reasons for the switch.

First, Ford will stop making the Thunderbird at the end of this model year, and it wants something on the NASCAR circuit that translates into sales in automotive showrooms.

Second, sales of the Taurus have slowed recently and the company has been dependent on fleet sales -- essentially a wholesale business -- to keep its two plants operating profitably.

The Taurus was the best-selling car in the United States between 1992 and 1996, but sales slumped after a controversial re-design of the car.

New model has not been profitable

Ford Taurus (1992-95 model)

"The profitability of the Taurus has been under pressure," says auto analyst John Casesa. "Ford has had to rely on fleet sales to keep production up, so from a profitability standpoint, it has been a disappointment."

NASCAR fans are generally loyal to one make or another, but analysts wonder whether hard-core racing fans will find a four-door sedan sexy enough to change their buying habits. Even though it will be the first full-time, four-door sedan in NASCAR history, many doubt that fans will want one sitting in the driveway.

But Ford thinks they will.

"It fits right in with where we're targeting Taurus," said Torrey Galida, Taurus marketing manager for Ford. "It's that middle American family sedan, and we think putting it on the track is going to help both the image and the sales."

Although the details have not been announced, the Taurus that shows up on the track at Talladega and Daytona won't be the average stock-six Taurus with luggage netting in the trunk.

Penske, Roush help with technical details

Ford Special Vehicle Operations and Ford's Motorsport Technology Department helped develop the new Taurus with help from two outfits with long racing pedigrees.

One is Penske Racing South, an arm of the racing empire run by Roger Penske, perhaps the pre-eminent name in American motorsports. Penske's current entrant on the NASCAR circuit is a Thunderbird driven by Rusty Wallace.

The other is Roush Racing, which fields Thunderbirds for Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Ted Musgrave. Many other Ford teams also made contributions to the effort.

"I think it'll be a positive change for everyone," said Ford driver Dale Jarrett. "There's going to be a lot of work involved, but we think everyone has done their homework."

Bruce Cambern, director of Ford Special Vehicle Operations, said the initial testing of the car will begin in the next few weeks, and many of the current Ford teams and drivers are expected to participate.

Because preparations for next season have already begun, Ford has taken the unusual step of stamping out the body parts for the racing Taurus at costs significantly higher than normal production.

Ford Thunderbird (1996-97 model)

Thunderbird a tough act to follow

There are 21 Ford teams on the circuit now racing Thunderbirds, and there may be times when they miss the Thunderbird. The car has won 11 races this year and 176 times in the Winston Cup Series since 1978. It has won five Daytona 500s and four Series titles.

But the Thunderbird is being put to rest, and Ford expects to spend $50 million launching the Taurus race car. It's a small price to pay if it persuades NASCAR fans they just have to have one of their own.

Correspondent Sean Callebs and NASCAR contributed to this report.

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