NASCAR: Roush ready to battle Toyota

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 1, 2007

Associated Press

CONCORD — With Toyota poised to enter NASCAR’s Nextel Cup series this season, Ford team owner Jack Roush is revving up the combative rhetoric.

Roush, the loudest critic of NASCAR’s decision to allow the Japanese automaker to enter the Nextel Cup series this season, said he’s “preparing myself for siege” on the track and in the boardroom this year.

“I expect to hand Toyota their head over the short term,” Roush said on Wednesday during NASCAR’s preseason media tour.

Roush, who has said in the past that Americans shouldn’t buy foreign cars because it hurts the economy, believes that Toyota’s entry will hurt NASCAR because the automaker will outspend teams affiliated with domestic automakers.

But he’s ready for a fight.

“Nobody’s frightened,” Roush said. “We’re going to go to war with them, and they should give us their best shot.”

Given current events, this might not be the most sensitive time for Roush — a war history buff who owns a World War II-era P-51 Mustang fighter plane — to compare sports to war. But at times on Wednesday, Roush seemed to be channeling Winston Churchill.

“Toyota will not find that the established teams and manufacturers will wither in their path, as has been the case where they have tried to engage elsewhere,” he said.

But Roush’s preparations to take on Toyota go beyond tough talk. He is negotiating to sell a significant stake of his team to an investment group headed by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry to raise more money to race. And Roush somehow prodded financially troubled Ford Motor Company to help him meet the extra $10 million he said he had to spend in research and development in the offseason.

“In their time of greatest need, they’re standing shoulder to shoulder with us,” Roush said.

Toyota will field three Nextel Cup teams this season, and is going to great lengths to remind fans that they build cars in the U.S. New Toyota driver Dale Jarrett recently said that Toyotas aren’t any more foreign than some Fords or Chevys.

“We could get into the argument about where the Ford Fusion is built; every one of them are built in Mexico,” Jarrett said. “The Monte Carlos are built in Canada. So we could go through all that stuff and see who is right and who is wrong. But there are a lot of Toyotas that are built in the United States. They employ a lot of people.”

Asked if this was a legitimate point or simply spin, Roush turned a pirouette on stage.

Roush and other team owners aren’t necessarily worried that Toyota will dominate right away. After all, Toyota is believed to have the biggest budget in the elite Formula One racing series but isn’t winning.

“I don’t see them spanking the Ferraris in Formula One,” Chevrolet team owner Rick Hendrick said.

Hendrick said that because NASCAR places such strict limits on technology, winning in NASCAR is more about hiring the right people. And Hendrick figures it will take Toyota a while to figure that out.

“Yeah, Toyota will probably win a race here or there,” Hendrick said. “But until they get the human capital side of it straight, they’re not going to be running for the championship.”

But even if Toyota doesn’t win, it could change the sport by driving up costs.

“They’ve got the deep pockets and the wherewithal to be able to step outside the box and to pay more for a service or a technology than sound business practices would otherwise justify,” Roush said.

That’s why Roush is preparing to sell up to 50 percent of his team to Henry and the Fenway Sports Group. Roush said he expected the sale, if it happens, to be completed in the first quarter of this year.

Beyond the partnership with Henry, Roush also leaned on Ford to provide more technical and engineering resources. Is Ford really in any position to increase its NASCAR budget?

“Obviously, the situation at Ford is tough right now,” Roush said. “But they’re committed to NASCAR, they’re committed to me, and the other Ford teams, and they want to be competitive against everybody that’s out there.”

So does Roush, who bristled when he was asked why he was so scared of Toyota.

“Did I say I was scared?,” Roush said. “I don’t back away from a fight.”