June 17, 2013 at 6:43 am

Doug Guthrie

Winning races at the track pays off in the showroom

Brooklyn, Mich. -- It all started in 1901 with a cut glass punch bowl, the first and only trophy Henry Ford won as a driver.

The 10-lap race on a one-mile dirt oval in Grosse Pointe both terrified and saved Ford.

His first car company had failed nine months earlier.

Risking all in a race against other pioneers gave Ford a second chance to demonstrate his machines were capable, durable and dependable. The victory over a more powerful car and veteran driver inspired investors in the man who would put the world on wheels.

Motor sports still serve as the auto industry’s stage. Racing still inspires buyers and builders. It fits with what marketers say about how selecting a new car is based as much on emotion as practical research.

“We still believe in the adage: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” Ford’s great-grandson, Edsel B. Ford II, said last weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

A member of Ford Motor Co.’s board of directors, Ford had come to the track with his 21-year-old son, Albert, to watch Ford-supported teams take on Chevrolet and Toyota in a 200 mph demonstration of technology and marketing might.

“My father (Henry Ford II) took me to Le Mans in 1966 when I was 18,” Ford said about watching the first American cars win the French 24-hour race (Ford GT40 super-cars finished 1-2-3). “For me, there is something special about seeing a Ford oval on a race car.”

Lots of attitude

Since the two-mile MIS super-speedway opened as Detroit’s home track in 1969, Ford and Mercury stock cars have won 43 Cup races (General Motors has 30). Toyota, which has a technical center on 600 acres near Ann Arbor that employs 1,234, entered NASCAR in 2007 and has won four times at MIS.

“We don’t circle this date on the calendar like the other guys here in Michigan,” said Michael Waltrip, a former driver and current TV analyst who owns three Toyota entries in the Cup series. “But I love it that my manufacturer wants to beat the snot out of the other guys.”

Les Unger, national motor sports manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA, Inc., said racing breeds an attitude about winning that extends beyond the track into the showroom.

“Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have stepped it up,” he said. “They are building great cars now. They are competitive in the marketplace. That makes for better cars from all of us, and that’s great for the country.

“You want to show your attributes on the track and in the showroom. You want it to be about capability.”

Pat Suhy, group manager of Chevrolet’s NASCAR efforts, said, “Racing breeds a mentality about quick decision making, about winning, about credibility. The fans make that connection.”

A new trophy

Recognizing that corporate rivalry takes on special significance at the two Michigan NASCAR races in June and August, a new Manufacturer’s Trophy has been commissioned by speedway officials. It is being crafted by former students from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies.

The 50-pound bronze sculpture will stand more than 3 feet tall, a little taller and heavier than the Stanley Cup. The Indianapolis 500’s Borg Warner Trophy is 14 inches taller and weighs twice as much.

The Manufacturer’s Trophy will be in the shape of an old skyscraper, like Detroit’s Fisher and Guardian buildings. It will be topped by classic hood ornament-like figures. The corporate logos of the winners will be engraved in the windows of the skyscraper structure.

David Wilson, acting president and general manager for Toyota Racing Development, said if Toyota wins the race in August, the trophy will have a prominent place in the Toyota display at next year’s North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center.

Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, responded, “Does that mean you’re going to steal it from our office?”

Nothing, however, could ever replace the long disappeared punch bowl trophy from Ford’s first race. It was auctioned to an unknown buyer after Henry Ford’s death in 1947.

Edsel Ford II has searched for years without luck. It’s become his Holy Grail.

“It’s in an attic,” he said. “It won’t come out until there is an estate sale. We will find it.”

dguthrie@detroitnews.com
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Chris Buescher (center), driver of the No. 16 Ford Ecoboost, speaks with Edsel Ford II, right, and his son Albert Ford on Saturday at MIS. / Steve Perez/Detroit News
Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 3M Ford car, performs a burnout after ... (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
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