Monday, March 10, 2014

What’s up with Roush Fenway Racing?

Questions about Roush Racing should start at the top
As a kid growing up in Livonia, Mich., I’d ride my bike past the Jack Roush Racing shops to look at the cars and, if I was lucky, hear an engine start up.  Roush was mostly into drag racing back then, which was a long, long time ago. 

Over the years Roush moved into sports cars and his team eventually dominated the TransAm for Ford.  From there they moved into NASCAR, once again rising to the top.

But again, that was a long, long time ago.  It's been awhile since Roush won regularly and the team's slow start this year has people wondering if maybe the best years of Roush Racing are in the past.

Of the 779 Sprint Cup laps run so far this year, Roush Fords have led 10.  Ten.  None of the Roush cars even threatened the Top 10 this past weekend at Las Vegas until Carl Edwards rolled the dice on gas mileage, eventually finishing 5th. 

It’s even worse on the Nationwide side of things, were Roush drivers haven’t led a single lap.  None.  Zero. Nada.

This is coming off a 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season Roush would like to forget.  Although Edwards won two races and Greg Biffle one as both drivers qualified for The Chase, neither contended for the title.  In fact, a Roush driver hasn’t won a Cup title in 10 years.  And while Chevrolet won 16 races on its way to an 11th straight manufacturer championship last year and Toyota was winning 14 events, Ford cars, managed just six wins and fell to third in the manufacturer standings. 

Roush defenders will argue that the 2014 season is only three races old.  But they’ve been on three different types of race tracks – one superspeedway, one flat track and 1.5-mile intermediate layout – and only one thing has been consistent, the Roush Fords have been nowhere to be seen.  A year ago you might have chalked it up to being a bad year for Ford.  But not this year. 

The Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have been consistently out front.  Keselowski nearly won at Daytona and the Penske Fords swept the front row in qualifying at Phoenix and Las Vegas, with Keselowski winning this past weekend.   And the Penske cars have been just as strong in the Nationwide series.

So what’s wrong with Roush Fenway is a legitimate question.  And it needs to start at the top. 

What’s up with Jack Roush?

Stubborn and opinionated, Roush, who turns 72 next month, has been the very visible, hands-on leader of the NASCAR team for more than 25 years.  “Fists on” leadership Edwards once said. 

While he insists he hasn’t lost his passion for the sport, he also talks about stepping back from day-to-day oversight and even – gasp – not going to every race.

We’ve seen it happen often before in NASCAR and auto racing in general.  The success of a team, even a well-funded team, depends heavily on the commitment and drive of the team owner.  In business, a CEO’s legacy is often judged in part on the leadership he leaves behind, but that hasn’t been in the case in racing. Once a race team’s ownership begins to lose the passion or whatever you want to call it, the team begins to drift.  It happened at the biggest and best teams; at Holman-Moody, the Wood Brothers and Petty Enterprises.  It was happening at Richard Childress Racing until a couple of grandsons revitalized Childress. 

The Great Recession hit all of auto racing hard, Roush included.  In 2007 he was forced to sell a 50 percent interest in the team to John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Sports.  The team went from four cars to three for the 2012 season and the next year let Matt Kenseth go over to the “dark side,” as Roush termed the driver’s move to Toyota’s Joe Gibbs team.  Rather than replace Kenseth with another proven Cup star, Roush promoted Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., from the Nationwide series.  Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide champ, was ready for the promotion by most accounts, but has failed to produce in Cup competition.

So where does Roush Fenway Racing go from here?  It’s bound to be a hot topic in the weeks ahead and for as long as it takes Roush cars to start running up front again – if they ever do.  It starts this week at Bristol.  Edwards, and especially Biffle, usually performs well at the track.

Only one thing will stop the questions about Roush Fenway Racing.  In the words of former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, as passionate an owner as there ever has been; “Just win baby.  Just win.”

Final thought: Is there a role for Mark Martin at Roush?  Seems like there should be.


  1. Roush has never consistently fielded top tier Cup teams for that same "fists on" approach mentioned in the article. Too much manipulation of drivers, teams & crew chiefs by Jack have tended to blunt their progress in general.

    Add in that though he pushed & manipulated to become Ford's "clearinghouse" in Nascar, he also got a lot of that by default & has largely failed to capitalize on the opportunity. Go back twenty or so years. Ford had four excellent teams before 1994; Roush, Robert Yates, Junior Johnson & Alan Kulwicki. They also had extremely competent second tier teams in Bud Moore & the Wood Brothers. We lost Kulwicki & essentially that team, RYR imploded from 2001 on, Junior got out, & Bud Moore couldn't keep up with the escalating costs, which also caused the Wood Brothers to scale back to a part time operation, Granted, Ford did get Penske in 1994, but that team was still developing & wasn't the powerhouse it is now.

    All of that combined to give Roush the chance to take over running Ford's Nascar program, with mixed results. They haven't developed a new driver in the Cup series in a long time, (anyone remember Todd Kluever? David Ragan failed to set Nascar on fire either), though Stenhouse may be the exception, & Carl Edwards hasn't been able to deliver on his promise. Losing Kenseth was a massive blow, as evidenced by his resurgence in 2013, (said resurgence brings up an interesting point; namely Matt had never had a season like last year, so how much was Matt & how much was it Roush/Fenway holding him back?). It took Penske a year to make the switch from Dodge to Ford really pay off, & the fact that they've decided to rely on building their chassis & cars in house is telling, & I think is a key component to their success vs Roush. Richard Petty Motorsports is beginning to do more on their own, without Roush's input, something else I find very telling. I said years ago that Jack Roush was going to wind up hurting Ford in Nascar, & I was right.

    Look for Penske to supplant Roush/Fenway as THE Ford team in the next few years. Jack Roush had the opportunity to become Ford's answer to Hendrick & completely blew it.

  2. Don't really disagree with anything you've written, although I think wanted a single lead team as much as Roush wanted to be that team. I also believe Penske could be the lead Ford team at some point, which is why I was surprised when Roger closed down his engine program.

    1. I definitely have to agree on being surprised about Penske shutting down their engine program, but I also tend to wonder if that was a concession they had to make in the switch from Dodge to Ford. I do know that the development of the Dodge Charger for the Gen6 package was holding the entire Gen6 deal back time & development wise, from what many other teams said last year, & since Penske was the only Dodge team at that time, & Mopar couldn't get another team signed up, I've got a hunch that's likely why Penske made the switch, & it may be as part of the deal they had to run Roush/Yates engines. I also agree with you that Ford likely wanted a single lead team & it is understandable that Jack wanted to be the team.

      The problem seems to be one of micromanagement on Jack's part. I can recall reading in Ed Hinton's book on the history of Daytona, where when Jeff Gordon was running the Bill Davis Busch Thunderbird in 1992, Jeff's stepfather, John Bickford received a call from Roush to see about signing Jeff to Roush Racing for the Cup series in 1993. Ray Evernham was of course Jeff's crew chief by then & John said it was a package deal, if Jack wanted Jeff, Ray came along as his crew chief. Jack said his drivers didn't get to pick their own crew chiefs, he did that for them. John politely thanked Jack, told him they weren't interested in that & hung up the phone. Jack called John back & asked why he had hung up on him. John told him that those were the terms, & since he wasn't going to negotiate with Jack the conversation was over. Shortly after that Rick Hendrick approached John, had no problems with Ray being Jeff's crew chief, & the rest is history. I mean, how do you let a talent like Jeff Gordon slip away like that for such an inane reason? Add in the fact that Jack constantly does the same with his crew chiefs & drivers, switching them back & forth, often to diminishing results. I think Jack is a very smart person, but I think if he had stepped back & let the teams work things out on their own more, (like Hendrick does), he would have had far better results over the years. I do know if I were Ford, & Jack had done that with letting Jeff get away, I'd have been looking for another team to me the lead team, & I'm not personally a fan of Jeff. I'm just able to look at the whole picture objectively & even now that makes me shake my head in amazement.

    2. Didn't know about the Ray Evernham part of the Jeff Gordon to Hendrick story. Thanks!

    3. I hadn't heard this story before but it makes perfect sense given what we have seen happen at Roush Racing.
      I believe thats long been Roush Racing's achilles heel. Everty time you blink he's swapping people around. Its like his drivers do well with someone and he thinks, well hey if this can work for this driver, then lets put him with another driver and we will have two better teams. But it doesn't work that way. You look at the long term competitive, consistent and winning teams and they pretty much all have one thing in common. A winning combo driver and crew chief who are LEFT ALONE as a unit! It works, so let it keep working. Not rocket science. But Jack can't seem to stop meddling with winning formulas and in the process it screws it up, and probably leaves everyone at his organization wondering when the next changes might occur. You can't focus properly in that environment. And if this story is an indication he won't be told to stop doing it, and as he's gotten older chances are he's gotten more autocratic.
      He needs to step back or step down. Its pretty obvious its not working, and at the rate he's going I'm afraid that the whole thing will end up like Robert Yates Racing in a few years. Gone. I'm already wondering how long before Carl and Greg jump ship. It feels like its sinking to me :-(

  3. Another factor in Ford's decline, in my opinion, was the loss of Michael Kranefuss as the director of Ford's worldwide motorsports. He got directly involved in NASCAR in the mid-90s to somewhat mixed results, but Ford has been mostly downhill since then.

  4. Very useful and so peaceful blog for us. Such a good work and so good write up.

  5. One more factor in the decline of the blue oval is the continued failure to get the best new talent. Chase Elliott is going to be as good or maybe better that his dad. Bill had all the Ford fans on his side and sold a lot of Fords. Chase will likely be selling Chevys. What a shame.

  6. I would be vary worried if I was a Roush fan (or employee). Every race you see the 17 or 99 run the Ford Ecoboost scheme, thats a unsold race. I think Stenhouse has 22 races and Edwards has 5 currently unsold and will run the Ford Ecoboost scheme, granted Ford helps out Roush alot but those are unsponsored races you are not getting money for! I think Jack is stubborn and unwilling to lower the price for sponsorship or even worse, company's do not think Roush cars are worth spending the big cash on becasue you often see them running 15 to 25th and you can go to JTG or Germain and be a sponsor for a fraction of the Roush price and run just as good as Roush. Things are bad on the Nationwide side as well, the 60 car runs the Ford Ecoboost sheme (explained above) or "Roush performance parts" for 10 races this year witch might be an excuse to have one of his profitable businesses subsidize the mess going on over in the racing side. Edwards contract is up after this year and it is a real decision for him. Does he go somewhere else and win 7 races a year (like Matt Kenseth did) and contend for a Championship and leave Jack Roush, the guy that gave him his big chance or do you re-sign and continue to win 1 or 2 races a year and never be a consistent top 10 driver and finish 7-16th in points every year?

    1. I think if a decent ride is available he should and will take it, personally. And that's coming from a Roush racing fan since around the mid 90's. I think at the rate its going the money won't be there to keep him in a car there long term anyway, even if he really wanted to stay.
      I think its silly that no-one is openly talking about this. This isn't just about Roush. Sponsors are getting harder to find for all but a few teams now, and the races that used to be sold out aren't anymore. Look at the grandstands and notice how much of them is empty week after week. If this isn't addressed Nascar itself is going to be on a slippery slope IMO