Thursday, November 12, 2015

When Lincoln Returned to Nascar (sorta)

A frequent complaint amongst Nascar fans is the lack of diversity in the manufacturers—you have Ford, Chevy & Toyota, but nobody else.  And while there’s rumors from time-to-time about a fourth company entering the sport—Dodge is the usual suspect—the sheer cost involved to develop, produce, and support a racing platform keeps newcomers away.  But what if a race team decided to run a different make, one essentially new to Nascar, ON ITS OWN?
It happened…well, almost, in 1996.
Back in the mid-90’s Ford was significantly lagging behind Chevrolet in results on the track (Pontiac was there, but wouldn’t see a renaissance until Joe Gibbs Racing signed-on).  Meanwhile, former Ford Racing executive Michael Kranefuss had formed a race team with longtime motorsports investor Carl Haas, fielding the mostly-unsuccessful 37 KH Racing Ford for John Andretti.  With Ford not looking to make any changes to its Thunderbird chassis, Kranefuss took matters into his own hands.
Early in 1996, work began on adapting a Lincoln Mark VIII body onto a standard Ford chassis.  Originally said to be done with Ford Motor Company’s blessing—they owned Lincoln, after all—the car took to the track in a test session at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Though not blindingly-fast, the car put up respectable times for a first-ever run, and word began to spread that Andretti would pilot the KH Racing Lincoln Mark VIII at the upcoming Winston Open non-points race.
Yeah, about that.
Nascar’s official reason for not approving the car was a valid one—they wanted more wind tunnel testing, and needed serial numbers on all “stock” parts.  Ford Motor Company seemed to have changed its mind on the project, refusing to release the pertinent information or pay for additional wind tunnel time.  It seemed they wanted to focus THEIR efforts on making the Thunderbird competitive again, and didn’t want Lincoln to have a “racing image” in the first place—both valid reasons.
Suddenly, KH Racing had a white elephant on their hands.
The project’s failure, while mostly out of their own control, seemed to doom the small team as an independent entity.  Late in the 1996 season the team and Cale Yarborough Motorsports swapped drivers, with Jeremy Mayfield moving to KH Racing.  Andretti would go on to win the 1997 Pepsi 400, while Mayfield would only see success after the team was bought-out by Penske Racing South, morphing into the #12 Penske-Kranefuss Ford in 1998.

In an odd post-script, 1998 was also the first year that Ford finally replaced its aging Thurderbird body in Nascar.  The new model?  The Ford Taurus—the first four-door body in Nascar, and hardly a look with a “racing image”.