CONCORD, N.C. (AP) – When asked about Ford Motor Co.'s announcement that it lost a record $12.7 billion last year, the director of Dodge's racing program cringes as if he just swallowed a swig of motor oil.
These aren't the best of times for the U.S. auto industry, and the effects are starting to trickle down to NASCAR. Folks in the race team shops sprinkled throughout suburban Charlotte are worried about tightening their belts _ and not just the ones on their engines.
Mike Accavitti, director of Dodge Motorsports and SRT Product Planning, said teams must start finding ways to become more efficient.
''I've always contended that if it's a money-burning contest, you've got the wrong partner,'' Accavitti said. ''I don't want to say we're cheap, but we never really had a lot of money to just throw at things.''
In an attempt to stop long-standing rumors that Dodge was considering pulling out of NASCAR entirely, Accavitti made a firm public commitment to the sport during NASCAR's preseason media tour Thursday.
''Dodge is here to stay,'' he said.
But not here to go on a wild spending spree.
At a time when NASCAR teams are making major increases to their research and development budgets to deal with changes in the sport, asking automakers to chip in even more money is a tough sell.
''It's hard to get more, because let's face it: Right now, business is not great,'' said Dodge team owner Ray Evernham.
Evernham certainly could use the money. He and other teams are developing the so-called Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR's new chassis design that could be more cost-effective for teams in the long run but is costing them millions to design and build right now.
Evernham also must keep an eye on Toyota, which is entering its first year in the Nextel Cup and has caused widespread concern that they will drive up the cost of racing.
In response, Evernham said Dodge has redistributed some of its racing budget, spending less on advertising and more on research and development.
''(They've) cut some of the frills so they could put more money into the engineering and development so they can make the cars go faster, so I applaud them for that,'' Evernham said.
Dodge also offers teams technical help, including wind tunnel time and manufacturing expertise. They hope to help teams improve their performance without boosting their budgets – much like the automakers themselves are trying to do.
''I think the sport here is at a transition point,'' Accavitti said. ''It's going to become more of getting the most you can for that dollar, rather than just throwing more dollars at it.''
Contracts between automakers and teams are closely held secrets, but run well into the millions and can make up close to 20 percent of a team's racing budget. Without that money, a team wouldn't be able to survive in the long term.
Roush Racing president Geoff Smith said despite Ford's overall financial difficulties, he has never heard anything from the company's senior management that would indicate that the company is wavering in its commitment to NASCAR.
In fact, team owner Jack Roush talked Ford into increasing its support of the team this year. Roush said on Wednesday that Ford is paying some of the additional $10 million Roush says he had to add to his research and development budget.
Smith sees that as an indication that Ford won't pull out of NASCAR just because times are tough.
''Absolutely,'' Smith said. ''They'd be foolish to be investing and helping us shore up our engineering infrastructure if they weren't committed to being in NASCAR.''
But Ford also announced Wednesday that it was pulling the plug on its sponsorship of the Champ Car racing series _ an indication that the company might have chosen to help Roush at a lesser series' expense.
Despite the tough times, Smith said he is confident that Ford will recover.
''You're going to have these unfortunate fluxes in who's on top with their product,'' Smith said.
But Roush also is nearing a deal to sell up to 50 percent of his team to an investor group headed by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, a move that would allow them to boost their budget.
Evernham said he's looking for a business partner, too.
''No matter what we try and do, the expense is going up and up and up, and I need to concentrate on competition,'' Evernham said. ''And find a partner that plays golf with billionaires so they can bet on shots and get us some money.''