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Brand Loyalty or Confessions of the Last Pontiac Fan
by Cheryl Lauer
November 4, 2003

Okay, I admit it. I'm probably the last Pontiac fan out there. I know brand loyalty has pretty much fallen to the wayside in NASCAR in the last few years what with the introduction of common templates and the race cars complete departure from anything resembling their stock counterparts. Granted, there are still a lot of blind Ford fans out there, but we Pontiac fans have always been few and far between. This week's announcement by General Motors that they were scrapping the Pontiac NASCAR racing program came as complete shock to the 2003 Pontiac race teams, and a big blow to me personally. As it is, during the last 10 years, Pontiac has appeared to be the step-child of the GM racing program, and now all of the sudden GM has decided to pull the plug completely. There are a lot of theories out there as to why GM announced that they would be placing all their efforts behind the Chevrolet Monte Carlo beginning in 2004.

Over the last few days, Mike Mulhern of the Winston-Salem Journal has offered a couple of explanations as to why GM is dropping Pontiac from their NASCAR program. Saturday's article stated, "...It is apparently related to pressure from NASCAR demanding more money from the Detroit car maker - at least $1 million a race, according to reports - to be the official pace car of the Winston/Nextel Cup circuit. Pontiac officials, according to sources, said no." I hope this rumor isn't true, because if it is, what a sad commentary on the increasing greed of the sanctioning body. For the past 15 years that I've been following NASCAR, Pontiac has been their official pace car. Monday, in the Winston-Salem Journal, Mulhern reports that Doug Duchart, the new head of GM racing stated the decision had more to do with the fact that "the Pontiac product lineup is going through a significant change" and "Traditionally, the Pontiac has been marketed to performance-minded men 18 to 24, and Duchart says that won't change. Pontiac is a performance car, but the group they're going after is a little more upscale aspirational type," Duchart said. "Pontiac will stay in racing, but we're not ready to announce where yet." "Upscale aspirational type?" Talk about a bunch of doubletalk! Is "aspirational" even a word??? I'm guessing this all means that the Pontiac division no longer wants to market their cars to those folks who watch such a perceived blue-collar sport as NASCAR. Oh well, so much for NASCAR's attempts to "grow the sport" and attract a different demographic. Obviously, the folks in charge at Pontiac don't think NASCAR will be able to attract the "right" demographic for them. They must think NASCAR is only made up of those still driving around in their 1977 Trans Ams. The article goes on to say that the introduction of the new Pontiac GTO is also a reason why Pontiac is no longer interested in NASCAR. Okay, after seeing this car, I suppose I can begin to follow Pontiac's thinking. Not accept it, mind you, but at least see where they are heading.

A couple of years ago, I was excited when I heard about the GTO badge returning to a Pontiac model, but ended up being sadly disappointed when I saw pictures of the prototype. The new GTO is an insult to the legacy of the GTO name. To me, it looks like just another foreign econobox and is, in fact, based on a GM car marketed in Australia under the name of Holden. Not that I'm knocking the Aussies; they're a fine bunch of folks; however, the legacy of the GTO was one of a big vehicle made of pure American steel. Not this thing that looks like a sad attempt to copy a Nissan or a Mitsubishi. In my opinion Pontiac is making a huge mistake in leaving NASCAR. But then, they started down a bad design road for their production vehicles a few years ago when they introduced that horrid Aztec and then continued on down that road with production of the Vibe. How anyone can claim these hideous-looking vehicles belong in a "performance" car line is beyond me. Okay, I'll stop my tirade now, but let me just say that the GTO and even the recent redesign of the Grand Prix are continuing down the absolute wrong path for a company known for high-performance vehicles that were visually attractive to buyers. Oh wait! I did read somewhere that Pontiac wants to appeal to the "fast and the furious" crowd. Oh, now I understand. Yeah, Pontiac better make sure they are still fast, because the sight of them will make a lot of people furious.

Okay, so back to my real reason for writing this article. Whatever crazy logic General Motors is using for withdrawing the Pontiac from NASCAR competition, my point here is to lament the loss of my favorite make of car from NASCAR. I began following the sport in 1988, when we happened to turn on the Daytona 500. I'd always been a fan of fast cars since my father was an auto mechanic. I don't know why I'd never followed stock car racing before 1988, although it was probably because it wasn't widely covered in Maryland where I grew up. But from the first moment I watched that Daytona 500, I was hooked. After you watch your first race, you have to come up with a driver, a car, or a team to root for. Everyone has their own reason for choosing their favorite drivers. For some, it's because a driver wins, some may like the way the driver looks or presents himself, some like his style of driving, some simply think a certain paint scheme looks nice, some like the sponsor or have an affiliation with the sponsor's product, and for some it's because you like the make of car he drives. For me, it was a combination of some of those things over the course of the 1988 season. Yes, I was buying a 1988 Grand Prix later that year and, yes, I'd driven a Pontiac since 1983 (and continue to 20 years later), so that had a lot to do with my choice of a driver for which to cheer. But that decision wasn't really made until the second and third races of the 1988 season. You see, the most memorable Pontiac in the 1988 Daytona 500 was Richard Petty's STP Pontiac, which barrel-rolled down the track in that race. Yes, I knew Richard Petty was the King of stock car racing, but that inauspicious ending to his day didn't make me feel like he was the guy to watch in the future. Back in those days, Richmond was the second race of the season and the late Neil Bonnett won that race in 1988, driving the #75 Valvoline Pontiac, owned by Butch Mock and Bob Rahilly. I thought - now this is cool...a Pontiac wins the second race I watched! Then the next week, Neil scored another win at Rockingham. Hmmm...this guy might be worth watching. Then on an off-week, I heard that Neil had won an Australian stock car race as well. I knew then that Neil was going to be a driver for which I could cheer.

Now, I'll admit my interest in NASCAR waned a bit in the spring and early summer of 1988. I was still into baseball then, so there were other things that divided my attention during that time. Then I picked up following NASCAR races on TV again in the mid-to-late summer of '88. About this time, I heard that the championship race was heating up between a traditional southerner driving a Ford and a brash midwestern guy driving a Pontiac. Again, this peaked my interest, because for all I was a blind Pontiac lover, back then I was equally a blind Ford-hater. (I've mellowed over the years) From the middle of the summer of 1988 on, I was riveted to the TV, watching all the races on CBS and ESPN, and following the championship battle between Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace. I honestly don't think I've missed a Winston Cup race since that summer. And yes, I was a bit fickle in my brand loyalties, as I added Ricky Rudd in the Quaker State Buick to my growing list of favorite drivers. Yes, believe it or not "for those of you new to the sport," Buick used to field race cars back then as well as Oldsmobile. Beginning with the 1988 season, GM introduced the GM-10, the first of the scaled down body styles for the Grand Prix, Buick Regal and Olds Cutlass,and it immediately became successful on the race track. Aren't those names a blast from the past? Unfortunately, in a few years, the fans of NASCAR will have the Pontiac Grand Prix classified with those "cars that used to race in the good old days."

By September of 1988, I was itching to see my new "obsession" in person, so I headed down to Richmond to catch the last fall day race at that newly reconfigured track. I didn't even have a clue where the track was located, but headed down I-95 anyway that Sunday morning anyway. Thankfully, we got directions from some kind folks outside Ashland, VA. When we arrived at the track, we walked up to the ticket office and plopped down $20 each for two general admission tickets. Can you imagine only paying $20 for a ticket to a NASCAR race? I found that our tickets gave us the right to pick any seat we wanted in the general admission section on the backstretch. Having only been familiar with stick and ball sports, we were delighted to see the front row of the grandstand was still open. Later I figured out why these seats were available when we couldn't see much of the track from that low position, but it didn't diminish my glee at finally being at the track to see my first race live. Somehow I managed to keep track of who was leading all day long, and this was even before the new scoreboard had been erected at Richmond. Unfortunately, that was the day it became painfully obvious to me that you absolutely cannot have one favorite driver, or you're destined to be disappointed a lot of the time. On the first lap of my first live race, Rusty Wallace got wrecked out of the race. I'll never forget hearing Rusty being interviewed afterwards on the PA, asking if Geoff Bodine had "brain fade" that day. Thankfully, I still had Neil and Ricky to root for and was so happy to be there, I even cheered when a Ford driven by Davey Allison ended up winning the race.

As the 1988 season wound down, Rusty and Bill were in the middle of a neck-to-neck points battle, with Rusty winning something like three of the last five races that year, I think. Loyal Pontiac fans were destined to be disappointed when that "evil" Ford won the championship even though Rusty won the final race at Atlanta. Ah, but we had the joy of saying "wait until next year" as the season ended...

The 1989 season dawn very brightly for us Pontiac fans. With the tremendous success that Rusty had in the newly redesigned Grand Prix, many teams switched over to Pontiacs for the 89 season. In addition to the Valvoline Pontiac, Rusty's Kodiak Pontiac, and Petty's STP Pontiac, we had Jimmy Spencer in the Heinz 57 Pontiac, Derrick Cope in the Purolater Pontiac, Dale Jarrett in the Hardee's Pontiac, Ernie Irvan in the Kroger Pontiac, Michael Waltrip in Country Time Pontiac, and Kyle Petty in the Peak Pontiac. I, of course, immediately added all of these new Pontiac drivers to those I could cheer for every week. But Rusty Wallace was again leading the fleet. And who can forget the furor when he dumped Darrell Waltrip to win the 1989 Winston and beat out Dale Earnhardt for the 1989 Winston Cup Championship? Yes, 1989 and the early 90s were banner years for Pontiacs and it was a great time to be a Pontiac fan. Unfortunately, things were about to change...

In 1993, Rusty, (who now co-owned his own team with Roger Penske), had 10 wins in his Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac - the highest number by any manufacturer that year. It was about this time that the folks at Chevrolet racing were getting a little nervous. They were used to winning the Manufacturer's Championship hands down every year, but had lost to Ford in 1992 and had only won the 1993 championship by a narrow margin over Ford. Those 10 wins that Rusty gave to Pontiac (and one win by Kyle Petty as well) made the people at Chevrolet very nervous. I mean, Chevy was suppose to be the top brand in the GM family, wasn't it? They started worrying that the split of wins in the GM ranks might really begin to hurt Chevy. Especially since the new Ford Thunderbird Supercoupe had been out a few years by this time and was whooping up on the Chevy Lumina. This was GM-10 model that Chevrolet was running in NASCAR at this time. I seem to remember rumors that Chevy placed a great deal of pressure on Rusty Wallace and the Penske team to switch to Chevrolet for the 1994 season. I guess Roger Penske didn't care for this type of pressure or he felt the Fords had the edge at this time, whatever the reason, he chose to switch Rusty's team to Fords for the 1994 season. To say the least, I was devastated. Not only was my favorite driver leaving my beloved Pontiac make, but he was going over to "the dark side" with Ford. As I said, there were dark days ahead for the loyal Pontiac fans...

1994 looked to be a tough year for me, but thankfully I'd developed an afinity for a couple of young drivers who had moved up from the Busch Series to Winston Cup in 1993. My favorite, Bobbie Labonte, had gone with a Ford team in 1993, but lo and behold, his car owner, Bill Davis, was apparently courted by Pontiac, and decided to switch to Pontiacs for 1994. Even though I liked Bobby Labonte when he was driving the Maxwell House Ford for Bill Davis, I always had to issue a disclaimer that I liked him "despite the fact he was in a Ford" that year. I even made sure to hide the Ford emblem in the collar of Maxwell House racing jacket I'd bought at an unseasonably cold and damp fall race at Dover. But in 1994, I could wear my jacket proudly since I'd spent the off-season sewing a Pontiac emblem over the Ford emblem in the collar (not a small feat for someone who has almost no sewing ability!). So, in 1994, I really tried to remain loyal to Rusty even though he was now driving for Ford and brought them eight victories that year. But it was getting increasingly more difficult to root for him in a Ford. Not to mention I wasn't really happy to be affiliated with fans who had cursed and hated Rusty in a Pontiac, but thought he was the second coming since he was now in a Ford. See, to me the Ford fans are a fickle bunch and seem to jump to whoever happens to be driving the winning Ford at any time. I guess that's their own version of "brand loyalty," but it just doesn't work for me. So during 1994, I'd adopted a couple of new drivers to my growing list of favorites, but Bobby Labonte was now my Pontiac driver. Unfortunately, 1994 was a disaster for Pontiac fans as the brand won no races that year. But I guess Ford was real happy because all of Rusty's wins pushed them ahead of Chevy and they, again, won the manufacturer's championship, if not the Winston Cup championship that year.

With the 1995 season came more lean years for the fans of the Pontiac, though thankfully they would not be completely shut out of Victory Lane again for an entire season. Unfortunately, those fringe teams who'd so quickly jumped to Pontiac had long ago jumped on to Fords or the new Chevy Monte Carlo, which was proving near unbeatable during the spring of 1995. A domino effect begun when Dale Jarrett left Joe Gibbs racing to take over for the injured Ernie Irvan in the Robert Yates Ford at the beginning of the '95 season. Next, Bobby Labonte left Bill Davis racing and the Pontiacs to drive a Chevy for Joe Gibbs. At this time, about the only Pontiacs left to root for were the Coors Light Pontiac driven by Kyle Petty, the STP Pontiac driven at various times by John Andretti, Wally Dallenbach, and Bobby Hamilton, and the Pennzoil Pontiac driven by Michael Waltrip. Ward Burton moved up from Busch and took over Bill Davis' Pontiac in late 1995. Thankfully for us Pontiac loyalists, Kyle Petty scored a win for them at Dover in 1995, and Ward Burton brought Bill Davis his first Winston Cup win at Rockingham in the fall. Then came 1996. Although defending Busch Series Champion, Johnny Benson, had taken over the Pennzoil Pontiac, things were looking pretty dismal indeed for those of us loyal to the Pontiac brand. It wasn't until the next to the last race of that season that a Pontiac finally found victory lane when Bobby Hamilton finally notched a popular win driving the STP car for Richard Petty at Phoenix. 1996 ended with the announcement that Felix Sabatas, team owner for Kyle Petty, had chosen to switch from Pontiacs to Chevys in 1997. During this time, I was steadfastly loyal in my personal vehicle choices. After getting into racing, I'd traded by 1987 Bonneville for the sportier Bonneville SSE in 1990 and my ex-husband had upgraded his '88 Grand Prix to a 1993 Trans Am.

Then came 1997 and the Pontiac fans finally had something to look forward to again when Joe Gibbs switched to Pontiacs for Bobby Labonte. I was ecstatic! Bobby was back in Pontiac and things were really looking up since he'd won 3 races for Gibbs in '95 and one in '96. Bobby looked to be the up and coming star for the Pontiac brigade, but things got off to a slow start. Bobby won two races race for Pontiac in 1997. But Pontiac was increasing it's ranks with other drivers during this period. After several successful seasons in the Busch Series, Chad Little returned to Winston Cup in the John Deere Pontiac. Benson was still driving for the Pennzoil Team, and MB2 Motorsports opened it's doors fielding the Skittles Pontiac for Derrick Cope. Unfortunately, the only team to show any real success for Pontiac the next six years was Joe Gibbs racing, with Labonte becoming a consistent winner each season. Gibbs added a second Pontiac team in 1999 and Pontiac won their highest number of times since 1993 a combined nine wins, with six wins for Labonte and three for his new teammate, rookie, Tony Stewart. During this time, other Pontiac teams came and went, with Joe Gibbs Racing being the only team to find any consistency. Todd Bodine made his second attempt at Winston Cup with a Pontiac in 1998 with a Pontiac sponsored by Tabasco. The team folded before the end of the season in what has been come to be known as "the Tabasco Fiasco." Sadly, the 30 team of Chuck Rider lost Pennzoil and eventually closed it doors after the '99 season. The team never seemed to be the same after Johnny Benson was lured away to Ford and Roush racing in 1998. Bill Davis's team brought on Caterpillar as a sponsor for Ward Burton's Pontiacs in 1999 and things began looking up again for that team. This was the same year that I finally let go of my nine-year-old Bonneville for a Grand Prix GTP (I just couldn't resist that supercharger that puts out 240 horsepower). I immediately dubbed it the Cat Pontiac in honor of Ward Burton's team (and my initials at the time just happened to be "C.A.T" too). Unfortunately Davis' team showed continued to show limited success, even with the new sponsor, and Ward did not see the winners' circle again until 2000. So during this time, Joe Gibbs Racing was the only Pontiac team to carry the Pontiac banner to victory lane repeatedly, and finally in 2000 their efforts were rewards when Gibbs' won his first Winston Cup Championship with driver, Bobby Labonte.

With the reentry of Dodge into NASCAR in 2001, Richard Petty and Bill Davis were lured away from Pontiac, taking away two famous, if not overwhelmingly successful Pontiac teams. One ray of sunshine during these years was that Johnny Benson had escaped from the dreaded blue oval, and landed back with a fledgling Pontiac team owned by Tim Beverly in 2000. And damned if Johnny didn't almost win the 2000 Daytona 500 in his first race with that team. You never heard such cheering for an underdog as my friends and I cheered that day. Oh well, it wasn't meant to be, but Johnny's team did manage to attract the attention of MB2 Motorsports who, in conjuction with the Valvoline company bought Beverly's team and created a two-car team with Ken Schrader's M&Ms Pontiac in 2001. I couldn't believe it! Things had come full circle for me. Here was one of my favorite drivers, back in a Valvoline Pontiac, just as Neil Bonnett had been in 1988. It seemed like Valvoline had full confidence in the Pontiac brand and that the two drivers might be the start of the second successful multi-car team for Pontiac.

I'm almost done with the history lessons and I appreciate those of you who have stayed with me this far. So along the way in my tenure as a NASCAR fan, it became quite obvious that those of us who were brand loyal to the Pontiac were destined to be a long-suffering bunch. I'm not complaining, as I've noted, I've opened my mind a lot and actually list drivers in every made of car as those among my favorites: Chevys, Fords and Dodges. But Pontiac always remained the one car brand that was different, on the street and on the race track, and maintained that special place in my heart. In 2002, Tony Stewart brought Joe Gibbs and Pontiac their second Winston Cup Championship in three years. Also, after several second place finishes over two seasons, my longtime favorite, Johnny Benson, finally scored a win with the Valvoline Pontiac at the fall Rockingham race. It figures the one race I miss at Rockingham in five years and Johnny finally wins. Life just ain't fair...Before the end of the 2002 season, Joe Gibbs made a startling announcement - he would be leaving Pontiac and returning to the Bowtie Brigade of Chevrolet for the next season. He claimed there were not enough "top" teams running Pontiacs to help him with testing and share technology. Obviously, he didn't consider the MB2 Motorsports Team to be a "top" team.

Well, maybe old Coach Gibbs had some visions of the future, but whatever it was, this left the Pontiac teams again floundering, with only one two-car team and a few less-funded single-car operations running Pontiacs in 2003. I mean, what did Pontiac expect? They weren't able to persuade any "big" teams to switch to Pontiacs, but then maybe they didn't really try. Maybe they already knew they were looking to market the Pontiac to those "upscale aspirational types." Maybe GM was already planning on putting all of their eggs in one basket and campaigning only the Chevy Monte Carlo on the NASCAR circuit. Maybe they felt they had to do that with the expected entrance of the foreign car makers into Winston Cup in a few years. I really don't know what the motivation was behind the decline of Pontiac Racing. It didn't seem to matter that Ricky Craven had scored one of the most exciting wins in recent history in his Tide Pontiac at Darlington in March. It seems like the Pontiacs were getting even less factory support than some of the fringe Dodge teams were getting. I suppose the long-suffering fans should have seen the writing on the wall when Joe Gibbs jumped ship last season. Whatever...the end is obviously coming for the Pontiac fans in NASCAR. As to the aspirations of the Pontiac division to target their sales to those 18-24 year-old-males. I wish them good luck. Pontiac will find the generation-X group are a flighty and fickle bunch. Those of us in the over-40 group tend to be a lot more brand loyal. As for me, I guess I'll be keeping that '99 GTP a lot longer than I intended as there's now nothing in the Pontiac line that really appeals to me anymore.

I want to say thanks to the Pontiac racing teams who have provided me with a lot of entertainment over the last 15 years. It's always more fun rooting for the underdog anyway (even when they acquire horrible nicknames names like "poncho" or "tin indians"). But I guess with the advent of the common templates in NASCAR and the inevitable entry of foreign cars in the future, brand loyalty, just like the "stock" part of 'stock car racing' is a thing of the distant past. So thanks to Rusty for giving me my first Pontiac championship to enjoy in 1989. Thanks to him for all those wins between 1988 and 1993. And thanks to Bobby and Ward and Johnny and Kyle and all of the others for keeping the dream alive for the Pontiac fans since then! But just remember that arrowhead on the nose of the car will always stand for Victory! At least in this Pontiac fan's eyes...

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