Dodge has decided to drop out of NASCAR racing at the end of this season, making it the only domestic automaker without a presence in America's most popular motorsport, said Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of Chrysler's SRT Motorsports brand.
"We feel the pain," Gilles said, noting that comments on Twitter and other social media outlets have exploded with commentary about Dodge's involvement with NASCAR.
It's particular difficult because Dodge has billed itself as the performance brand within Chrysler.
NASCAR fans are notoriously loyal to the brands of their favorite drivers, and the spending by corporate sponsors makes it a very attractive marketing opportunity for a domestic automaker.
But Dodge's decision was caused by Penske Racing's decision in February to end its 10-year relationship with Dodge and switch to racing the Ford Fusion.
"We are going to keep all options open," Gilles said. "We are (only) talking about the 2013 season."
Karl Brauer, editor in chief of Totalcarscore.com, said Dodge's decision is surprising, but may reflect NASCAR's declining appeal.
Ticket revenue fell by 38 percent in the past five years at its three publicly traded companies, which host 35 of the 38 race weekends, according to a story in July by McClatchy Newspapers. It may also signal Chrysler's intent to spend more money on other motorsports racing leagues, Brauer said.
In April, at the New York Auto Show, Dodge unveiled a new race car version of the Dodge Viper and said it would return to the American Le Mans Series this year. The Dodge Dart also is involved in rally car racing.
"The Viper is a race car. That car should be racing," Brauer said. "Are they going to redirect those funds? That would make absolute sense."
Gilles said that isn't the case. Chrysler recommitted at the beginning of the year to NASCAR, Gilles said, with the understanding that Penske Racing would be its partner. Dodge also unveiled a new Dodge Challenger race car in April that it planned to race in the 2013 NASCAR season.
Gilles said Dodge talked to several interested racing teams, but ultimately was unable to craft a sponsorship that met its expectations.
"We just couldn't put together a puzzle that made sense. ... This decision was not based on budgets," Gilles said. "It's complex to put something together at the level that we would like."
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