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Tasca, buoyed by Detroit success, wants to keep momentum rolling

For Bob Tasca III, finishing seventh in the 2011 NHRA Funny Car Countdown was about as acceptable as being forced to drive a Chevrolet rental car.

The Motorcraft / QuickLane Shelby Ford Mustang owner-driver is a Ford dealer in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and a prominent voice in the iconic automaker's global design and strategy processes.

And as he prepares for a second round of preseason testing at West Palm Beach, Fla., this coming week, Tasca's redoubled efforts at the racetrack got a major shot of confidence from his and Ford's successes a few days ago at Detroit's North American International Auto Show.

To understand the intensity with which Tasca promotes Ford and its products, it's imperative to know just how much time, intellect, and emotion he pours into the company.

"My family has been very involved with Ford, not just at a dealership level, at the highest levels of the company," Tasca said. "And we sit on a committee that my grandfather sat on back in the '60s. It's called the DPAC: Dealer Product Advisory Committee. It's a very, very elite group of dealers throughout the country. There's about 10 or so dealers that make up the board, and I've sat on it for over 10 years.

"We give Ford a lot of feedback," he said. "The process is amazing. They don't show us stuff and say, 'Here, do you like it?' They show us stuff and say, 'OK, what do you think we should do?' Our feedback is directly put into the product. I know they [Ford executives] feel we've played an extremely vital role in the revitalization of Ford and their product. What an incredible company to be a part of.

"Ford is, I think, very different than a lot of companies," Tasca said. "You can't find a 'Mr. GM,' but you can find plenty of 'Mr. Fords.' They're involved in the company. It's a multimillion-dollar public company, but it's very family-oriented. The executives are really dear friends, and the Ford family is as close as you can get to being a family and not be a family, certainly a high level of respect from both sides."

The painstaking process his committee goes through is one reason why that's so.

"We spend years working on products, and it's very interesting what they take the dealers through on this committee," he said. "We'll go out five or seven, eight-plus in the cycle plan. They really show us everything. They have the ultimate trust in us. What we know would be worth an awful lot to the competition, so the respect level and the confidentiality level is the highest level.

"We see cycle plans. We talk about new-product strategies. We talk about design, with tremendous input in design. It's unbelievable, the evolution of a car. People don't realize how many iterations of design [we go through] -- that we like, we don't like, go in this direction, go in that direction. And then it goes to research groups. Then we get the research data and we're able to evaluate that and offer more suggestions and comments -- and then on options and features and best-in-class fuel economy, best-in-class package size, best-in-class design, design appeal to the creative people, design appeal to the conservatives. It's unbelievable the detail that goes into developing a product," Tasca said. "It kind of becomes your baby. Then you get to show a concept. Then you get to show the real product, and the Detroit Auto Show is really the culmination of showing your product to the world."

So imagine how satisfied -- even vindicated -- he felt this past week when the 2013 Ford Fusion midsize sedan took best-of-show honors and Ford delivered a devilishly delightful slap in the face to Honda and especially Toyota, which smugly had been taunting the Fusion on Detroit billboards.

"They didn't realize what we were about to launch on Monday, and man, did they get egg in their face, Toyota," Tasca said after returning home to Providence, R.I.

"I'm a competitive guy, whether it's at the dealership or in that race car. Competition is really the engine that drives industry," he said. "The automotive industry is as competitive as any NHRA class."

"We announced on Tuesday -- and I'm as excited on this as I am when I drive that race car, because of the time we invest -- we launched the new MKZ Lincoln, the concept Lincoln," Tasca said.

"It's such an exciting time for Lincoln, because what Ford was four years ago on its product revitalization and their plan to get Ford back on track, Lincoln [is] now . . . We've been working on it for the last three or four years. We're starting to see all the hard work come to fruition with the launch of the MKZ concept car. The real car will be launched in the New York Auto Show [April 6-15 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center]," he said. "I can't tell you how many hours and days and meetings and directional decisions we had. It's spectacular."

Tasca is hoping to leave his NHRA Funny Car class competitors just as slack-jawed by the end of the 2012 Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season. If will alone could help him atone for his self-described sub-par performance (one many also-rans would love to boast), he would dominate just like he and his Ford colleagues did at the Detroit auto show.

But he's way too smart to think that would work. Instead, he and his team spent several days at Christmastime in South Florida, testing his Mustang. That, Tasca said, "is probably the biggest change in strategy that I've done in the last couple of years. I went to Palm Beach for four days, made some tremendous runs.

"We actually went 4.06 at 313 miles per hour on the last run. Made a lot of half-track stuff, just trying not to kill all the parts. Made a bunch of '0' runs to half-track, if you would have run the numbers out, then we ran that .06. We really felt good going into the off-season," he said.

He'll take advantage of the opportunity to test again before the season opens Feb. 9-12 with the fabled Winternationals at Pomona, Calif. Tasca will joins several top nitro-class teams at the PRO Winter Warm-up at Palm Beach International Raceway next week. Also expected are the Don Schumacher Racing, John Force Racing, and Kalitta Motorsports contingents, along with Top Fuelers Terry McMillen, Clay Millican, Bob Vandergriff, and Hillary Will and Funny Car racers Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon.

'We've invested an awful lot. A lot of guys are going for two-three-four days. We're going for a week," Tasca said. "We're going to start running on Wednesday and finish on Monday or Tuesday of the following week.

"There's nothing like testing for four days, where you can really evaluate changes," he said. "So I can't emphasize enough this January test session -- this December we just came out of and this January test session -- will be very important. We've got a lot of items on the to-do list, just to keep refining our strategy."

He clearly is determined not to repeat last year's pattern.

"Last year we went to Palm Beach for a week and had fuel gremlins. We had everything that could go wrong in testing and truthfully didn't get sorted out until Pomona and really lost a lot," Tasca said. "When you don't have that opportunity to run hard when you practice, it's hard to do it when you're racing. There's qualifying and a lot of other strategy that plays into a race weekend. So I'm very happy with how we ended December.

"Clearly, we didn't come out of the box strong last year, and that definitely hurt us," he said. "So we invested a lot in that test session in December. We're going to invest a real lot in this test session in January and really come out of the box strong in Pomona."

What happened throughout 2011 still gnaws at him.

"We lost 10 races by under eight inches, lost six races by under four inches, had a lot -- a lot -- of close races not go our way. Our car certainly wasn't too far off from the pace," Tasca said. "It just comes down to fine-tuning and working on the little details.

"We've certainly got everything we need. We've got the resources. We've got a great team. We've just got to put it together and go up there and show 'em what we've got," he said.

"Believe me, the gut-ache, that's what makes winning so sweet," Tasca said. "If you don't go through the heartache and the gut-ache and the struggles, I don't know how you win, truly win, and be a championship-caliber team. Learning from it just makes you dig deeper and work harder and think more.

"Got to a couple of big finals, at Indy and the four-wide at Charlotte but didn't get a trophy," Tasca said of 2011. "So I can assure you we've been digging deep this off-season. Ultimately, what we went through last year should put us in the position this season to be a force to be reckoned with.

"No one out there can guarantee a championship. You've got go out there and give it your all and hope that's enough to put you in a position to run for the championship when the points reset [after the Indianapolis race]," Tasca said. " I've never had more confidence in my guys.

He hasn't changed much with the car or the team, not even the Mustang's paint colors.

"I told the guys, 'Don't even change the motor. We're going with the same engine in it this week as we finished December, just to get that baseline.' We do have a new car that we're going to test next week in Palm Beach, a new chassis," Tasca said.

"Got a lot of experience on our team. I've never been more confident behind the wheel than I was last season and certainly going into this season," he said. "We'll just keep chipping away at it,. This sport's all about momentum, and when you catch the wave at the right time, you can make some noise out there. So hopefully we'll come out of the box strong.

"I'm a pretty experienced person, in business and in racing," Tasca said. "I believe in Chris (crew chief Cunningham), Marc (crew chief Denner), and Tommy (team leader Leskovan), my three key guys. I know where we're at, and I've never been more confident going into a season. So 2012, here we come."

This week, Tasca, who'll miss his first DPAC meeting in Detroit for the first time in a decade because of the test session, has kept his emotions shifting from the Mustang Funny Car to the 2013 Ford Fusion.

That production car really is partly Tasca's baby, and as the father of four young boys (Bob IV, Austin, Cameron, and Dylan) with wife Therase, he takes that role seriously.

"That Fusion has been a product, a car that we've worked on for the last four or five years now. And from the day we saw it, we were blown away by it. It's been one of the most exciting products we've worked on in so long I couldn't wait to show it to the media on Monday," Tasca said. "The feedback was unbelievable. It was just overwhelming. That car will be a home run."

He still likes ditching his suit and tie for his fire suit. So he's hoping his quest for the first NHRA Funny Car championship will be a home run, too.

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