LOS ANGELES - Ending a week of turmoil over the future of its motorsports department, Nissan North America late last week backed away from a proposal to slash its grass-roots racing budget for the upcoming year.
Deleting the racing budget would have had little effect on Nissan's bottom line - the program costs less than $1 million a year. But it could have harmed Nissan's grass-roots image just when the automaker is trying to pump a performance heritage into its brand.
Long-time manager quits
Frank Honsowetz, Nissan's motorsports manager, resigned March 9 in protest over the proposed cuts. Honsowetz had been a key figure in Nissan motorsports for more than 20 years, managing the department for the last decade.
While Nissan's financial commitment to its professional Indy Racing League effort wasn't questioned, marketing executives had proposed that the company end its funding of amateur Sports Car Club of America racing.
Under the SCCA program, racers who drive Nissans are eligible to receive prize money and money for parts and technical support.
'Our members are the experts on their blocks for anything automotive. They are the guys in the know when any neighbor wants information on buying a new car,' said Dennis Dean, SCCA vice president of business development.
From the 1970s through the early 1990s, Nissan vehicles won many amateur and professional races worldwide. But the subsequent lean financial years have sharply curtailed race spending, including a departure from the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Jack Collins, Nissan North America vice president of marketing and product planning, said club racing had a low perceived return on investment among some dealers and regional reps.
'Some people felt SCCA was valuable to Nissan and should be continued, while others said there might be better ways to utilize our resources,' Collins said. 'But no decision (to cut the budget) had in fact been made.'
An e-mail of warning
Just the same, when the motorsports department caught wind of the potential cuts, Nissan motorsports specialist Ron Johnson sent a warning e-mail to SCCA racers and administrators.
Honsowetz quit shortly after. IRL engine development already had been taken from his Nissan staff in November and given to Tom Walkinshaw Racing in England. The proposed cuts were the last straw.
'I left out of frustration. It's difficult to be in motorsports in the best of times and harder with a limited budget. But this was miserable. I couldn't do it any more,' Honsowetz said.
Nissan's public relations staff, spurred by protests from SCCA members and several inquiries from the media, advised the marketing department to reconsider the proposed cut.
Said Collins: 'I'm not sure which decision would have been made had (Johnson's) announcement not gone out. I can't believe we would cancel this activity after so many years. It's a key part of our heritage.'