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Feature Writing
Third Place
Seth Livingstone, NASCAR.com

Fans Speak Out About Dodge Departure

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Dodge's impending departure from NASCAR racing is a punch to the gut for Mike Learn.

Learn, 61, owns Learn Motor Company, the Dodge dealership in downtown Watkins Glen.

It's no slick megastore. It's a throwback – a family operation that his father founded in 1953. Defunct brand or not, a Plymouth sign still graces the showroom façade above the sidewalk.

"They (Dodge) want me to take it down, but I won't," said Learn, whose family, in the early days of racing at Watkins Glen, rented out the Mopar garage to Formula 1 teams during race week. Learn recalls once trekking to the airport to pick up a replacement engine for the Smothers Brothers race team, the year Tom and Dick rented out his shop.

"We're a NASCAR town, and having Dodge pull out, to me, is the worst thing that can happen," said Learn, who got the news Thursday via a Dodge communiqué on the Internet. "You've got your Fords, your GMs, your Toyotas and, now, we have no presence. It's going to hurt."

The pain won't be restricted to his wallet. It will also be felt in his heart.

Learn remembers the day Dodge driver Rusty Wallace signed a go-kart he raffled off to benefit the Rotary Club. He remembers meeting Kyle Petty at a downtown breakfast spot.

Learn has never been convinced the old adage, what wins on Sunday sells on Monday, holds true. But he knows it never hurt. "When people see Dodge win, they talk about it," he said.

Although he was happy to see Dodge driver Brad Keselowski signing autographs downtown, Learn was sad that Keselowski had the only show car on display in the downtown area. The high-traffic area takes on a decided NASCAR flavor during race week with collectible and apparel dealers lining Franklin St., the main drag through town.

"Having NASCAR in town actually hurt me during the week because locals don't come into downtown," said Learn, who sells about 250 Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep units a year. "But if the restaurants and hotels and other people in town make money, I see it later. So, it's important to me to have NASCAR here and having Dodge be one of the cars up there [at the track."

Learn isn't the only common man feeling the sting of this week's announcement.

"I'm not happy with it," said Bob Ike of Interlaken, N.Y., a lifelong Mopar fan with a Plymouth Superbird on his Petty tribute T-shirt. "They got back into it in 2001 and had a pretty good program going. I'm really unhappy to see them pull out."

Jim Barker of Cameron Mills, N.Y. planned to turn his dissatisfaction into action.

"I told my wife, there's a good chance I might even switch away from buying a Dodge because they're not racing," said Barker, whose first Dodge was a 1970 Challenger. "I'm not sure who I'm going to root for. I'll probably go over to Ford."

His wife, Shelley Barker, a fan of Dodge drivers from Ryan Newman to Kurt Busch to Keselowski seemed hurt and mystified.

"It stinks," she said. "Why would they [leave NASCAR]? [The sport] brings in Toyotas that shouldn't even be in there."

Despite Fiat's ownership interest in the new Chrysler Corp., Shelley Barker was not alone in expressing that sentiment.

"We've got Toyota coming in here and an American make going out. I don't like the sound of that at all," says Jim Talbert of North Beach, Md. "That's not the roots of NASCAR. We like Brad. We always pulled for Rusty. We love the Chargers out here."

Even as Sam Hornish Jr. was putting a Penske Dodge on the pole for Saturday's Zippo 200 Nationwide race, fans at Keselowski's trailer pondered collectibles of a vanishing breed.

"I'm not at all happy," said Frank Klaskov of Lackawanna, N.Y., whose brother coddles a '68 Dodge Dart GTS convertible. "We waited so long for Dodge to get back in and, now, they're pulling out again. I think Penske's wrong. He's got a good driver in the Blue Deuce. I hope (Keselowski) wins the championship this year and I hope [Penske] will be sorry he ever leaves Dodge."

Mark Reece, 19, of Franfort, N.Y. heard the news for first time on Saturday.

"It's a heartbreaker, that's what it is," said Reece, who owns a '73 Charger and whose father drives a Ram pickup. "They make good vehicles. I think they should stay in it."