It’s unconfirmed, but bounce this bit of garage talk off Chad Little and you can almost hear his grin breaking out over the phone.
Rumor: Little will trade in his racing Fords for Pontiacs next season.
“I’ve heard that one, too,” Little said Thursday from his home in Charlotte, N.C., before he and the Mark Rypien Motorsports team left for Sunday’s Busch Grand National race in Milwaukee. “I can’t say we’re headed to Pontiac. I can say I’ve heard that we are.”
He says he can’t confirm it, but he won’t deny it.
Little grew up driving and racing Fords in Spokane. Fords carried him down a long apprenticeship from local to national driving prominence.
His four 1995 wins in a Thunderbird have kept the Ford name up front in a year of the Chevy.
Little campaigns in the Busch Series for Grand National cars - and Chevy dominance is at the next level, in Winston Cup - but clearly Little is one of Ford’s promising assets.
Yet talk is this: Pontiac, a poor third behind Chevy and Ford, has a body with aerodynamics to match the superior Chevy. The timing might be right to jump into a Pontiac while Pontiac is building excitement.
The red-hot Little is said to be sitting on an impressive offer to jump for ‘96.
If Little does dump Ford, it won’t be the only change in the 32-year-old driver’s career.
After 3 1/2 years in a leased garage in Charlotte, he and the Rypien team will move into their own space in a business park 10 miles north of Charlotte, where Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd, among others, park their equipment.
This is the fruit of Little’s breakthrough season. Wins at Daytona, Rockingham, Loudon, N.H., and Charlotte have retooled his image from journeyman to charger.
When he’s not winning, he’s usually contending, as he was Sunday at Watkins Glen, N.Y., when he chased Terry Labonte to the checkered flag in the 400th race in the history of the Busch series and the first Busch race to go on a major commercial network. CBS covered it.
The Grand National points title is again within reach. Little is in second place, 154 points behind leader Johnny Benson.
“It wouldn’t be the end of my career if we didn’t win it, but it would be wonderful to do it,” Little said. “We can win it if we don’t fall out of any more races.
“We’ve been strong at almost every track. We’ve had three accidents and two motor failures. Sometimes you can’t help that, but it hurts to take yourself out of a race.”
His Winston Cup schedule is brief - he’ll do Talladega at the end of July, Charlotte in October and Phoenix in November - but that’s destined to change.
Pontiac wants a renewed presence in Winston Cup.
Little said he sees potentially 12-15 Winston Cup events on his ‘96 schedule.
“Our performance this year has opened doors for ‘96,” he said. “We’ve literally had to turn away sponsors. We’re now in a position to get top dollar, to hire experienced people and invest in research and development.
“It’s nice. I’m more relaxed than ever. I don’t have to pay bills or do anything but concentrate on making Chad a better driver.”
Does Pontiac figure into the plan to make Chad a better driver?
“Success in racing sometimes swings like a pendulum,” Little said, straddling the question. “Ford and Chevy have had their time on top. It may be Pontiac’s turn.
“You need a major manufacturer’s help to succeed,” he said. “I’ve been with Ford forever, but that type of commitment (to him) hasn’t developed. If you’re outside the loop, you miss out on too much.
“I’d hate to leave Ford, but it’s a business.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo