Rick Kelly says he's been surprised by the positive reaction from fans to his 2020 Ford switch, having feared a backlash after years of competing against the Blue Oval.
The Kelly Racing squad is undergoing a major overhaul ahead of the 2020 Supercars season, the team scaling down from four to two cars, as well as moving from Nissan Altimas to Ford Mustangs.
A significant side effect of the move is that Kelly will race a Ford for the first time in a Supercars career that spans almost two decades.
The 36-year-old has long been rival of the Blue Oval, stretching back to his time in the Holden factory-backed K-Mart Racing/HSV Dealer Team set-up.
Kelly and brother Todd, a former Holden Racing Team driver, continued with Holden into the early Kelly Racing era, before becoming the factory Nissan team for the 2013 season.
The younger Kelly's stint as one of Holden's top drivers included a controversial showdown with then-Ford hero Craig Lowndes for the 2006 title, Kelly taking the crown after nudging Lowndes into a spin early in the final race at Phillip Island.
The reaction from Ford fans wasn't pretty, the Island thriller cementing Kelly as one of the primary villains in the red corner.
While it all unfolded well over a decade ago, Kelly admits his history with Blue Oval fans left him unsure how they would react to the news of KR's Ford switch for 2020.
However he's been surprised at how positive the reaction has been, Kelly receiving a warm welcome during the Supercars finale in Newcastle late last month.
"Personally, that's been a massive thing," he said of the Ford switch.
"Obviously I have driven for two other manufacturers, and the first one I drove with was the big enemy, you know. So that was a concern for me when we first announced it, what everyone else’s reaction would be to it.
"For me, it was an interesting day walking into the Ford office for the first meeting and seeing the logo on the wall and wondering what it would turn into. But I’ve got an old pickup in the truck that’s a Ford, and Ford’s been a part of my heritage in Mildura to some extent anyway. One of Dad’s best workers that we grew up with is a mad Ford fan, so he’s probably the one that was most excited about this shift.
"There’s always been that rivalry, so I've been really pleasantly surprised by the reaction, of not only Ford to welcome us into their family, but the Ford fanbase. That was the concern what would be the backlash there, and everyone’s really welcomed us in.
"Even on the driver’s parade [in Newcastle], and the amount of people that come up in the signing sessions in their Ford gear and welcomed us has been a real surprise.
"That's something that we’re excited about, getting out and representing both the brand and the fanbase behind it."
Kelly added that he won't be going into the 2020 season expected a "free kick" from the Ford Mustang package.
While dominant for a large part of this year, both the Mustang and the Holden Commodore have had their aero packages re-homologated for 2020, which Supercars is hoping will provide a reset on downforce figures.
With that in mind, Kelly isn't expecting the Mustang to be an express pass to the front of the field.
"I’m really excited, but there’s no doubt that things will change a little next year," he said/. "[The Ford teams] came out of the box this year absolutely on fire, [but] there’s obviously the re-homologation."
"We’re not thinking that we’re just going to go out there and it’ll just throw us straight to the front. There’s a lot of work to do for us to get to that point, and from a driver's point of view, the engine, the car, the way we build, all that stuff is going to have a huge influence.
"There’s no free kick in this game. We’re excited about it, but we also see the challenge in front of us and doing the best job in all those key areas to come out strong."
Rick Kelly, Todd Kelly and Kay Hart
Gen3 won't "dumb down" Supercars tech regs
Holden dumps Commodore from line-up