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From track to showroom: How the industry uses auto racing

Published November 12, 2012

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. That’s the traditional axiom that has been used to explain (and justify) the presence of car manufacturers in motor racing through the decades.

Winning races, especially in forms of motorsport where race cars bore at least a passing resemblance to the road-going variants sold on showroom floors, was thought to have a positive impact on the business of the winning brand — a Chevy wins the big race on Sunday for example and, lo and behold, business at Chevy dealerships picks up on Monday as a result.

This notion might have had some traction in the bygone days of NASCAR in the 1960s and ’70s, when the cars being raced by legendary drivers such as Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough at places like the Daytona International Speedway were closely related to the road cars on which they were based.

But the race cars have evolved further and further away from their production-based roots in ensuing decades and, now, purpose-built race cars powered by custom-built engines dominate the top-level Sprint Cup Series.

To be blunt, there isn’t much “stock” left in stock car racing, although the name remains stuck to NASCAR.

For the manufacturers involved in NASCAR these days — Ford, GM, Toyota and Chrysler (slated to leave the sport at the end of this season) — it’s about creating greater brand awareness and forging a strong brand identity. It’s about marketing, in other words.

Although television ratings and track attendance have experienced a bit of a decline in recent years, NASCAR is still the most popular form of motorsports in North America, and its fan base is comprised of a demographic automakers are keen to reach: males aged 18-49. The manufacturers insist the money spent on NASCAR is worth it, since it still drives traffic to their showrooms and helps sell cars.

So although the race cars may not resemble the cars on showroom floors, both in terms of appearance and shared technology — the 2013 Sprint Cup cars are designed to address the appearance gap — the size of NASCAR’s audience justifies the 10s of millions of dollars being spent each year on racing sponsorships by the manufacturers.

Although the link between racing and the assembly line isn’t as strong in NASCAR as it once was, that’s not true for other forms of racing.

In the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), one of North America’s top sports car racing leagues (which races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park north of Bowmanville), the close relationship between motorsports programs and production cars is one of its hallmarks.

Aston Martin, BMW, Chrysler (via Viper), Ferrari, GM (via Corvette), Jaguar, Lotus and Porsche have all used the series as a platform to showcase the technology of its road cars.

For Corvette Racing, GM’s factory road racing outfit in ALMS, it has enabled the race car and the road car to share a very close relationship.

Because it competes in the Grand Touring (GT) class of ALMS, Corvette Racing is mandated by rule to use many production-based components on the C6.R race cars, which come directly from showroom-spec Corvettes, the ZR1 and Z06.

The C6.R is powered by 5.5 litre V8, which is designed and built by GM and based on the production 7.0 litre V8 found in the Z06. It also features the same aluminum frame, chassis structure and components, such as body design, aerodynamic package and windshield. It even uses the same production rack and pinion steering unit found in the ZR1.

The close relationship between production and racing has paid off nicely for Corvette Racing and GM: 77 class wins, eight drivers championships, nine manufacturer/team championships in ALMS (the most by any one team in series history) and seven class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Those wins on the track have also paid off handsomely in GM showrooms.

“Corvette sales tracked directly to customer leads at ALMS races have doubled since 2005,” says John Fitzpatrick, marketing manager for Chevrolet Performance Cars, in a statement on the Corvette Racing website.

“This proves what we have heard anecdotally from other Corvette owners: Watching production-based Corvettes race against legendary marques like BMW, Porsche and Ferrari, on legendary tracks like Sebring and Le Mans, makes Corvette all the more desirable.”

ALMS isn’t the only series that has helped manufacturers showcase street-relevant technology.

The IZOD IndyCar Series, North America’s top open-wheel racing series, which includes the Honda Indy Toronto on its calendar, welcomed the return of manufacturer competition to its engine supply ranks in 2012. GM (via Chevrolet) and Lotus joined long-time supplier Honda in providing engines for the series.

Recognizing a shift toward smaller, more fuel-efficient engines had already begun to take place in the automotive marketplace, IndyCar elected to revise its engine formula from a naturally aspirated V8 to a turbocharged V6. The formula allowed manufacturers to utilize technologies in their racing programs that they are also using in their production cars, including smaller displacement (all engines are 2.2 litres), turbocharging and direct injection.

Although it appears that Lotus is going to leave IndyCar after just one season in order to focus on its other motorsports programs (namely Formula One), Chevrolet and Honda appear to be in it for the long haul.

A fierce battle between the two marques in 2012 delivered drivers’ (Ryan Hunter-Reay) and manufacturers’ titles to Chevrolet (11 wins in 15 races), but Honda won the biggest race, with Dario Franchitti capturing the Indianapolis 500 for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

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