Thursday
Aug262010

A Vacuum of NASCAR's Own Creation

The winds of change blowing through Detroit’s high-performance and motorsports programs threaten to leave one dinosaur out in the cold.

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.The announcement this week that Mark Reuss was re-directing and re-imagining GM’s future high-performance mission - and the motorsports efforts associated with it - should come as no surprise to anyone who has been regularly reading this column. Reuss’s background - before becoming GM’s energized North American leader - was engineering, specifically high-performance engineering, and his roots in the performance arena go way back to his youth. And let’s not forget that Mark’s gig before coming back to the U.S. a year ago was running GM’s Holden operation in Australia - a hotbed of performance and rear-wheel-drive chassis development within the corporation - and also an avid corporate supporter of the V8 Supercars.

Upon his return, Reuss’s early assessment of GM Racing’s direction was that it was in need of an overhaul, in philosophy and execution. Yes, the Corvette Racing program was eminently successful, and what was being developed on the race track was finding its way directly into the production Corvette that consumers could buy, so that clearly wasn’t the problem. As a matter of fact, the Corvette Racing program is a testament as to how a manufacturer should go about running a proper racing enterprise, with a direct technological conduit to the production car program resulting in a better street car by every conceivable measure, including performance, overall efficiency and owner satisfaction.

The problem, in Reuss’s estimation, was the raging disconnect between what was happening in NASCAR - with its “CoT” clearly existing in a vacuum of NASCAR’s own creation - and the production cars GM was bringing to market in the next five years. Despite GM Racing’s success in NASCAR with Hendrick Motorsports, there wasn’t even a shred of relevance to be found in anything NASCAR was doing, and going forward that had to change, especially given GM’s burgeoning small and mid-size car portfolio. Reuss wasn’t alone in his assessment either. A new regime at Ford led by global marketing chief Jim Farley and Jamie Allison - the Director of Ford Racing - was coming to the same conclusion on their own (and both corporate entities have not been shy in expressing their “concerns” to the powers that be in Daytona Beach, either).

What does it all mean? As was clearly indicated by this latest realignment of its high-performance marketing and motorsports group, Reuss has let it be known that 1. high-performance and motorsports - and the marketing of it - will be a part of GM’s core product strategy well into the future, and 2. GM’s small and mid-size cars will be direct participants in that core strategy. Reuss has appointed Jim Campbell - a longtime GM marketing veteran with experience in high-performance and racing programs - to be vice president of GM’s performance vehicles and motorsports. It will be Campbell’s charge to make sure GM’s performance vehicle programs are firing on all cylinders.

Both GM and Ford executives have made it very clear in myriad public statements that racing must be about the direct transferral of technology, especially when it comes to overall operating efficiency and the use of alternative fuels and propulsion systems.

It will be interesting to see GM and Ford joust in the market with their new products and also to see the high-performance efforts associated with them. Clearly one racing organization - the American Le Mans Series - is way down the road in terms of emphasizing overall operating efficiency and the use of alternative fuels, and I expect it to benefit directly from this new direction. But you can also expect some unexpectedly creative - and pleasant - surprises too, as both manufacturers investigate new ideas to showcase their high-performance wares.

The question is, just how much longer can NASCAR go about its business locked in a permanent haze of denial and irrelevance, acting like the dinosaur that didn’t get the “imminent destruction” memo way back when? How much longer can NASCAR withstand the declining in-person attendance, the plummeting TV ratings and the general apathy growing among what once was its hard-core fans? Juggling the schedule here and there and calling it good is not going to cut it with these new regimes at GM and Ford, I can assure you.

These manufacturers expect to be met more than half-way at this point, and if that doesn’t happen, there will be new opportunities and horizons to explore.

And given NASCAR’s now-legendary adverse reaction to anything “not invented here” and their idea of being “responsive” - meaning such a glacial pace of change that it’s all but imperceptible -  there’s a very real chance they could be be left out in the cold.

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