Maybe GM Could Try Something Different

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Today holds the potential to be one of the biggest days in Randy Bernard’s young career as CEO of the IZOD IndyCar Series. At a press conference at 10:00 this morning at the IMS Museum, General Motors is expected to announce their return to the series in 2012 after a six-year absence. It is assumed that it will be as an engine manufacturer, but it could be as a builder as one of the aero-kits – or both. Most think it will be as an engine manufacturer.

It is also roundly accepted that whatever engine they bring – whether it is of their own design or from an established engine builder like Ilmor or Cosworth – will be badged as a Chevrolet.

Some might think I’ve lost my mind, but hear me out. I would like to see something different. As most know, I’m usually a die-hard traditionalist. The Chevy engine has been in and out of Indy car racing for decades. The Chevrolet name became synonymous with success at Indianapolis when Roger Penske, along with Ilmor Engineering, brought the Chevy Indy V-8 to the Speedway in 1986. It was lighter than the established Cosworth 2.65 –liter V-8 and had better acceleration out of the corners. By 1987, it was winning the CART championship. By 1988, it was winning the Indianapolis 500. It quickly became the most coveted powerplant in the paddock.

The Chevy name goes much further back than the mid-eighties, however. Several stock block versions appeared in the early eighties. Jerry Karl drove a Smokey Yunick Eagle in 1973 that was powered by a Chevrolet. The infamous Mickey Thompson “Skate” had a Chevy under the cowling in 1963, before switching to Ford’s the following year.

Chevrolet ruled CART from 1987 until 1993, when Nigel Mansell replaced the bow tie with the blue oval in the CART championship. Afterwards, Chevy withdrew from the PPG-Indy Car World Series and the Ilmor engine went nameless in 1994 until they re-badged their conventional racing engine as a Mercedes in 1995, following on the heels of the phenomenally powerful pushrod Ilmor-Mercedes that was developed in total secrecy by Roger Penske exclusively for the 1994 Indianapolis 500.

Although the Chevy name didn’t return to open-wheel racing until 2002, GM was very visible, as Oldsmobile quickly became the dominant manufacturer in the new Indy Racing League. It’s a good thing those Olds Aurora engines only had to compete with the under-powered Infiniti engines in those days, because reliability was a joke. It was a legitimate concern if any engines would still be running at the end of the 1997 Indianapolis 500. Surprisingly, there were still thirteen cars running at the end – although it’s worth noting that one car was twenty-seven laps behind the leader while another was down thirty-seven laps at the end.

When GM announced the end of the Oldsmobile line by the end of the 2001 model year, it was obvious that they needed to re-badge the Olds engine. The Chevy name returned in a big way by winning the 2002 Indy 500 and the IRL championship. Their glory was short lived, however. Honda and Toyota moved their powerful programs over from CART in 2003. Toyota won Indy and the championship that year. Honda took control in 2004 and never looked back. Chevy and Toyota were both driven to insignificance and obscurity and both left the series following the 2005 season.

It looks like General Motors will be back in 2012. While many expect their new engine to carry the Chevrolet moniker – I think it’s time GM did something different. While tradition says that Chevrolet is the traditional racing arm of GM with their iconic Corvette and Camaro brands, I think that General Motors is starting to carve out a high performance niche with the wreath and crest. Yes – I mean Cadillac.

If you’ve watched any football this fall, you’ve seen the eye-catching commercials of the Cadillac CTS-V racing around the famed Nürburgring. It’s a pretty impressive ad as GM tries to position Cadillac as a full-blown competitor to Mercedes-Benz and BMW. They also have a catchy new slogan that claims that Cadillac is “The new standard of the world”.

Growing up as I did in the sixties, the Cadillac brand was still riding the wave of its reputation as the ultimate luxury car since the 1930’s. In the late sixties and early seventies, luxury cars weren’t judged by their performance or handling. How well the car would ride, was the only way to judge these boats. It didn’t matter if the body pitched from side to side just by taking a moderate curve at a normal speed. So long as it would glide across railroad tracks without disturbing the occupants, that’s all that really mattered.

That all started to change in the mid-to-late seventies. Cars became smaller and more agile. A newer generation didn’t car about a smooth ride. That was for our parents. We wanted performance and handling. General Motors was slow to the table and Cadillac lagged behind the rest of GM. While BMW, Mercedes and other foreign manufacturers were satisfying the tastes of yuppies that were suddenly flush with cash, Cadillac was still relying on a graying loyalty to the Fleetwood Brougham, the Coupe Deville and the laughingly forgettable Cimarron.

Then there was the embarrassing Allanté, Cadillac’s feeble attempt to enter the luxury sports car market. The problem was, it was front-wheel drive with an automatic transmission and was roundly panned by true sports car enthusiasts. The Allanté was as close as Cadillac has gotten to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway within the past thirty years. The Allanté was the pace car for the 1992 Indianapolis 500. I drove an Allanté a few times in the early nineties. It did have plenty of power, but the FWD and automatic transmission made it drive more like a small SUV instead of a sports car.

For most of the eighties and nineties, Cadillac sold a lot of underwhelming cars that were essentially dressed up cookie-cutter versions of Chevy’s and Buick’s. But somewhere along the way, they began on a quest to set themselves apart from their GM counterparts. For the last ten years or so, Cadillac has finally realized that their loyal buyers literally began dying off long ago. If they were going to avoid the same fate of their previous clientele, they were going to have to get serious about their product. They did.

Cadillac is finally taken seriously as a competitor to the likes of BMW and Mercedes. They still have a ways to go before they will be fully accepted within this high-priced niche market. Getting involved as a manufacturer in the IZOD IndyCar Series would be a great start.

Cadillac is a much better match to the demographic that IZOD appeals to than Chevrolet. Chevy is better suited for the NASCAR crowd. IndyCar is about innovation and performance, which is the message that Cadillac is now trying to get across. Chevy appeals more to blue collar America, which is NASCAR’s core demographic.

Will Cadillac be the announcement this morning? No. It will be Chevrolet. But that’s OK. They have been a semi-constant name in Indy car racing for quite a while, and we surely welcome them back. Having a second engine manufacturer in the fold is a huge step for the IZOD IndyCar Series. But I think that GM is missing a golden opportunity to do something different and capitalize on an untapped market.

George Phillips

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18 Responses to “Maybe GM Could Try Something Different”

  1. Cowboy Racer Says:

    What a fantastic thought! I Love it!

  2. I like the idea of brand placement of Cadillac as well, but one of the other rumors that broke with the Chevy to Indy one was that Cadillac would be returning to a GT program in one of the sportscar series. Not sure Cadillac would do both.

    I think a “Young, Smart, Trendy and Upscale” positioning is always where I thought the series should go as far as positioning itself and the brands that were involved. In the past, that might have meant the presence of the Pontiac name plate, but with the consolidation, that is no more.

    I have commented at times at my site in the past that the league doesn’t need to worry about having the biggest audience, but rather one that skews demographically (young affluent male and tech savvy) and is more desireable to an upscale sponsor looking to target their advertising spend. And I think that until 9 months ago that was the leagues vision as well.

    But now I can sort of hear Randy Bernard saying with a smile that we need to think bigger, why can’t we be the biggest series in the country and on the planet? To desire anything less is a defeatest attitude that settles for a lesser dream. That’s the difference between Angstat and Bernard. There’s a new sherrif in town indeed.

  3. On Cavin’s radio show last night, Bernard refused to say Chevrolet, and said he had never used that name and instead used some more generic term like “major domestic automobile manufacturer” or something.

    Also, since Ilmor is onboard with GM and Penske (apparently) who does Honda go to for their engine? And who else besides the Captain gets a Chevy…uh, Caddy…uh, whatever– and…okay, okay–I’ll wait until 10:00.

  4. Your idea is very good, George. Cadillac having a LMP programme would be similarly interesting. Chevrolet is about the Corvette and Camaro, which are road sports cars. But either badge is great for IndyCar!

  5. billytheskink Says:

    What about GMC?

    Really, though, I think Pontiac would have been a nice fit had GM not been goaded into killing the brand. Prior to its death, Pontiac was becoming a performance-oriented, youth-focused, all-sedan brand again. While Grand-Am and (especially) NHRA Pro-Stock were good racing properties for the brand, IndyCar and the 500 would have provided a stage not seen since the loss of the Grand Prix stock car program in 2003.
    Water under the bridge, though.

    I’d kinda like to see Buick for old time’s sake, Cadillac always makes me think of the prototype sports car program GM ditched too soon.
    Whatever it is, it’s good for the series. Unless Mazda or Ford enters the fray, I won’t be rooting for a brand anyways.

  6. Cadillac makes sense. They’re trying to push Cadillac, and other than some SCCA stuff, they’ve got nowhere, unless they do DTM.

  7. George,

    I disagree about Cadillac being the choice for GM in Indycar. If Cadillac wants to be “the standard of the world” then they will need to compete against Mercedes and BMW on an equal stage, which would mean going back to sports cars, or if GM has enough money competing in F1. Also, Cadillac is GM’s luxury brand and they would be competing against Honda’s mass-market brand. This makes it harder for GM to position Cadillac as world-class luxury when they are competing with mass-market brands like Honda on the track. If Honda wins, they beat Cadillac and if Cadillac wins, well, they just beat the maker of Civics in the minds of consumers.

    However, I really wish that Buick had been chosen instead of Chevrolet. Buick is trying, with the new Regal, to be a younger, more technically savvy brand and that would fit with the IZOD Indycar Series. As they try to launch their new brand image, competing in Indycars would be a compelling platform for their new message. Buick would also be able to showcase their racing heritage from the Indy 500 as they rebuild their performance image.

    • Dang! I did a whole bunch of thinking about this this morning, and thought I’d come over here and get all deep about Buick re-launching itself in a younger demographic in the US with an IndyCar program, only to find that RandyinTN wrote just about 100% of what I wanted to say, and nearly verbatim. I, too, think that the smart play might have been Chevy = NASCAR, Caddy = sportscars (World Challenge, and hopefully an ALMS/Le Mans effort when GM wises up to the fact that “Standard of the World” means beating the best in the world), and Buick = IndyCar. Oh, well. I’m more than happy to have Chevy back on board.

  8. “By 1987, it was winning the CART championship”

    George, a point of correction: Bobby Rahal took the 1987 CART championship with a Cosworth under the cowl of his Lola. However, in 1988 Chevrolet-Illmor powered Penskes took the Indy 500 and the CART championship.

    And as for the Chevrolet name going much further back at Indianapolis, how about Louis running in the Indianapolis 500 four times as a driver, and his brother Gaston winning the race in 1920? With the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 coming next year, there’s a ton of ad copy right there.

    Whatever happens, hopefully GM entering the IRL will bring traditional crosstown rivals Ford back into the fray as well.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      Oops! You are correct. That’s what I get for relying on my feeble memory and not looking things up. For whatever reason, I was thinking Rick Mears won the championship in 1987, but of course I knew that Bobby Rahal won his second consecutive championship that year. My apologies and thanks for bringing it up. Brain fade on my part. – GP

  9. After watching the presentation and reading GM’s press release, I wonder if Peter DeLorenzo is correct about a domestic manufacturer leaving NASCAR and racing elsewhere. NASCAR is losing market share and while there are some fans who care about the competing cars, the COT has really made NASCAR more about the drivers than the cars. Given that NASCAR is getting more expensive to compete in, but with less return on investment for the manufacturers, it is easy to see why some would want to leave.

    With a return to Indycar, Chevrolet can showcase their advanced technologies and attract fans of more sophisticated vehicles. The Indycar engine will use direct injection, turbocharging and ethanol fuel, all areas that GM is interested in promoting for their street cars. As Indycar is probably cheaper than NASCAR, and allows GM to showcase their advanced technology, I can see why they would prefer to compete here than in NASCAR.

    If you want to read the press release about GM, I found it at http://auto-racing.speedtv.com/article/indycar-general-motors-returns/

  10. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    While I agree that Cadillac has come light years with the performance end of their product line, it is nice to see Ilmor, er, I mean Chevrolet back again…. It’s nice to see more than one engine supplier period. It’s too bad we can’t simply skip the 2011 season and fast forward to March of 2012….

  11. This is very good news–and the aero kit was a bonus. I didn’t see that coming. Guess I’d better look in the attic for my Chevy Racing t-shirt.

    Wonder what Honda will do?

  12. I like the idea of Cadillac, although I think Chevy is the better choice right now based on the history and the current competition in Honda. If Honda was using the Acura brand, or if Audi or BMW jumped into IndyCar competition for 2012, then I would think GM might want to re-brand their IndyCar effort to Cadillac. On the other hand, that could just be confusing now that they’ve rolled the dice with Chevy.

    Regardless, I’m excited about today’s news!

  13. Have they made the announcement yet? I hope it is Chevrolet.

  14. Well… whether it’s under the moniker “Chevy (Chevrolet)”, “Cadillac”, “Ilmor”, or whatever doesn’t matter to me. It’s “GM” returning.

    —-

    That said: I know I should be happy – overjoyed, even – that a major manufacturer is returing to Indycar. Problem is that, to me, it feels like a “parent” (Chevy/GM) who abandoned the spouse/child (Indycar racing) a few years ago just walked back in the door, and now everything’s supposed to be all hunky-dory now. The problem is that I feel resentful that they left in the first place. Intellectually, I know that the whole problem was the split and the loss of revenue and fan support for open wheel racing, but at the same time, Honda – a manufacturer with less history than the storied Chevrolet – stuck with the IRL through the hard times. I’m a bit surprised that I have mixed feelings about this, but I do. What’s to stop Chevy from pulling itself out if the series is otherwise doing okay, but it’s not meeting Chevy’s internal goals financially? I actually have that fear that, because they left once, they can leave again right when the series would need their presence.

    Anyway, I know that’s sort of raining on the parade, but still…. my feelings are mixed. And that’s just being honest about things.

  15. I think this was a done deal as soon as Penske learned that Honda was going to develop their own V6 for 2012. Anyway, it is good to see that bailout money going toward racing.

  16. Personally I don’t believe that Caddy would have been a good selection. Some of the caddy line is actually performance based and using a badged engine isn’t a good way to promote that.

    If they want to show off the thoroughbreds they make, they need to display them in their actual form, not by putting a badge on someone else’s unrelated product.

    A single DTM factory team could cost less than an Ilmore badge and provide better promotional results… especially if they use ties to Indycar to get a DTM or two rolling on the track before the start of the 500.

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