Maybe GM Could Try Something Different
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.