It’s been a good week for General Motors, whose stock returned to Wall Street on Thursday via a highly-anticipated initial public offering (IPO). And at the close of business Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Team Chevy was celebrating its 27th NASCAR driver’s championship courtesy of Jimmie Johnson's record-setting fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series title.
Johnson’s successful “Drive for Five” moved him past Hendrick Motorsports teammate/mentor Jeff Gordon into sole possession of third place on the all-time list, two titles behind Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala, Johnson became the first competitor in the seven-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup to overcome a points deficit going into the season finale. Johnson, who began the Ford 400 trailing Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing by 15 points, finished 39 points ahead of the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry.
Johnson handed team owner Rick Hendrick and HMS its 10th Cup drivers' championship beginning with Gordon’s first of four titles in 1995. Johnson ended the season with six victories and 53 for a Cup career that began in Oct. 2001. Team Chevy, which closed 2010 with 669 Cup victories, already had clinched its record 34th manufacturers’ Cup title based upon wins in 18 of 36 races (and 15 pole positions).
With that background, Terry Dolan, manager of Chevrolet Racing, recently addressed a variety of topics during an interview at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Q: Chevrolet placed a combined six drivers from Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing in the 2010 Chase. Do you plan any change in the number of Chevrolet Cup teams for next year?
TD: “I think the portfolio we have is about the right balance for us. We’ve been able to achieve our business goals through the teams that are supporting us. There’s not a need to expand or grow to accomplish our business objectives. We have to win races and championships, and we’ve been able to do so. So we think we’ve got the right alignment, the right partners, the right teams and the right interactivity with our technology arm, GM Racing.”
Q: After much speculation concerning a switch to Toyota, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing will continue with Chevrolet in 2011. Given that Jamie McMurray counted the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 among his three wins, was there any doubt that EGR earned Chevrolet’s support?
TD: “We always evaluate everybody’s contributions, and clearly they had a fabulous year. Not only their performance in NASCAR was outstanding, but what they were able to achieve by winning the Indy 500 (with a Honda-powered Dallara). I think it shows the depth and scope of their organization and what they’re capable of doing.
“You face the realities that partners have decisions to make and they have opportunities that are placed in front of them and they have to assess what’s right for their business. We’re all in this as a business standpoint. You hope that the partnership and the values that you’ve brought over time would continue, but they had to address what’s right to run their organization on a long-term basis.”
Q: With the change in Nationwide Series bodies fulltime in 2011 to the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger, why isn’t Chevrolet going with the Camaro?
TD: “As we launched Camaro, we brought back an iconic production car to our portfolio. Part of what makes Camaro is the styling and the look of that vehicle. When we introduced it at the (various) auto shows, consumers originally were able to look at the brand and say that it replicates what they know Camaro to be.
“As we look at NASCAR, we wanted to maintain the integrity of the iconic brand and the brands that we race with. We just didn’t feel we could accomplish that vision by adapting the car to the common template format that we have here in this sport. We’ll always look in the future and see what opportunities exist, but within today’s boundaries, it just didn’t feel like it was the right business decision for us to make.”
Q: That said, both Mustang and Challenger represent reincarnations of the Muscle Car Wars, going back to the popular SCCA Trans-Am Series of the late 1960s. Seems Camaro is missing an opportunity for exposure before the biggest domestic audience.
TD: “But our core business is manufacturing iconic cars and trucks that connect to the consumer bases. We use racing as a way to define the vehicles from a public persona standpoint. We felt it was critical that we didn’t disturb the iconic design of a key volume car for us by changing it to a different style format for what we put on the racetrack. So, longer-term, if we can get to the point where we can make the cars look more similar to the showroom counterparts, then there’s probably room for Camaro going forward.
“Our short-term vision now is to stay with Impala, because it represents the car that’s on the track and the car that’s in the showroom. Long-term, we want to look at tightening that up. If you look at our program with our Corvette Racing and the American Le Mans Series, we’re very proud of the continuity and the connectivity between the ZR1, the showroom counterpart, and the C6-R (for racing), which looks like that vehicle when it’s on the racetrack.”
Q: How radical of a difference would the Nationwide Camaro be from the showroom version? What would be the key design turnoff?
TD: “Well, part of the iconic design of that car is the overall lines of the roof of the greenhouse and the sale-panel area. And for all the right reasons, as NASCAR has evolved the Car of Tomorrow to provide a safer zone for the driver, trying to adapt our smaller-roof coupe car to the larger roof sedan design just didn’t keep the integrity of the exterior design of the vehicle. We looked at it and we modeled it and we stepped back and we evaluated it, and felt for now it wasn’t the right decision for us to make.”
Q: How much heat have you caught for not running Camaro in the Nationwide Series, other than media criticism?
TD: “Honestly, the questions we receive are from the media, and we’ve received our fair share of questions on that. We’re not receiving any strong push-back publicly from the consumers. The teams are happy running the cars we have, as long as we have a competitive entry that can win races and championships.”
Q: What do you think of NASCAR’s decision to change to ethanol-based E15 fuel next year in its Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series? Are you pleased with that, or wish NASCAR would have gone further to E85?
TD: “I think you have to remember that we’re an invited member to participate in the sport of NASCAR racing. We’re proud of our achievements and what we’ve been able to bring to the table. We’re pleased that NASCAR is looking at other solutions for sustainable technology within the sport. We think E85 is a great step to the future in getting there.
“There’s a number of things surrounding the whole aspect of sustainability they’ve been able to do between recycling oils, recycling some of the tires and the products that go into it. I think there’s a deeper story than they’ve been getting credit for. Longer-term, we want to continue to be a partner in those endeavors and look on how we can amplify things, even on a consumer marketing standpoint.
“It’s important for our core culture as a car company to be perceived as a leader in the green space. We’re really excited about bringing our new Chevrolet Volt to the public. We’ll start building those and putting them in the hands of consumers in the short-term. And it’s another way to show the technology we’ve brought to automotive transportation through a non-traditional solution.”
Q: Given Chevrolet’s marketing of alternative fuels for street cars, do you feel NASCAR’s initiative is basically overdue?
TD: “We’ve actually been collaborating with NASCAR on what can be done from a fuel standpoint and its impact on performance on-track. So our GM Racing colleagues have worked hand-in-hand with the teams and with the NASCAR technical experts evaluating potential fuels, running dynamometer tests, what will be the impact on durability with core components of the engines.
“And then our findings from fuel system handling – what’s necessary based on how we’ve adapted our production cars, the type of products that are able to sustain the involvement with a more corrosive-based fuel and do so successfully to perform well on the track. So we are pleased. We feel it’s a step that helps support a greater connectivity for the fan base and the automotive manufacturers.”
Q: With NASCAR’s TV ratings down a bit – and what you’re seeing as far as your display area being impacted by attendance – are you still getting out of this sport what you want?
TD: “What’s really important about what NASCAR provides is scale and reach to the public for us to have a marketing opportunity. While it’s true ratings and attendance have been impacted, our actual connectivity with the consumers – and we do measure our traffic and our display footprints and the amount of consumers that connect with us looking for additional product information.
“Our numbers are actually up here over a year, so we’re pleased about that. Would we like to see TV ratings and attendance go forward? Absolutely. But that’s not any different than what other sports have experienced this calendar year. It’s the results of pretty tough economical conditions that have impacted the core fan base.”
Q: Any idea why foot-traffic is up at Chevrolet Racing displays? Are you doing more in the area of experiential marketing?
TD: “Our overall footprints are pretty much consistent year-over-year from the volume that we have. We’ve worked very hard, and our teams have been a big partner in helping us solve this. On Sundays, we’ll (typically) have four of the NASCAR drivers coming through our display. That’s a big aid in building traffic. The consumers have a chance to hear Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, etc.
“So through a matter of our models we’ve been able to adjust so end results are tracking at an above year-over-year performance, and that’s our yardstick in measurement on sales success. Those people will result in a higher sales conversion rate, selling more Chevrolet cars and trucks.”
Q: After a five-year absence, Chevrolet recently announced plans to return to the IZOD IndyCar Series as an engine supplier with Ilmor Engineering in 2012. Did that decision basically come down to ROI – return on investment?
TD: “We’re always evaluating the various series that we’re participating in and looking at a long-term portfolio for where we race and the technological benefits that it brings back to our production cars. We still have a great presence with Indianapolis (Motor Speedway). In fact, we continue to be a marketing partner at the Indy 500 for a number of years. We’ll be there in 2011. We provided the (Camaro) pace car this past year in 2010, so it’s still a great venue for us to market and sell cars and trucks.
“You know, we have to have a return on investment. So as we go in motorsports we look at three key elements. First, can you race competitively and can you win races and championships? Then we look at the target audience and does it align with our target – who’s buying our vehicles? And then finally, we have to look at it from the standpoint of developing a return on investment.
“We have a very disciplined financial approach. We’re able to model returns in the series we’re participating to show that the business case makes sense to the leadership community to enable us to continue to do what we do. We run this like a business. We’re proud of the results not only on-track but how it helps us accomplish our core objective of selling new vehicles. So we feel we’ve got the right balance. Any new series we look at, we look at it from those standpoints to make sure that it accomplishes core business objectives.”
John Sturbin covered college sports, baseball as well as the NHL and Dallas Cowboys while working at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He was their fulltime motorsports beat writer from 1995 to 2008. John can be reached at email@example.com.