Racing is in Chevrolet's DNA
Sometimes overt, sometimes under cover, brand played a major role in the quest for speed
The curtain almost closed on Chevrolet motorsports in 2009, during General Motors' brush with bankruptcy.
It was not the first near-death experience for Chevy racing. A GM edict forced Ed Cole's operation underground in 1957. Zora Arkus-Duntov's 1963 Grand Sport program went dark when the edict was dusted off and restated.
As late as 1983, Chevy couldn't advertise the Monte Carlo's success in NASCAR because it was a "family car" and therefore off limits for racing boasts.
When the dust settled in 2009, contracts and agreements worth millions of dollars were scaled back or declared void. But Chevrolet's relationships with its most prominent NASCAR teams and its factory-backed Corvette racing operation survived.
Coincidentally, a plan formulated before GM's brush with insolvency has imbued the new Chevrolet with a global mind-set and a racing focus to go with it.
The poster child of the new Chevy may well be a Cruze race car. It will compete in the United States for the first time when the World Touring Car Championship comes to Infineon Raceway in California in 2012.
Just two years and two WTCC championships after its overseas debut, it has the potential to influence the marque on a world stage in much the same way the sassy 1955 Bel Air and its siblings altered Chevy's image in the United States more than half a century ago.
Louis' racing spirit
Louis Chevrolet, who left the company soon after his name and reputation were appropriated for Billy Durant's new car, was a daredevil racer whose exploits flavored Chevy long after he was gone.
It isn't well known that he had a prototype of a high-powered runabout on the streets of Detroit even before the company was incorporated. Historians agree that Chevrolet intended it as a racer in the same vein as the Buicks he had recently driven for Durant.
To Louis' dismay, Durant canceled the program almost as soon as he saw it.
As the teens morphed into the '20s, Chevrolets were pitched not for their performance but as sensible alternatives to Henry Ford's Model T.
When Durant lost control of GM for the second time, and straight-laced Alfred Sloan began moving to the top of the organization chart, GM worried that the blood-and-guts image of auto racing might sully a car line. So a no-racing edict was imposed that affected Chevy in varying degrees for the next half century.
Whether Chevy Chief Engineer Ed Cole intended all along to challenge the ban or it just turned out that way, his brand-new 1955 small-block V-8 engine gave him an opening he couldn't resist.
Smokey invaded NASCAR
Over the next two years, Cole, who became Chevy's general manager in 1956, approved back-door help to certain racers. He sent Corvette teams to Daytona's Speed Week and to races at Nassau and Sebring. He hooked up with Smokey Yunick to plant the Chevy flag in NASCAR.
With engineers such as Zora Arkus-Duntov and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Mauri Rose already aboard, Ed Cole hired Vince Piggins from Hudson Car Co. Cole set up a clandestine outpost in Atlanta and used it to distribute knowledge and race machinery.
Urged on by Arkus-Duntov, the European immigrant with a Le Mans class win in his past, Cole gave his blessing to an effort to invade France's Circuit de la Sarthe in 1957.
One car was built. It made a brief but highly publicized appearance at Sebring before GM signaled it would abide by an American Automobile Manufacturers Association no-racing ban.
Chevy's racing operation went underground and largely remained there for the next 25 years.
A wallflower no more
But the die was cast. With Piggins quietly salting the landscape with parts and information, privateers kept Chevy racing through the 1960s and '70s.
Pioneers such as Dick Harrell and Bill Jenkins carried the torch in drag racing, which likely meant more to Chevy's performance reputation than any other form of competition.
The 1980s saw General Manager Bob Stempel finding partners in NASCAR to run Chevrolet Monte Carlo sheet metal in the Winston Cup and a relaxation of the racing ban so Chevy could advertise its wins. Over the next quarter-century, the Monte Carlo would win more NASCAR races than any other car.
With General Manager Bob Burger calling the shots later in the 1980s and racing boss Herb Fishel directing traffic, Chevy expanded in NASCAR and launched initiatives on other racing fronts, including off-road and stadium trucks.
Chevy powers Indy winners
A tie-in with England's Ilmor Engineering produced an engine that powered six consecutive Indianapolis 500 winners.
Burger's successor, Jim Perkins, maybe the most ardent racer of all Chevrolet general managers, was at the helm when GM motorsports activities were consolidated into Fishel's renamed GM Raceshop.
A slightly-disguised Corvette engineering foray into SCCA and IMSA road racing in the mid-1980s went so well (19 of 19 SCCA wins in three years over Porsche) that the car was declared ineligible.
Buried in the fallout were the seeds of a milestone Chevy action a decade later, the founding of an unabashed, full-bore factory Corvette racing team. Rather than rely on a cadre of independents, Chevrolet contracted with Pratt & Miller Engineering to deliver design and fabrication services, plus track-side support.
The result has been eight consecutive GT1 manufacturer and team championships in the American Le Mans series; seven class titles at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, including a win in the GTE pro class at Le Mans in 2011; and an overall win at the 2001 Daytona 24 Hour.