Chevrolet's new racing mantra is simple: If a series does not sell cars, it does not get the bucks.
The people behind that mantra work for General Motors brand czar Ron Zarrella, who began rewriting GM's marketing play book in 1995. Since then, the power over Chevrolet's racing purse strings has shifted.
GM's experts in horsepower and drag coefficients have been largely bumped out of the driver's seat by those who work in buyer demographics and sales volumes.
'There's no question the marketing side of the equation plays a larger role in determining what we actually end up doing,' says Donald Parkinson, brand manager for Lumina/Monte Carlo.
The ascendance of the brand managers has changed the way GM's biggest division goes racing. At the end of 1996, for example, Chevrolet abandoned the Sports Car Club of America's Trans-Am series and shifted the money to the National Hot Rod Association's Pro-Stock drag racing.
Factory-backed Chevrolets have been on Trans-Am grids since the 1960s, but lately the series has fallen on hard times with a declining fan base and weak TV coverage.
So far, the shift has not stopped the Camaro's sales nose dive; volume has dropped from 115,000 units in 1994 to about 60,000 last year. But at least the Camaro is racing in front of more prospective customers, admits Camaro/Cor-vette Brand Manager Richard Almond. 'When you go into the parking lot at an NHRA race, you know why we're there,' he says.
Front seat, not back
Chevrolet also has taken the S10 pickup to the drag strip. 'The demographics of NHRA and S truck are almost identical,' says S10 Brand Manager Ron Stanley.
To maximize the show, a new class in NHRA for small, stock-body pickups was cooked up by Chevrolet, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. to 'promote that good old Big 3 tension that we used to have in other racing,' says Stanley.
In pre-Zarrella days, the marketers were much more passive. GM's Motorsports Group and divisional race shops called the shots, while the marketers tried to capitalize on whatever halo effect racing could produce.
Today, the brand managers seek out racing events with fan demographics to match their vehicles, then call on the race shops to build suitable contenders.
Chevrolet brand managers will not divulge their racing budgets, but they are quick to cite sales increases.
Says Parkinson: 'When we put all of our marketing efforts together in a fully integrated way, the payoff is increased sales.'
He says the Monte Carlo has seen sales jump 30 percent following a successful race weekend, aided by dealership promotions, a local post-race newspaper ad blitz and prefilling the inventory pipeline.
Gary Claudio, assistant manager of the Chevrolet race shop, says the emphasis on marketing has made his employees 'better businessmen and better racers.'
That is because auto racing is the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country. With 16 million people turning up at tracks last year and millions more watching on TV, the pressure is on to produce, Claudio says.
'Between attendance and TV, you have to be at the top of your game every race, because if you're not, it's going to show.'
Automotive News Staff Reporter Aaron Robinson is based in Detroit.