Ever since Carl Benz first attached an engine to his four-wheeled platform, racing has been an important part of the auto industry.
The desire to go faster and farther seems to be inbred in the minds and hearts of auto people.
Early on, stately Wintons and little Stutz Bearcats traversed the cow paths that passed for roads. Some racers got their kicks climbing the narrow trails of Pikes Peak.
The events and their venues are iconic. Mention one to an auto man or woman, and they immediately know what you're talking about. Indy. Daytona. Darlington. Sebring. Bonneville. Le Mans. Watkins Glen.
There's yet another competition. It has been run almost every year for a century, and it pays off in dollars, not in a gold trophy or a crystal bowl. It begins Jan. 1 each year and it runs for 365 (or 366) days.
It's the annual Great Race between Chevrolet and Ford for sales supremacy in the United States. In recent years, Toyota has entered the competition. More about that later.
'We're No. 1!'
The dollar payoff? Easy. Imagine being able to advertise that yours is "the best-selling brand in America." Maybe you've noticed that Ford is doing that now. Not with bells and whistles but with a simple statement of fact.
The Great Race began in 1912, and for many years, it certainly was not "great" and it couldn't really be called a "race." That first year Ford outsold Chevy about 30 to 1. By 1920 Chevro-let had cut the margin to 3 to 1.
In 1924 Chevrolet named a new leader, William Knudsen, a former Ford executive. Ford outsold Chevy by more than a million cars that year, and Knudsen was not at all pleased.
It took Chevy until 1927 to catch Ford, and even then the results were marked with an asterisk -- just like Roger Maris' 61 home runs -- because Ford was out of business for most of 1927 for changeover from Henry's Model T to Edsel's Model A.
Then came eight ping-pong years. The lead flipped back and forth -- Chevy in 1928, Ford in 1929 and 1930, Chevy again in 1931-34 and Ford in 1935.
In 1936 Chevrolet began a remarkable streak. From that year through 1986 (omitting World War II, when auto sales ground to a halt), it outsold Ford 44 times in 47 years. Ford's only victories were in 1957, 1959 and 1970.
In 1970 a UAW strike shut GM for 70 days. In 1959 it was a steel strike. GM closed down, but Ford kept building because it produced much of its own steel. In 1957 Ford had a brand-new car, and Chevy had a third-year face-lift.
But the 1957 Chevrolet has become a classic. The 1957 Ford, if any are still on the road, is just a 54-year-old automobile.
1954 was a scorcher
There were some memorable battles along the way. Chevy won the car race by only 2,107 sales in 1937 and by 4,378 in 1934. In those days, when you talked about sales leadership you were talking about cars.
The race auto veterans remember best is the 1954 car sales war. Going into the final days of the year it was too close to call. There were tall tales, never proved, that factory field reps delivered lists of engine numbers to their dealers and told them: Register these now as sales. We'll send you the cars later.
In those days the factories did not issue sales reports, so there was no 1954 winner until R.L. Polk & Co. anointed one (via registrations) in February 1955. The result: Chevrolet, 1,417,453 cars; Ford, 1,400,440. Chevy won by 17,013 in a year with sales of more than 2.8 million Chevrolet and Ford cars.
The tide turned completely after 1986. Ford surged to the forefront in 1987 and stayed there for 18 years, through 2004. Chevy was on top in 2005, Ford in 2006 and Chevy again in 2007.
Some think that being No. 1 in sales doesn't carry as much weight with potential buyers as it once did.
John Smith, then GM group vice president for global product planning, told Automotive News several years ago: "I don't think it matters in and of itself. Most people are not like us, you know, who eat, drink and breathe the car business day in and day out."
He added: "Having the best vehicle in the field as seen by third parties" is important to get your vehicle on a customer's short list.
The Great Race has been run 95 times since 1912. Chevrolet has won 52 times, Ford 41, and the World War II years were a "no contest."
A new kid moved onto the block in 2008 and 2009; Toyota snatched the crown from Ford and Chevy.
Ford was back on top in 2010. This year Ford was so far ahead of Chevrolet (180,689) on Oct. 1 that I have conceded the 2011 crown to Ford.
Toyota is not a factor this year. The production problems that followed the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in March have taken it out of contention.