So we decided to accompany many of them to racecourses and test tracks around the world. We hung around the paddock and watched them slide into the cockpit and then roar off, aiming for the inside groove. Afterward, we talked it over as they slumped in lawn chairs in the garage.
We learned a lot about the men and women who run the auto industry and the passion that drives them.
But racing is more than an adrenaline rush. It is a microcosm of the industry.
In 1963, a 26-year-old Roger Penske said: "You're dealing with a team sport here, not just an athlete. You're dealing with something mechanical and something human."
Bentley CEO Wolfgang Duerheimer grew up racing motorcycles. Now he says his knowledge of racing gives him an edge in the car business: "What racing teaches you is to get your act done, to get there at 12 o'clock on the grid when the light goes green. The attitude you need is to be precise, be fast, do a good job, be competitive and be a winner.
"This is the carryover for me."
Mazda design chief Ikuo Maeda, a racing dynamo, says the sport is central to his work: "When two cars race against each other, I find that a cool-looking car looks really cool. I remember very well the car shapes and scenes I see when driving."
Ideas flow from racing into production cars. Better race cars can result in better road cars. But what struck us was that magnificent obsession.
Take Ford of Europe CEO Jim Farley. He began racing a few years ago "to enjoy the car differently, to move off the lawn at Pebble Beach." He runs a classic GT40 from 1966. He's fanatical — 100-proof methyl enthusiasm all the time.
They love cars, understand cars and know what has to be done to make a great one. And they enjoy the pressures of racing, which results in a different mindset that can be brought back to the office or factory or showroom, a mindset where speed and a burning desire to improve matters.
With this issue we celebrate these industry stalwarts — and their sport.