Payne: Despite autonomous potential, automakers still hone their brands by racing
Pontiac — Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.
That mantra guides nearly every major automaker today as brands from Chevrolet to Acura to Porsche pour extraordinary sums of money into the top echelons of motorsports to burnish their performance images and bring customers into showrooms. Despite the billions being invested in autonomous and electric vehicles today, motorsports is still a cornerstone of brand ID.
Where each automaker focuses that performance energy tells you a lot about where their brands are headed.
Honda Motor Co. wasted no time Monday after its win in Sunday’s Detroit Grand Prix as the engine supplier for Scott Dixon’s winning IndyCar. The Japanese manufacturer immediately pivoted to promoting ... the Honda Civic compact car.
Honda hosted dozens of journalists here at M1 Concourse’s Champion Motor Speedway to sample the $34K, 307-horsepower Civic Type-R hatchback — the most ferocious, most expensive model in Civic’s broad lineup — and its TCR racing offspring. The Type-R TCR is entered in the IMSA sports car series Michelin Pilot Challenge racing series.
“In recent years we’ve really tried to push these production-based cars as an affordable entry point to get new (buyers) into the brand,” said Honda Performance Development engineer Justin Chiodo here. HPD manages Honda’s racing effort. “By ... showing the performance of our cars it makes it a more desirable vehicle for people to purchase.”
The investment in the TCR racing program shows the importance that Honda places on the compact Civic as a brand halo and as an entry-point for first-time car buyers. Significantly, it is a segment that Detroit has abandoned completely in order to concentrate on compact SUVs.
Chevrolet, too, won at the Detroit Grand Prix last weekend as Penske’s Joseph Newgarden brought his Chevy-powered IndyCar into victory lane in the first of the weekend’s two open-wheel car races.
Chevy tries to translate such success into production cars. Its racing efforts include fielding racing versions of the Corvette and Camaro muscle cars to compete in IMSA just like Honda’s Civic — but in more powerful classes.
The Camaro, for example, competes in the Michelin Pilot Challenge GS class which includes other performance cars like the Ford Mustang, BMW M4, Mercedes AMG GT4, and Porsche Cayman GT4.R.
This effort dovetails with Chevrolet’s determination to make the Camaro the design halo for a new generation of SUVs, including the recently introduced Chevy Trailblazer and Blazer which share Camaro design cues. Chevy hopes the racy design — and Camaro/Corvette’s success at the track — will help elevate its SUVs over other, lookalike utes.
Honda’s TCR class, meanwhile, is dominated by foreign makes which still see the large (if shrinking) compact car class as key to conquering entry-level buyers. Other brands scrapping for attention in the class include the Hyundai Elantra, VW Golf GTI, and Audi RS3 race cars — all based on compact cars.
In addition to the wave of publicity that manufacturers receive from media coverage and trips to victory lane, they also value the tech transfer from racing. Racing cars at their track limits helps inform the next generation of production technology.
“There is a lot of feedback to Honda from all the teams about things we can improve on for the next race — or for the next generation of the car,” says Todd Lamb, owner of Atlanta Speedwerks, a racing team that fields two Civic TCR race cars in the IMSA series. “Everything we do adds up. Some of what we do on the track ends up back in the street car. It’s neat to see.”
Racing also fuels the aspirations of young people long before they get their driver’s license.
“Racing attracted me at an early age,” says Honda engineer Chiodo. “I’ve always had a strong respect for Honda. I grew up racing dirt bikes and I saw the quality and the products that this company builds. I always wanted to work for them.”
Honda and GM are partners in investing in the future of autonomous cars — a ride-sharing area that is uncharted new territory for these personal transportation brands. Until markets emerge for those products, however, both companies will continue to define themselves by racing.
After Detroit, Chevy and Honda will be watched by millions powering IndyCars at Road America in Wisconsin June 23. One week later, the IMSA sports car circus will travel to Watkins Glen, N.Y., where entries will include the Chevy Corvette in GT-LeMans class, Camaro and Civic Type-R TCR in Michelin Pilot Challenge, and Cadillac/Acura/Nissan/Mazda porotype racers in the IMSA Weathertech series.
Says Chiodo: “People see these cars racing on the track and maybe ... that makes them interested in buying a Type-R, or a (Civic) Si, and even a Civic and enjoy our great engineering on the street.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.