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Racing takes spotlight at Detroit auto show

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Detroit Auto Show is a showcase for the future of autonomous transportation. With thousands of attendees and dozens of companies, Mobili-D continues a show trend in which automakers demonstrate the latest in hands-off driving.

But shows are also increasingly forums for the automobile’s most hands-on application: track racing.

IndyCar, which holds its “Chevrolet Dual in Detroit” on Belle Isle in June, staged a news conference in press week announcing its new car design for the 2018 season. The announcement, from IndyCar’s stand wedged between the Volvo and VW displays, followed Toyota’s unveiling of its new NASCAR racer just two months before Daytona’s 500.

At the Los Angeles show in November, journalists streamed from “Automobility LA” panels on autonomous cars to Porsche and Mazda press conferences announcing their new race cars for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in late January. Acura announced its new NSX thoroughbred for the Rolex 24 in New York last spring.

With thousands of journalists on hand for auto reveals — and tens of thousands of public attendees to follow during public week — auto shows are perfect venues for race leagues and manufacturers to be heard. And with their state-of-the-art speed, race cars are brand halos not unlike autonomous vehicles at the other end of the driving spectrum.

In Cobo Center, IndyCar is at the intersection of media, a ticket-buying public and industry sponsors.

“The timing is perfect for us,” said Jay Frye, IndyCar President of Competition in Operations.

IndyCar’s new, clean aerodynamic design will debut next year and continue until 2021, offering both better racing and more certainty for team budgets. That business certainty, IndyCar believes, will attract more manufactures to the sport in addition to engine providers Chevrolet and Honda.

For manufacturers, racing and production vehicles are increasingly intertwined.

“Because our production vehicles are so closely tied to motorsports, auto shows are the ideal venue for us to show off our racing technology,” says Tom McDonald, a Mazda spokesman.

Mazda introduced its sleek, 600-horsepower RT24-P prototype in Los Angeles, part of a new race class that will be the front-runners at the Rolex 24 later this month. Cadillac and Nissan will also be competing with Mazda all year in the IMSA Weathertech Series. The RT24-P was shown in LA alongside the Mazda MX-5 Miata Cup car — the most raced production car in the world.

“Our identity is closely linked to racing,” says McDonald. “The RT24 porotype comes in the Soul Red that is Mazda’s feature color and it incorporates elements of our KODO design style found in our production cars. I think it’s the most beautiful race car out there.”

Toyota’s Camry racer — built to NASCAR’s V8-powered template — shares nothing with the new, inline-4 cylinder/V-6-powered production car except its sportier styling. But NASCAR dovetails perfectly with Akio Toyoda’s plan — the Toyota chairman personally introduced the new Camry and its NASCAR variant in Detroit — to reinvent the best-selling sedan as a sportier entry in the mid-size segment.

Competition is also important to Porsche (which sat out this year’s Detroit Show) and Acura in establishing their 911 and NSX supercars as premier performance vehicles. Chevrolet too, puts a heavy emphasis on racing, and the Rolex 24-entered Corvette C7.R was developed in unison with the production car.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Corvette C7.R race car,” announced GM President Dan Ammann at the Detroit Show in 2014. “The relationship between the Corvette Stingray, Z06 and C7.R is instantly recognizable. The race drivers tell us they immediately noticed how the stiffer structure improved the C7.R’s handling, especially on rough tracks.”

A Chevy race driver was on hand for this year’s IndyCar announcement, as Josef Newgarden — of Roger Penske’s Chevy team — joined Honda Racing’s Alexander Rossi to extol the new design’s virtues.

“It’s what the drivers have been screaming about — we want more downforce under the car,” said Newgarden, 26, who lives in North Carolina.

The two star drivers then traded opinions on the best production cars on the floor. Rossi, the 2016 Indy winner, liked the Honda Ridgeline pickup Black Edition.

“It’s not as cool as the Chevy Traverse, but that’s OK,” smiled Newgarden.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.