News & Media

Retro Racing: After 100 years, Chevy steeped in NASCAR history

November 04, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Future filled with technology challenges that no one could have imagined in 1911

On Sunday at Martinsville, Tony Stewart brought Chevrolet its 685th Cup victory, an early 100th birthday present for a company which was founded on Nov. 3, 1911. In a way, it was no surprise that Chevy's racing division played a part in the celebration, given that the company's founder was a race car driver himself.

"It's part of our DNA," said Terry Dolan, Chevrolet racing manager. "It's part of our beginning. And it's still alive and well today."

"Even though the adage "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" may not translate well with NASCAR's current common template design, Chevrolet still drives much of its marketing campaign through at-track exposure."


Company founder Louis Chevrolet was in born in Switzerland, grew up in France, immigrated to Canada as a self-educated engineer and eventually wound up in Detroit. He designed and raced for Buick, where he met William Durant -- who was head of General Motors.

In the fall of 1911, Chevrolet, Durant and two partners decided to strike out on their own, with the goal of competing against Henry Ford's Model T for the general automotive consumer market. One hundred years later, Chevrolet and Ford are still rivals, both in the showroom and on the track.

"The history with us and NASCAR certainly runs very deep," Dolan said. "The aspect of the fan base and how it connects with our production vehicles has a storied past and continues to be strong today.

"NASCAR fans are very passionate about the brands that participate in the sport, and they're certainly very loyal to the manufacturers. We've been able to use it as a marketing tool and a resource for many years. It's been able to drive incremental sales of cars and trucks."

Floridian Bill Snowden helped Chevrolet make its NASCAR debut in 1949 by finishing fifth at Occoneechee Speedway in North Carolina, but it would be another six years before Fonty Flock got the brand its first win at Columbia, S.C. Two years later, Buck Baker won Chevy's first championship.

"Fonty put us first in the record book with NASCAR," Dolan said. "We were able to put together about 50 victories between '55 and '58. At that point, we were racing in Bel Airs and Biscaynes."

Even though the Automobile Manufacturers Association agreed to end factory motorsports sponsorship in 1957, Chevrolet continued to campaign in NASCAR, winning four consecutive manufacturer's championships, the 1960 Daytona 500 with Junior Johnson and driver's titles for Rex White in 1960 and Ned Jarrett in 1961.

But the federal government was beginning to take an interest in GM, which at the time had more than half of all domestic car sales. Executives worried that the corporation would be considered a monopoly and be broken up. So they decided one of the ways to cut growth was to eliminate the racing division at the end of 1962.

A few Chevrolet teams soldiered on in 1963, winning eight races. But with factory money gone, the brand all but disappeared from NASCAR until 1971, even though Chevrolet remained the top-selling brand in America. It was Charlotte Motor Speedway president Richard Howard who called up Johnson that spring and asked if he'd be willing to build a Chevy for the upcoming World 600. Johnson did, put Charlie Glotzbach in the car -- and Glotzbach promptly went out, won the pole, led 87 laps and had nearly lapped the entire field when he crashed with a backmarker.

From that point on, Chevrolet brass in Detroit realized they needed to be back in NASCAR full-time. And since 1972, the bowtie has been a prominent player, with a total of 35 manufacturer's championship, including a current streak of nine consecutive titles.

So what does Chevy get from its NASCAR exposure? The returns are two-fold, according to Dolan.

* Shop: Chevrolet 100th anniversary gear

First, even though it's not as interconnected as it was five decades ago, what engineers learn on the track can lead to developments in production vehicles.

"We actually use our motorsports program as a development tool for some of our advanced engineering assets," Dolan said. "For example, we use a lot of computer analytical tools when we develop a new cylinder head or engine block.

"We use computer modeling to monitor water flow through the castings and temperature performance, to insure we're getting even and consistent cooling rates across the various components."

Second, even though the adage "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" may not translate well with NASCAR's current common template design, Chevrolet still drives much of its marketing campaign through at-track exposure.

"Over the years, we've evolved to what I call 'an auto show in a state fair setting,' " Dolan said. "If you look at any one of the tracks we're activating at, we'll put together a display in the midway that will rank from eight to 24 new production vehicles. And we're able to intercept the consumers at the track.

"Fans have been very outspoken -- through fan councils and some of the research that's been done -- to emphasize their desire to make sure that the cars are not generic, that they're brand-specific."


"They may not be knowledgeable about what's in our showrooms today, but in a non-intrusive way, they're able to take a look at some of our newest product offerings. Our vehicles are always open, so consumers can sit down in them, touch and feel them, and begin to develop an emotional connection with the product that may lead them to shopping online and eventually visiting one of our dealerships."

And with the implementation of a new Cup redesign in 2013, Chevrolet is taking the opportunity to tie its on-track product to an as-yet unannounced production vehicle.

"Fans have been very outspoken -- through fan councils and some of the research that's been done -- to emphasize their desire to make sure that the cars are not generic, that they're brand-specific," Dolan said. "And that they connect to the brands that the fans have their loyalty and affiliation with.

"So when you see the next gen car, I think we'll surprise a lot of people with the relevance that's been built into it. We're very proud of the work we've done and how it will connect with a future Chevrolet product that will be in our dealer showrooms."

When looking back at Chevrolet's racing history, perhaps the greatest milestone was the development of the small-block V-8 engine in 1955.

"At the time, [Chevy chief engineer] Ed Cole and the team he put behind the development of that engine, really broke down the paradigms of how production engines were manufactured and turned it into a very flexible that allowed consumers to enhance the performance in a variety of ways," Dolan said. "Prior to 1955, we'd literally cast cylinder heads that were specific to the left or right side of the engine bank.

"The small block became a lightweight, non-traditional design that offered a great creative canvas for the motorsports community to re-tune to their specific needs. And as we progressed throughout the '60s and '70s, it became the Saturday night racers' powertrain of choice, not only across America but across the globe."

As Chevrolet heads into its second century, Dolan sees a future filled with challenges involving technology that Louis Chevrolet couldn't have imagined in 1911.

"I think the digital space will continue to evolve and create a need for adaptability," Dolan said. "It's unusual for most young people to sit down and consume television for any long term basis without using multimedia tools -- multitasking. That's going to be a challenge to all of us to find solutions that adapt to today's consumption behavior."

However, Louis Chevrolet would know all about multitasking, even if he might not have heard of the term. Chevrolet continued to race while running his business, eventually selling his share of the company to Durant four years later. Chevrolet competed in four Indianapolis 500s as a driver and won the 1920 and 1921 races as an owner.

However, Chevrolet lost his entire fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and eventually was forced into taking a job as an assembly line mechanic at the company he founded. He died in 1941 and was buried in Indianapolis. There's a memorial to Chevrolet and his accomplishments located at the entrance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum.

And what's the story on Chevy's distinctive bowtie logo? Some say Louis Chevrolet decided to honor his birthplace with a stylized Swiss cross. Others claim Durant noticed the design in a wallpaper pattern while staying in a Paris hotel. While there seems to be no definitive answer, it's been used in corporate advertising for as long as the company's been in business.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.