DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When Mark Reuss took over as president of General Motors North America more than three years ago, he brought with him the belief that Chevrolet needed to be more relevant in NASCAR. It was the first step down a road that led to Saturday in Daytona Beach, where the manufacturer unveiled a production car to match the model it is fielding in the Sprint Cup Series.
The gleaming 2014 SS that Jeff Gordon wheeled into Daytona International Speedway's FanZone was significant for more than just Chevrolet, which has won 10 straight manufacturer titles in the circuit's top division. According to NASCAR President Mike Helton, it was Chevrolet who spurred the movement that eventually produced the Generation-6 race car -- without which, the tour's most famous carmaker might have pulled out of the sport.
"Mark Reuss said, 'If we can't be relevant, we're not going to race,'" said 10-time NASCAR championship car owner Rick Hendrick, whose team fields Chevrolets. "We had a lot riding on that."
Those concerns seemed far away Saturday, when Chevy introduced its first rear-wheel sport sedan in 17 years, a car bearing many similarities to the manufacturer's new Sprint Cup car. The unveil followed similar reveals by Ford and Toyota, but evidently it was Chevrolet that started the drive toward the more brand-identifiable race cars competing for the first time during these Speedweeks.
"This was a great collaborative effort, and we can't thank Chevrolet enough for leading the charge on that," Helton said during the announcement. "They backed us into a corner and said, 'Here's what you guys need to think about doing,' and causing us to maybe react a little bit ahead of our own schedule. But it worked. It worked well, and we're grateful for their participation."
Chevrolet unveiled the race car version of the SS this past November during Champions Week festivities in Las Vegas. The production model is manufactured in Elizabeth, Australia, in conjunction with Holden, GM's Australian division. With a V8 engine and 415 horsepower, the vehicle is what Reuss called a "relatively low-volume play" for Chevrolet. "It's really a link to our biggest race series here."
Although Reuss wasn't sure how many of the cars Chevrolet would sell given the vehicle's price point -- it's designed as a "premium" model -- the intent is to make that connection between the race track and showroom, and pique interest in the process. "What we need is traffic," said Hendrick, who operates over 80 car dealerships across 13 states.
Like the Ford and Toyota, the Chevy model features physical characteristics that are common to both the race and production cars. The Generation-6 vehicles replace a "Car of Tomorrow" in which brand identity was sacrificed in an effort to improve driver safety. Those safety features have been carried over, and even enhanced, in the new models that provide carmakers with a greater degree of individuality at the same time.
"Fans grew up with, I grew up going to the track with, let's outrun the Fords and outrun the Pontiacs and all those guys," Hendrick said. "I think we missed that. The COT, we had a lot of success with it, we won championships with it. But it was time to get back to our roots and have a production car we could race, and would be different from the other cars."
Reuss said that effort started with Chevrolet, which has the influence of 702 Cup victories and 36 manufacturers titles behind it.
"We went in hard with this car and said, 'This is the car we want to race here,'" Reuss said of the SS. "It's rear-wheel drive, it's credible. We need to look at the angles of the backlight and the front windshield. We need to look at the profile of the car. Here's the math of what the car is, of what we're doing and what we're bringing into Chevrolet. If we don't race it here, then I'm not sure we want to bring it over here from Holden. So it was that and some guts and some chances that we took, and we kept working it."
Ultimately, NASCAR and the other manufacturers jumped on board. Had that not happened, would Chevy have pulled out of the sport?
"I think it would have been a good chance," Hendrick said. "I think it could have been. As a matter of fact, I'm fairly sure they might have. I think once they made their point that if they were going to be in the sport, it had to be relevant to what they sell ? they were bold enough to say, 'For us to support it like we have in the past, it needs to be a Chevrolet.'"
Now that movement transcends a single manufacturer, as seen in each manufacturer's more brand-identifiable race cars. Hendrick can fondly recall the days when the success of the Monte Carlo on the race track drove people to dealerships, and believes the sport is on the cusp of such an era once again.
"We had the drivers as stars, and we used to have the cars as stars," he said. "Now I think we've got them both again, and that's the neatest part about this deal."
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FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Sports & Recreation
- Mark Reuss
- Rick Hendrick