May 7, 2008
BREAKING NEWS: GM shelves its Le Mans "EVO" racing program.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. For those who are students of American racing history - especially when it comes to GM's star-crossed relationship with motorsport over the years - the latest news emerging from GM's Renaissance Center headquarters is not all that surprising, but it's still the quintessential definition of not good nonetheless. It seems that GM's executive brain trust has decided to shelve its "EVO" racing program (EVO is the new top category for the 24 Hours of Le Mans coming in 2010, replacing P1) after developing the program for the better part of eighteen months. The GM Racing entry - a mid-engine Corvette designed to the new EVO specifications - would have been called the C7R, and for the first time in 44 years, an American manufacturer would have competed for the overall win at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.
At least that was the plan.
First, a brief primer on EVO is in order. Contrary to erroneous reports that circulated a couple of weeks ago, the EVO class is very much a done deal for 2010. Generally, the EVO specifications are more restrictive than the current P1 rules, and the closed-roof cars will be required to have more of a direct visual connection to existing design cues from the manufactures. A key distinction with the EVO class is that overall operating efficiency and alternative fuels will be a crucial component to the rules package. The introduction of the EVO class also directly affects the GT classes as the current GT1 class will be eliminated, with GT2 becoming the premier production-based class. (At this time, the P2 classification stays, but what changes will be on tap remain to be seen.)
Regular readers of this website probably remember me talking about the possibility of a production mid-engine C7 Corvette right before Labor Day last year. The short story behind that idea was that when the EVO rules were first beginning to be formulated, the idea of doing a production mid-engined Corvette - which would link the mid-engine Corvette C7R EVO racer directly to the street car - was put on the front burner, with an intensive development evaluation undertaken last summer to see if it could be done at a reasonable cost. Late last fall, when the costs skyrocketed on the project, the decision was made not to go forward with a production mid-engine C7. You can read the latest on this in the new June issue of Automobile as Don Sherman enhances the rest of the story, with additional insight from yours truly. (You can also see an artist's conceptual rendition of what the C7R EVO might have looked like, which will make you weep.)
But even after the mid-engine design was tabled in favor of a tauter, lighter but traditional front-engine Corvette C7, GM Racing's EVO program was still going forward. That is it was until a couple of weeks ago, when GM's racing strategy board met to contemplate the EVO program. At that meeting, the board shelved the EVO program based on a recommendation that the car wouldn't have a direct connection to the production Corvette, and thus the reason for doing it was no longer valid.
Seems logical enough - at least on the surface - that is until you know the back story. There's a boneheaded faction within GM that is blindly devoted to NASCAR, to such an extent that all rational thought about the issue has been completely thrown out the window. One executive in particular (who shall remain nameless) is such a notorious NASCAR nut that he buys anything and everything the France family can shove his way, and it has become beyond category embarassing, especially now that NASCAR is on the decline and GM is buried deeply in long-term contracts with its NASCAR teams.
Knowing this then, the fact that the Corvette Racing EVO program was killed because it wouldn't be "relevant" to the production Corvette and thus shouldn't be continued, is laughable, especially considering the fact that GM endorses the so-called "Chevy Impala" used in NASCAR, that spec-bodied "CoT" blob that bares no relation whatsoever to any GM production car. As I like to say, you just can't make this shit up.
But then again, this sorry episode perfectly encapsulates the difference between a real car company, one that actually has racing as part of its basic corporate philosophy - let's use the Honda Motor Company as a prime example - as opposed to a corporate conglomerate that has managed to succeed on the race track in spite of itself.
Think about it, GM's success in racing over the years has never been the result of a corporate-level belief in, or understanding of, the fundamental importance of racing and the idea that racing is the ultimate development arena where young designers and engineers can be developed into the future lifeblood of the company.
No, with GM it was always about a hard-core group of enthusiasts within the company connecting with outsiders who then made it happen. Think Jim Hall, Junior Johnson, Smokey Yunick and Roger Penske, to name just a few of those outsiders. Even today, GM's ultra-successful Corvette Racing program - which has won the GT1 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans five out of the last eight years - has achieved greatness in spite of GM, not because of it. In this case a dedicated bunch of True Believers within the company teamed up with one of the top racing organizations in the world - Pratt & Miller - to deliver results that few executives in the corporation can even begin to comprehend, let alone appreciate.
And so here we are. GM had the opportunity to do something really great by taking its championship-winning Corvette Racing program to the next level and by doing so sending a message around the globe that it had the guts to match up against the best auto manufacturers in the world (Audi, BMW, Honda, Peugeot, Renault and Toyota are all said to be working on EVO programs), and go for the overall win at the world's most prestigious endurance race. To make history even. But true to form, GM blew the opportunity to smithereens because it had the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, making the wrong decisions.
This disgraceful development speaks to the very essence of why GM will always lack the passion for racing - and the understanding of the crucial role it can play - that other car companies like Honda and BMW display as part of their fundamental raison d'etre. It just isn't in GM's vacuous bean-counting culture to know the difference, or even bother to learn why it's important, either.
It's also a excruciatingly painful reminder why soulless corporate entities don't stand a chance against passionate enthusiasts, on the race track or in the marketplace for that matter.
Publisher's Note: In our continuing series celebrating the "Golden Era" of American racing history, here is another image from the Ford Racing Archives. - PMD
(Ford Racing Archives)
Indianapolis, IN, 1967. Jackie Stewart and Jim Clark discuss lapping The Speedway in practice for the Indianapolis 500.