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Danica helps GM spur urgency in engineering

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When the Daytona 500 starts this weekend with Danica Patrick in the pole position driving her Chevrolet SS, General Motors will be seeking something more than a winner’s trophy -- adding a greater sense of urgency to GM.

Mark Reuss, GM’s North America president since December 2009, is seeding the automaker’s racing operations with engineers who spend time helping Chevy and Cadillac racing teams, eventually rotating back into product development. Race on Sunday, engineer better cars on Monday.

“Every week you’ve got to go put what you did on the track and try to win,” Reuss said in an interview last weekend at Florida’s Daytona International Speedway, where GM revealed the production version of the new rear-wheel-drive Chevy SS. “That’s an urgency that we need in this company.”

The SS is one of about 20 vehicles GM is introducing in the United States this year as it seeks to freshen showrooms that have grown stale since the company’s 2009 bankruptcy reorganization.

GM’s U.S. market share fell to an 88-year-low in 2012 as Toyota rebounded from 2011 production problems with 19 new or refreshed vehicles.

GM needs workers who aren’t wedded to traditional long-term product development cycles, said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc., in a telephone interview.

“They need people who can address issues in more rapid fashion than they have in the past,” he said. “Vehicles like the Malibu could benefit from that kind of mentality.”

GM isn’t alone in looking to racing to better its product development staff. Honda, Ford and other automakers have long been active in racing. Ford traces its motor sports roots to a 1901 race won by Henry Ford. Honda founder Soichiro Honda would say, “If Honda does not race, there is no Honda.”

GM founder Billy Durant used his association with a race-car driver named Louis-Joseph Chevrolet to create the Chevrolet Motor Car Co. in 1911, which eventually became part of General Motors.

What’s new is the interest by Reuss, an engineer by training and a longtime racing enthusiast, in making sure GM executives see the experience as a career boost and rotating potential high-performers in and out of the racing teams for leadership development.

GM’s racing effort has traditionally been under the company’s marketing operations and separated from product development. GM used its ties to popular drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Patrick, a former IndyCar star, to promote product.

“It didn’t used to be an incentive because once people went there, they never came back,” Reuss said. “They couldn’t leave because they were the ’race person.’ So it had a bad stigma to it.”

Reuss said he wanted to change that and, within the last year or so, has started an effort to rotate people through the program.

Twenty-four-year GM veteran Chris Berube was assigned to the automaker’s IndyCar racing effort last March after working as the lead development engineer on the Cadillac CTS-V and ATS cars.

“The CTS-V program, the ATS program, those are three years, four years long,” he said. “That’s like four seasons wrapped in one.

"You tend to need to make decisions probably with less information in racing and more on gut feeling and experience, but you also get the answer right away whether it was the right decision or not. I’d like to take that back to the production side.”

Honda, among the most active manufacturers in auto and motorcycle racing, doesn’t compete in NASCAR, instead focusing on IndyCar and American Le Mans circuits in the U.S., said T.E. McHale, a spokesman for Honda’s motor sports group.

“For most companies, racing is largely a marketing exercise,” he said. “For Honda, it’s a way to develop our people and to learn how to make better products.”

GM provides program management for the racing programs, said Mark Kent, director of racing for Chevrolet and Cadillac.

“A lot of these engineers we’re bringing in for the most part are managing the racing programs; they’re broadening their management skills,” he said. “Through all of that, it’s a great proving ground to train young engineers because they get that sense of urgency.”

The GM engineering rotation is in place in some series where the company participates while not yet extended to NASCAR, where race cars are based on GM, Ford and Toyota production models. GM says it probably will add NASCAR to the program.

At Daytona Beach, Reuss revealed the new SS that he intends to sell in U.S. showrooms as a so-called halo car to attract people to the Chevrolet brand.

The SS, which is based upon a platform from GM’s Holden unit, will be built in Australia and is expected to have 415 horsepower and get 415 footpounds of torque, accelerating from zero to 60 miles per hour in about 5 seconds, the company said.

The SS will join a redesigned Corvette in showrooms this year along a new Silverado pickup and Impala sedan.

GM’s U.S. sales of cars and light trucks rose 3.7 percent last year, less than the industrywide gain of 13 percent. As a result, GM’s share of the U.S. market slid to 17.9 percent, the lowest since 1924.

Reuss’s racing enthusiasm includes being licensed for Grand American Road Racing and showing video he has taken at the Nurburgring racetrack in Germany with the Cadillac ATS.

Last weekend, he climbed down onto the Daytona speedway as race cars prepared to start the Sprint Unlimited race, part of the buildup to the Feb. 24 Daytona 500.

Wearing a Corvette racing jacket, Reuss walked through the crowd and under the rope line to greet the drivers. He paused for a photo with Chevy driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and shook hands with Richard Childress, one of the NASCAR team owners who races Chevys.

Before the race, Reuss talked about how he looked forward to watching the race trackside and feeling the exhilaration of the start.

“We’re going to take everything out of this that I can possibly get out of it – branding, engineers, people,” Reuss said.

With assistance from Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles.

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