Does racing ''improve the breed?''
By TONY WHITNEY
There's an old and possibly overused saying that ''auto racing improves the breed'' and any discussion among enthusiasts about race cars usually drifts in this direction sooner or later.
It's tough to believe that those 350 km/h megabuck creations of carbon fibre and titanium we see at races like the Indy 500 have any relationship at all with the cars we drive every day, but nothing could be further from the truth. Automakers might welcome the publicity spinoffs they get from racing, but they're deadly serious about using race cars to evaluate technologies that ultimately benefit your daily driver. If they can build cars and powerplants that withstand the enormous stresses of racing, just think of what they can do to enhance the performance and reliability of a production model.
Of course, not all race cars are expensive exercises in the use of exotic materials. Many classes of racing involve sedans or ''touring cars'' that are quite similar to the models you can buy at your local dealership. Some of them boast only added safety equipment and a few suspension and engine tweaks before they take to the track - and win.
But whether it's touring cars or Formula One, auto manufacturers are getting involved in competition as never before. Major automakers like Ford, GM. Chrysler, Toyota and Nissan, have been involved for years, and new contenders seem to appear almost weekly.
For the 1999 season, Chevrolet announced a well-backed team of Corvettes to contest big races like the 24 Hours of Daytona. Six of the best drivers in the business, including Canadian star Ron Fellows, have been hired to pilot the 'Vettes and the team is looking for early wins. Audi, which has not been involved in anything but touring car racing and rallying since the 1930s, has developed a superb open race car - the R8 - to contest the fabled Le Mans 24 hour race in France this year. I was in Berlin recently for the debut of this exciting racer and to meet the team of top drivers Audi has signed - including ex-Formula One ace Michele Alboreto. You can bet that many of the lessons Audi will learn as the new racer is developed will filter down to its range of road cars. At Le Mans last season, incidentally, Chrysler won its class with a very rapid and agile Viper GTS coupe.
Sometimes, an automaker earns its racing fame as an engine supplier. Mercedes-Benz has been winning constantly in both Formula One and CART in recent years and Honda has posted numerous victories in both these top racing formulas. Honda's much-praised VTEC variable valve timing technology, now available on very affordable models, is a direct result of Formula One racing experience. And Ford tells me that the on-board computer used in Formula One cars fitted with its engines is almost identical to the one you'll find in a Taurus or Contour.
In the World Rally Championship - surely the ultimate test of any road car - Subaru has been a dominant force in recent years and has won events all over the world with its Impreza. Rallying at this level has become so popular (though not in North America, sadly) that Ford recently hired away Subaru's top driver for a salary that would arouse envy in an NBA star. Ford is out to win the World rally Championship for sure, but like many of its rivals, its main aim is to use the experience to build even better automobiles.