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GM puts engineers, cars on the fast track

Reuss
Associated Press
Pole-sitter Danica Patrick talks to a crew member Friday after practice for the Daytona 500. Patrick and her team are racing a Chevrolet SS in Sunday’s race.

– 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 17.9 percent, an 88-year-low, in 2012 as Toyota rebounded from 2011 production problems with 19 new or refreshed vehicles.

GM needs people who aren’t wedded to traditional long- term product development cycles, Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc., said 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’s racing effort has traditionally been separated from product development. 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.

“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.”

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