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Carmakers seek relevance in new age

Ferrari's presence was hard to miss at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. John Oreovicz/ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Economic conditions and the automotive market are on the upswing, resulting in an upbeat air of manufacturer confidence at the 2013 North American International Auto Show.

But as those manufacturers increasingly seek relevance out of their motorsports programs, racing's presence at this year's show was more subdued than usual.

Sure, there were a couple of Formula One cars -- naturally at Ferrari, where F1 and racing in general have been part of the legendary Italian company's DNA since Day 1. An older Red Bull chassis graced the Nissan/Infiniti stand, publicizing the fact that Red Bull Racing's Renault engines will be badged as Infiniti for the 2013 season.

NASCAR was lightly represented with a Car of Tomorrow on the Toyota stand and a new Gen-6 Sprint Cup car over at Ford. But in a sign of the times, the NASCAR Fusion promoted Ford's range of EcoBoost small-displacement turbocharged engines, a comical juxtaposition that ironically highlighted the lack of modern technology in 21st century stock cars.

Perhaps the most significant racing car on display was the diesel-powered Mazda6 sedan that made its debut in the new GX class in last weekend's Rolex 24 Grand-Am sports car series race at Daytona International Speedway. It marked the first time a diesel-powered car competed in the 51-year history of the famous endurance race.

"We're thrilled to be starting a new chapter of Mazda Motorsports history with the race debut of our all-new Mazda6 racecar, powered by our all-new production based SKYACTIV-D clean diesel engine," said John Doonan, motorsports director, Mazda North American Operations.

While the chassis of the GX-class 6 is a lengthened version of the platform that Mazda raced successfully with RX-8 bodywork in the Grand-Am the past several years, including a GT-class championship in 2010, the diesel engine is derived from stock. In fact, the first engines delivered to SpeedSource to be uprated for racing action were the first five off the production line. The 2.2-liter diesel, which will be available in several Mazda models beginning in the second half of 2013, utilizes the stock block, head and 250 other components in its racing application.

"This is an amazing moment in Mazda Motorsports history because we are once again bringing innovative technology to the racetrack to demonstrate the performance, quality, durability and reliability of our brand," Doonan said. "While many know us as the 'rotary engine' company, and we love that part of our heritage, to race our latest SKYACTIV-D Clean Diesel technology in our newest car, in the race where we have scored our largest number of wins, is amazing."

Mazda also has recruited a strong driver lineup for its Grand-Am effort. The company sponsors the Mazda Road to Indy, an open-wheel formula car ladder designed to guide young drivers into the Izod IndyCar Series. Familiar names to American fans include reigning Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier, former Formula Atlantic star Jonathan Bomarito, Star Mazda front-runner Spencer Pigot, IndyCar racer James Hinchcliffe, and Marino Franchitti, the younger brother of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti.

"Our driver lineups include a talented mix of young guns and veterans, all of whom are from the extended Mazda family," Doonan said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the newness of the project, both of the Mazda entries dropped out early in the 24 hours. The GX class was won by Napleton Racing's Porsche Cayman with a driving team anchored by David Donohue.

Meanwhile, a production car that is sure to find success on the racetrack in the future made its highly publicized debut in Detroit. The seventh generation (or C7) Chevrolet Corvette Stingray was clearly the star of the show, and the Chevrolet team was keen to emphasize the role that the American Le Mans Series Corvette Racing program played in the development of the street car, particularly in the area of aerodynamics.

The C7 Corvette has an array of intake and extraction vents that not only keep important components like brakes and the rear-mounted transaxle cool, they generate downforce for the near-200 mph speeds the car is capable of. As an example, venting air out of the hood reduces total front-end lift for improved steering response at high speeds, and the front-fender side coves also help vent underhood air pressure to reduce aerodynamic drag.

Even detail items on the C7 like the shaping of the exterior rearview mirrors were heavily influenced by the Corvette Racing program.

The C7's aluminum frame is 99 pounds lighter and 57 percent stiffer than the already impressively light frame used on the C6 Corvette. Curb weight for the C7 is expected to come in at under 3,000 pounds, making for an impressive power-to-weight ratio, even with the base 450-horsepower small-block V-8.

"Chevrolet has a long history of using racing to improve production cars, and nowhere is that more evident than with Corvette," C7 development director Tadge Jeuchter said. "We continually apply technologies and strategies developed for Corvette Racing directly to the production car. That influence can be seen in virtually every aspect of the new Corvette Stingray, from the aerodynamic design to the use of carbon fiber, to the cooling techniques and even in the brake system."

Corvette Racing is the most successful team in ALMS history, with a total of 77 class wins, eight drivers' championships, and nine manufacturer and team championships since 2001, including the 2012 GT class title.

The C7 Corvette is expected to make its racetrack debut in 2014, when the Grand-Am and ALMS merge into a unified American sports car championship.