Yesterday on a stage on the Encore Theater at The Wynn Resort in Las Vegas, Chevrolet revealed its NASCAR SS, the race car that will contest next year's Sprint Cup series. A lot of people are talking about this car, and doing so well beyond the NASCAR fraternity – we were told that 30 minutes after it began the car became the number one trending topic on Twitter. The car looks great, Jeff Gordon showed up for some banter, everyone who was there applauded, the assembled drivers said the the right things.
But it was at lunch after the event with Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, and Jim Caldwell, US vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports, that we learned what we really wanted to know. That story centered on the car that the NASCAR Chevrolet SS heralds, the production Chevrolet SS that will go on sale late next year. Reuss was quick to lay out two of the biggest issues surrounding it: "The only reason we brought this car over is to go racing," and "This is not a return of the Pontiac G8."
So let's get the obligatory NASCAR derision out of the way first, shall we? Yes, NASCAR Chevrolet SS is the Bowtie's version of NASCAR's 2013 not-really-Car-of-Tomorrow, meaning it's got a tube-frame chassis that you won't find on the options sheet of the production SS. And yes, it's covered in decals that mimic the features and lines of the SS production car, except for the rather important part where it has just two doors to the production car's four doors. So no, it's not exactly a stock car, and even if it wins on Sunday you can't really buy it on Monday.
Yet the 2013 car – no longer called the CoT – is a huge step for NASCAR, nearly two years in the works, to try to get more "stock" back into the series. Primary reasons for the seven-year development of the 2007 CoT were driver safety, lower costs and improved competition, but the formula went so far that teams were running "a template car, it was just decals," Reuss said. A press colleague added, "You couldn't tell what car was coming out of Turn 4 until you saw the number." "It became about drivers and sponsors," said Reuss, "and we said 'hey, we need to get back to the stock car roots.'"
Chevrolet was one of the first manufacturers to go to NASCAR executives to suggest a collaboration on a new formula. Caldwell said the three hot points that Chevrolet had were that "We want the car we race to be the car we sell," which is also about how the race car looks, "we want relevant technologies and we want biofuels." NASCAR could address two of those, which next year's car does. If you're wondering about the biofuels request, here's a look at just some of Chevrolet's manfacturer and engine supplier championship victories in 2012: Ryan Hunter-Reay's championship-winning Indycar uses a Chevy V6, the C6.R Corvette took the ALMS GT series, as did the Grand Am Daytona prototype Corvette, the Chevy Cruze took the World Touring Car Championship, Holden nabbed Australia's V8 Supercars championship. All those other series use ethanol.
Beyond the surface initiative of the first request – and a look at the Stock Surfaces slide (above) reveals a close similarity between the NASCAR SS and the one you'll be able to buy – there was also work for Chevy to do. That's why the front-wheel-drive Impala is out and the rear-wheel-drive, small-block-V8-powered SS is in.
There are two ways in which the SS will not be the Pontiac G8 2.0: It's going upmarket and it's not for the masses.
Reuss has a particular interest in what happens with the SS because he was Managing Director at Holden while the next-generation Holden Commodore, the VE series – the car that is the SS in its original guise – was being developed. He said that from inception, it was decided that the VE series would be the car that would become Chevrolet's RWD halo sedan, rumors from three years ago even pegging it as a Chevy SS, and spearhead its NASCAR efforts.
The Australia-to-US move has been tried before with the Pontiac Monaro and G8, neither one working out as hoped. There are two vital ways in which the SS will not be The Pontiac G8 2.0, however: It's going upmarket and it's not for the masses.
The high-power small-block V8, in his words, makes the SS "a four-door Corvette."
In fact, Reuss said the SS is a completely different car from the G8, specifically in terms of refinement and NVH, and that's before you get to the high-power small-block V8 that, in his words, makes the SS "a four-door Corvette." The user interface, the tactile points, the perceived and real touches are a step in another direction, "quite different" is what we were told. Above that, Reuss said the entire SS package has been about making sure all aspects of the car fit together. "The integration in NVH, ride and handling has to match, and the refinement of the car will match the performance of the car." The meaning for us is, "Don't expect this to be like the G8 or the G8 GXP." We should expect it to be better. We don't have a problem with that, since the G8 GXP was one of our favorite cars.
Any time you mention the word Corvette, you're probably not talking about an inexpensive car. Add two more doors, three more seats, the tuning work needed to keep the word "Corvette" in the conversation and the phrase "halo car," and you're definitely not talking about an inexpensive vehicle. Therefore, Chevy is treating the SS like a halo car: Instead of making grand predictions about production volumes or churning out a performance car that sits on dealer lots, Reuss said, "We will fill the orders of the people who want them."
Chevy is treating the SS like a halo car.
In terms of where SS buyers might also be looking, Caldwell said, "We're in a unique spot because there isn't a lot of competition at the Chevy level."
When we succumbed to asking the boilerplate "Who is this car for?" question that always comes up when a manufacturer presents an upmarket offering, Reuss looked thoughtful and said, "Anyone who has the right amount of money and shows up in a Chevrolet dealership, we will sell them this car." Point taken. "You don't want to overthink this stuff – we haven't focus-grouped it," he added. "It's going to be a really good car. People are going to want it." Right on.
We haven't focus-grouped it... It's going to be a really good car. People are going to want it."
Said buyer could be faced with a shorter options sheet than that of the G8, though, Reuss saying "Pontiac had all kinds of options and trim levels [for the G8]. This will be different." Again, this sounds like halo-car talk.
As for the name, there is a bit of heritage to the SS badge as a nameplate, but it seems this was more about steering clear of what has come before. There was an SS concept car in 2003, and in 1957 there was a factory-backed SS racing project that used the Corvette but it didn't get beyond a few laps of of one race. "We raced the Impala, Monte Carlo, Regal, Grand Prix, and they were all front-wheel-drive in their last [production] versions," Reuss said, "and we didn't want to come up with a new name for it." As such, what's happening now is also about returning some lustre to the SS badge, assuming it wins on Sunday come 2013: Reuss said he purged all of the SS models from the Chevrolet line-up except on the Camaro because none of the other offerings were about increased performance, only trim pieces, which is a bit of a slap in the face to an acronym for "Super Sport."
It will be three months before we see the production version of the SS revealed at Daytona Speed Week, the same week the NASCAR SS hits the track, but almost a year before we can buy it. Asked by another journo whether he thought the SS was American enough, Reuss said – hinting at the decades-old icon it will house in its engine bay – "It's American enough."
While we wait for that verdict, there's a press release with more info on the NASCAR SS below, a large gallery of high-res photos above.