Car racing for the rest of us
To get you into their products, some car makers invite you to strap on a helmet and go for the gold.
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- A 20-year-old Texas college student recently won a Chevrolet Cobalt SS. He didn't spin a wheel or pick some lucky numbers.

Rather, in a contest sponsored by General Motors, Wade Marcantonio had to drive on two timed laps through a course created out of traffic cones in the parking lot of a race track. His time was compared to those of other drivers at similar events in July and August around the country.

Rev It Up
Cars lined up to start at a Chevrolet "Rev It Up" media preview New York City.

Events like GM's "Rev It Up" contest, which promoted the Chevrolet brand's "SS" line of performance vehicles, provide the opportunity for ordinary citizens to put the product through its paces. Contestants sit through classes taught by professional drivers and could take practice laps to try out their new skills.

Other events, like Mazda's "Zoom-Zoom Live" traveling autocross event, put drivers into vehicles for less serious competition with far less serious prizes.

In one of several contests at a "Zoom-Zoom Live" event, drivers have to maneuver a CX7 SUV through a course, trying to hit targets along the way.

Last year, drivers could compete driving through a course in a Mazda MX-5 sports car with a bowl full of balls attached to the hood. Points were deducted for each ball that rolled out of the bowl. "We focus a lot more on having fun than competition," said Jim Jordan, manager of alternative marketing for Mazda.

The "Zoom-Zoom Live" tour will be in Miami this weekend then travels on to six other cities this year.

Need for speed

In a similar sort of program, Ford sets up drive days at race tracks around the country so that drivers can really open up the throttle.

"We're talking about putting 1,500 people in vehicles on the Kentucky Speedway and letting them drive a Mustang like people want to drive a Mustang," said Burt Diamond, global marketing manager for Ford Racing Technology, the division that puts on Ford's touring drive events.

At the "Ford Racing Drive Zones" a professional driver rides in the passenger seat to provide some guidance on the best and safest way to drive the track, said Diamond.

While the Ford events are held at race tracks, the driving isn't always done on the track. If the track itself isn't available because it's being used for a real race, then the Ford marketing folks are forced to you use, yes, traffic cones in the parking lot.

There's no competition at the Ford events, he said, and they consider it a win if attendees come with spouses and even their kids to see the cars.

Mazda, likewise, notes the high participation of women at its events. Women make up about 40 percent of the attendees at a typical Zoom-Zoom Live event, said Jordan.

GM's contest, meanwhile, attracted an 85-percent male audience. But, as far as Chevrolet is concerned, that's exactly who they wanted to reach.

The serious performance drivers who would be attracted to a national driving contest would be the same sort of "piston heads" that neighbors and friends would go to for car shopping advice.

"Targeting those influencers, those people that are opinion leaders," was a major reason for having this type of event rather than something more casual, said John Foley, field advertising manager for Chevrolet.

While anyone can drive for free at the Rev-It-Up events, as they can at the Ford and Mazda events, there is a fee to enter the national competition.

While driving cars is the main attraction at events like these, car companies use them as an opportunity to reach a motivated audience. There are surveys to fill out, brochures to leaf through and drivers will usually be asked to sit through a video presentation or two.

"We put them through a little bit of brandwashing," said Mazda's Jordan.

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