Winning racing programs improve image and help sell cars. This has been true from the earliest days of the auto industry, and it's still true today. It was even the case when auto companies had policies against supporting racers and automakers helped teams under the table.

Today, everything is above board and advertisements touting racing victories cover full pages in newspapers and magazines the day after the Indy 500, Daytona 500 and other high-profile contests. Current automaker assistance to racing teams is not only out in the open, it's organized.

Chrysler Corp. recently appointed Louis P. Patane as executive director of the company's motorsports operations. He reports directly to President Robert A. Lutz and chairs Chrysler's motorsports committee. That committee comprises people directly involved in the automaker's racing operations and production platform team and marketing and public relations people as well.

"We feel (racing) is paying tremendous dividends to the production side," says Mr. Patane, who prior to his motorsports appointment was executive director of brand marketing.

Mr. Patane says Chrysler identifies high-potential engineers and assigns them to either full- or part-time racing jobs. After a period of time, they are rotated back into their regular positions.

Unlike Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., Chrysler engineers on racing assignments continue to work where they always have when on track duty. "Nowhere in this big building will you find a racing operations headquarters," says Mr. Patane. "We work right along with the product people."

Ford's Motorsports Technology Dept. works under the watchful eye of Neil W. Ressler, vice president of advanced vehicle technology. Before the unit was created, people from various company departments "just got involved in motorsports. It tended to be ad hoc and managers would get mad when I pulled their people to go to a race team, and it was more difficult to manage," explains Mr. Ressler.

The motorsports department is divided into five categories: electronics, fluid dynamics, vehicle dynamics, testing and materials. Racing assignments are now considered part of an engineer's training. The result is a more orderly transition from passenger vehicle programs to one- or two-year stints in racing and back again.

"What these guys learn (and bring back) is how to organize more effective testing and a lot of other disciplines and do it fast," says Mr. Ressler. "They learn systems engineering and how to validate vehicle performance based on measured data, since they never get to actually drive a race car."

Mr. Ressler says that's valuable knowledge to bring back to passenger-car development because "we want to validate product performance before there's a car.

GM Motorsports was established in 1991 as the GM Motorsports Technology Group. The group recently shortened its name and reorganized into three divisions: road racing, oval and Indy Racing League, and drag racing and off-road.

Executive Director Herb Fishel is in charge of the operation, which performs engineering and program management for the corporation's marketing divisions involved in racing. The divisions are responsible for their own communications and advertising efforts.

Spokesman Dave Hederich says budgets for the 1997 racing season were decided by brand management teams for the first time. As a result, Chevrolet Camaros will not be involved in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans Am series.

Even before that group was formed, GM engineers were cycled in and out of racing assignments with results similar to what Ford's Mr. Ressler describes.

It's clear the Big Three are getting more from their motorsports involvement than "Racing on Sunday and Selling on Monday."