GM motorsports czar Jim Campbell says weekends spent at the nation’s speedways are flat-out fun




Jim Campbell speaks with driver Tommy Milner and crew chief Brian Hoye.

LEXINGTON, Ohio — Jim Campbell remains calm, at least outwardly, even though one of General Motors’ four factory-backed cars was involved in a minor mishap just prior to the final race on this busy Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

“I’ve only been doing this for 20 years,” Campbell says, smiling as he strides toward Cadillac’s garages, where engineers are mending the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R Prototype racer’s front nose and wing. “Believe me, this is not a relaxing moment right now.”

GM’s vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports is not one to wear his heart on his sleeve. He prefers brands instead. Today, Campbell, who has held the position since August 2010, has logos for Cadillac Racing on his left polo sleeve and Corvette Racing on his right sleeve. Both are competing here in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

On race days, the burly 53-year-old is GM’s on-the-scene ambassador to its teams, drivers, sponsors and racing league officials. He’s there to make sure all goes smoothly — or as smoothly as possible. Throughout the day, he is in conversation with officials from each GM team, including drivers, engineers and race strategists. The work is mostly done prior to races, allowing Campbell to be an omniscient observer when the green flag is waved, listening to all communications from his teams through a headset.

For Campbell, of course, it’s not just a job. It’s a flat-out passion — and the culmination of a lifelong dream. GM and race-car performance are in his blood.

His grandfather and father worked for the Detroit automaker and like many Motor City natives, Campbell grew up with posters of fire-breathing Chevrolet Camaros and Corvettes festooning his bedroom wall.

“I have not done racing, but I’ve always loved performance,” he said. “I remember having these different posters in my room. My dream was to someday work on Corvette and Camaro.”

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Campbell isn’t an engineer. He has a BA in economics from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Notre Dame. But he secured his racing DNA from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The gregarious Campbell greets Anna Hoye following the national anthem at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington. Photo credit: MICHAEL WAYLAND

In 1972, his father took him with a group of friends and their sons to practice and time trials for the Indianapolis 500. Instead of staying at a hotel, the group slept in a nearby barn so they could be together and talk about racing.

Why race?

Win or lose, Jim Campbell says General Motors’ racing programs pay dividends in 4 main areas:

  • 1. Technical transfer: “Corvette is our gold standard on that. What we learn every program, we drive back into the company.”
  • 2. Rotating engineers: GM routinely moves young engineers into “this fast-paced racing environment, where you have to make decisions very, very rapidly,” Campbell said. “We’re better for it as a company.”
  • 3. Boosting brands: “When you lift brand opinion and image ratings, great things happen. People put you on their shopping lists more quickly.”
  • 4. Winning over fans: They get to the track early and it allows the automaker to connect with them and “show the race fans our products.”

Campbell, whose first car was a 1969 Chevy Chevelle, remembers “being absolutely in awe” of the famous racetrack and drivers. It’s a feeling that sticks with him during the dozens of races he attends a year with GM, which competes in nearly every major racing circuit outside of Formula One.

“It’s still the same,” he said. “I love that feeling of being at the racetrack. It’s about focusing on great execution at the track with the team and knowing anything can happen in the race. It’s just how our team responds. It’s really what I love about being at the track.”

His job places great emphasis on the “7” part of 24/7. He’s in the office on weekdays, overseeing GM’s performance vehicles, and then spends as many weekends as possible at a track somewhere in America.

For the weekend of the Mid-Ohio races, Campbell flew from Detroit to Delaware for the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Dover International Speedway, and traveled from there to Mid-Ohio.

Whatever the track, Campbell is a charismatic figure. While making his way through the garages and pits at Mid-Ohio, he can’t walk more than a few feet without someone approaching him to say hello or asking how team preparations are going.

Just before the race, Campbell is in continual conversation with pit crew members and drivers such as Tommy Milner, a stalwart of the Corvette Racing team since 2011. He also has time for inquiring race fans. When the national anthem is played, he lines up with the Corvette Racing team on pit road, then spends most of the race standing inside the Corvette pits.

Campbell watches the final minutes of the IMSA WeatherTech race with members of the Corvette Racing team. Photo credit: MICHAEL WAYLAND

Campbell’s first job with GM was out of college in 1988 as a district sales/service manager in Texas. His professional involvement in racing began when he was named brand manager of Corvette/Camaro in June 1998. On his desk when he arrived at his new office was a manila envelope from then-Chevrolet General Manager John Middlebrook with “R99” inscribed on it.

It was the code name for a new venture that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Corvette Racing. Inside the envelope was the plan.

“It was really exciting,” Campbell said. “It was the first thing I saw on my new job. … I’ve been involved with racing ever since.”

It’s been a successful run, especially in the past two years as the Corvette teams achieved team and manufacturer victories in the GT Le Mans class.

“Winning is great, being on the podium is great,” he said. “But it’s just as important when you don’t win — what do we do about it. You don’t win every race.”

Today, during a mostly overcast day in April, the Corvette and Cadillac teams don’t perform to expectations. The No. 3 Corvette is the only vehicle of four to make the podium with a third-place finish in the GT Le Mans class.

Placing ahead of the Corvette team are Porsche and BMW, both of which remain close to Chevrolet in points. Cadillac’s teams place fourth and fifth in the Prototype class, losing to two Acura teams and Mazda.

But Campbell is upbeat. All of GM’s teams remain in the hunt to win this year’s series despite not placing at Mid-Ohio.

“I was proud of the team for executing at a high level,” Campbell says, heading back to his racing trailer before returning to Detroit. “It’s a race under our belt, and we go on.”




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