Taggart Autosport–in Cary, NC

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Tonight we attended the grand opening of Taggart Autosport in Cary, NC.  While Jim Taggart has occupied this 20,000 square foot facility for the past six months, this was the first time that everything was put together for a truly spectacular opening that featured not only their signature Rally Fighter cars, but many others including their Maserati race car.

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Cary, North Carolina, has become a racing center with many of some of the best road racing venues in the country within an hour or two of this city.  Not the least of which is Virginia International Raceway, commonly known as VIR.

This superb road racing track is but and hour and twenty minutes away and just a few hundred yards over the North Carolina border. 

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The local racing fraternity flocked to this opening.

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Some day Cary will become as well known in racing circles as Charlotte, NC.

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, Garages, Great Drivers, Life and Cars, Modifying Cars, Racing, Rally Cars, Road Racing, Sports Cars | 1 Comment

Automotive Shops–Torque

Automotive service shops are a tough game to play in.  The dealerships do everything they can to hold their customers captive to their own service department.  Obtaining factory diagnostic tools and information can be difficult and is always very expensive.

Cars continue to get more and more sophisticated and have become, quite literally, high speed networked computers and sensors on four wheels. Even something as seemingly simple as a brake job may require the assistance from the car’s computer to accomplish.  Alignments on cars with electric power steering will also need to be done in sync with the car’s computer in order to ensure the steering knows where center is.

Independent automotive service facilities must make a big investment in equipment as well as technically astute personnel needed to operate them if they are to stay competitive with dealership service.

Still independents abound and jumping into the fray takes skill, business knowledge, money, and having the confidence to know that you can make it.

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This morning I visited a new shop in Raleigh, Torque Automotive, and was prepared to find a guy who maybe had worked in a local dealership for a few years and got the yen to try his hand at his own business.  Then I met Simon.

Simon started out in South Africa and worked at dealerships there for several years until he moved to Dubai where he got a job at the largest BMW dealership in the world.  He started out as one of nearly 90 technicians there and worked his way up in a few years to managing them.

Simon had a dream of moving to the United States and had applied well in advance of the day when he was granted the move back in 2012. By then his resume was complete with experience in many European makes as well as being a master tech with BMW.  So you would expect him to end up at a dealership or an independent that specialized in those makes.  But he took a little different path.

Even four years after the recession, finding that kind of work in the area was tough and so he went looking for existing automotive service businesses for sale.  One promising opportunity popped up and he went to check it out.  The service side of an independent car sales shop was losing money.  That part of the business was for sale, but it turned out to be well above Simon’s resources at the time.  So he negotiated a deal where he would manage the service side of the business for a percentage.  Over time things improved greatly.  Within a year a profit was seen and by the end of three years the staff had grown from one tech to three.

Now he was ready – and so was born Torque Automotive.

Simon gave me a tour of the shop, which is only a month or two old at this point, but he already had five cars in for service and plenty of space to accommodate them.

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The shop has been freshly painted and the floors in the shop area have been professionally coated with a heavy duty epoxy finish that not only reflects light under the cars, but is easily kept clean as it is impervious to any fluids used in servicing.

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He has a unique company car, a Smart Car, by Mercedes Benz, with a twist, Tesla has converted it to an all electric.

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It is Simon’s daily driver and has an eighty mile range.  The perfect commuter car and a great way to let people know about his shop.

Simon understand where the automotive service business is going and is quite prepared to keep up with the changes looming on the horizon.  He is also building a following of loyal customers.

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Its nice to see these better alternatives to being a captive of the car manufacturers and the dealerships that sell them. 

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Care and Feeding, Cars, Servicing Cars | 5 Comments

Be Careful What You Wish For…

You may remember an oft told tale of a genie that immerged from a magic lamp and would grant three wishes to a mortal human.  You may also remember how, in the story, that the human struggled to deal with the opportunity to ask for anything – and the consequences of receiving their wish.

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Remember when prices for gasoline were forever increasing and it appeared that petroleum was looked at as a necessary evil that we wished we could tame?  Then along came the idea of turning corn into fuel.  Ethanol, to be specific.  Our government reacted to our cries of woe much like a parent trying to quiet the tantrums of a screaming child.  They would save us by mandating the inclusion of 10% ethanol in our gasoline.  On top of that they would raise the highway tax on our fuel.  On top of that they would subsidize the use of ethanol in gasoline, or in other words, they would tax us again.

Soon the miracle of ethanol became part of our energy system and the price of corn went up.  Then it was discovered that our automotive vehicles were not compatible with ethanol and had to be modified in order to ingest it without causing problems in the fuel system.  In addition it was found that ethanol is a corrosive so that in concentrations higher than 10% (some say that any amount is a problem) it is incompatible with storage tanks and fuel station pumps as well as the entire fuel system of cars.  In fact for model years 2001 through 2011 manufacturers contend that nothing more than a 10% blend with gasoline can be used.  Less than half of cars built after 2011 can contend with a higher percentage.

Yet the government is refusing to admit that ethanol is not the wonder fuel it was thought to be, and is advocating a 15% mixture be mandated so that the subsidies can continue.  It is believed that only 6% of vehicles on the road today can possibly contend with an ethanol mix in that high a concentration.

So why do we bother?  Why don’t we end the experiment and admit that it was not as good idea as it once appeared?  Go back to using a food grain as a food grain.  End the expense of subsidies. 

Nah, let’s see how screwed up things can get first.

 

Air Bags

Look at the dashboard of your interior and you will likely spot the initials SRS.  In case you don’t know, these letters stand for Supplemental Restraint System.  What a lovely sounding name.  Almost as lovely as “Airbag”. 

“Airbag” conjures up visions of a soft pillow coming to life at just the time you need it and gently cushioning the potential trauma of an accident.   In truth of fact airbags are not gentle. They are an explosive device that inflates with noxious gasses for an instant and then lose any ability it might have to cushion an impact.

Perhaps you are aware of the massive Takata airbag recall. It involves millions upon millions of vehicles and will take years to rectify the problems.  Toyota has over 1.5 million vehicles affected, Chrysler has over 4.75 million, Honda over 5.5 million.  Figures that high make BMW’s affected vehicle number of 765,000 seem almost paltry.

How did we get here?  Well, we wished for cars that would be safer in an accident.  We didn’t want to be bothered with the safety devices that had been proven effective in automobile racing.  Who would want to contend with maneuvering their body past a roll cage side bar?  Or wear protective suits and helmets. Who would want to deal with form fitting protective seats and strap themselves in with multiple harness belts?  Nope, we just wanted to be able to get in and out of our vehicles with as much ease as possible and let a magical bag of air save us from the bad effects of a collision. 

Only there was no magical bag of air.  Instead we got multiple exploding bags to surround us and discover that they suffer with the consequences of humidity degrading the chemical composition of the explosive charge set off by a complex computer program that was monitoring various sensors that would alert the computer to deploy them properly in a collision.  Maybe.

TPMS

No, not the TPS reports from the movie Office Space.  TPMS is part of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards known as Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems.  It is supposed to alert the driver of a 25% to 30% tire under-inflation condition.  It does this by having a device installed in each tire that monitors the pressure.  So if your tires should be inflated to 32 pounds per square inch of air pressure you will be alerted when that pressure drops by 8 psi. So by that time your tire is inflated to 24 psi and if you haven’t already noticed that your handling is getting squirrely, your tire may have already overheated and either exploded or incurred damage to its structure.

But at least you don’t have to concern yourself with manually checking your tire pressures.

Of course you do have to contend with the cost of replacing the in-wheel sensors that can get damaged during tire mounting and balancing.  The costs can vary from $45 to $150+, depending upon the make and model.  Oh yes, and the annoyance of the TPMS light going off because your spare has lost air, or the routine and expense of re-programming the TPMS system of your tire sensors after new tires have been mounted.

On the same topic many car companies have eliminated the irritation of a spare tire by mandating “run-flat” tires on their cars.  These mean that if you have a leak you can continue to travel on the deflated tire at no more than 50 mph for about 50 miles.  Not to worry that these are premium priced tires and that if you get a large puncture or sidewall damage all bets are off.  Oh yes, the ride sucks, too.

 

ESC

What, another acronym? ESC stands for Electronic Stability Control.  It is part of a comprehensive plan by the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to reduce the serious risk of rollover crashes and the risk of death and serious injury in those crashes.  Obviously the NHTSA really does care about our safety.

For our benefit they have established Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 126 to ensure our safety.  The ESC system uses automatic (you have no control or choice) computer-controlled braking of individual wheels to assist the driver in maintaining control (actually pretending to let you control) in critical driving situations (as determined by the computer programming based on data returned by multiple sensors).  The NHTSA contends that these systems will reduce single-vehicle crashes of passenger cars by 34%.  Hallelujah!

This mandate also means that it is more than the brake system that is under control.  Much more.  Your accelerator is now no longer mechanically connected to the throttle.  It is “drive-by-wire”.  That means the computer interprets what input you have on the accelerator pedal and determines just how much acceleration it will allow.  It is also the same for steering input.  The power steering is now controlled by a computer program that decides what the wheels should really be doing. 

From 2012 on all light vehicles are mandated to have this system and it was instituted in many cars prior to that year.  Kinda of gives you a warm feeling to know that you are being watched over so well.  Your vehicle is now fully networked with sensors and actuators that are under the control of the miracle of computer programming.  You hardly have to worry about driving at all.

And what could go wrong?  I mean, airbags have been around for ages and whatever went wrong with them?

 

Self-Driving Car

Google has been at the forefront of this revolution in driving and transportation.  It has been testing in the state of California with amazing success.  Sort of.

It has been involved in 13 minor “fender benders” in 1 million miles of autonomous driving.  Not bad!  Well, it would be if you were a driver between the ages of 16-19.  They average 20.12 involvements per million miles.  Oh yeah, and drivers 75 and older who average 12.23 per million miles.  If you are between 40 and 64 the number is 7.2.

The reality is that the Google cars drive like an 80 year old.  They’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes.  In other words they are irritating and their behavior is at odds with typical human driving habits.  So they get rear-ended at stop lights by human drivers.

The current iterations would fail in superb fashion if they had to negotiate patches of snow-covered roads, driving at night, or highly urban traffic such as you would find in Boston and New York City.  In other words they drive like your 80-year-old grandmother in Florida.

Not to worry, Google is now getting into the vehicle insurance business as well.  Not content with acquiring all the data on regular Google users search and buying habits, they now have Google Compare to gather all your demographic and vehicle information and “helping” you search for the best deal in auto insurance.  Thank you Google.

Google Compare has gone live in the UK and offers a comparison of quotes from 124 insurance companies.  The UK already approve the testing of driverless cars on public roads, as well. 

Can you see where this is going?  In the future Google will position itself to underwrite its own policies and in particular for its autonomous cars. 

Like I said – Be Careful What You Wish For

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Care and Feeding, Cars, Engines, Life and Cars, Servicing Cars | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Indy 500 2015–flipping with the stars

With Formula 1 evolving its way into becoming a spec series with a hierarchy, it is time to turn our eyes to the Indy series and the Indy 500 race where the month of May is reserved for the teams to perfect their cars for this enormous track event.

The Indy series is slowly evolving out of a spec series and into something akin to a true racing series.  Yes, they still all use the same brand of tires and all teams use a Dallara chassis, but now there are two engine manufacturers involved and this year aerodynamic modifications are allowed that are specific to the two brands, Honda and Chevrolet.

While the first races of the series this year were road courses and had aero features that are reminiscent of what you would find in F1, the Indy 500 is an “oval” track and the aero features are much more basic looking although the challenges are far more complex.

Wednesday, Helio Castroneves caught air in a bad way and flipped his Chevrolet car in spectacular fashion landing on four wheels.  Then yesterday Josef Newgarden took a similar ride in his Chevy powered car.  Both drivers appear to be unhurt although no one can be subjected to those kind of forces and not be affected.

The speeds this year are astounding – with Ed Carpenter reaching a top speed of  227.422 mph that was exceeded by Simon Pagenaud by a slight margin at 227.628 mph.  Neither of these were the result of an aerodynamic “tow” by a car in front.

These speeds are well beyond the take-off speeds of commercial jet passenger planes. Aerodynamics must provide down-force to keep these race cars in touch with the track surface, but not too much.  Because down-force includes a penalty of drag which limits top speed.  Race car drivers hate limitations.

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(the above photo copyright Marshall Pruett)

As Marshall’s photo above shows, there is a center wicker bill on the cars.  Well, there was.  Apparently the Honda cars could not pass the lateral lift tests without it, but when dancing boy crashed on Wednesday, the Chevy teams were told to cut it off their cars.

Some say that the bigger problem is the rear bodywork acting as air brakes and in certain conditions the front wants to flip.

The Indy track is known for its wicked cross winds which will interfere with production of down force, and in traffic, lead cars produce enormous amounts of turbulence making it difficult for the cars following.  The fact that aerodynamic aids are static makes it difficult for a car in the wake of another to cope.  Yes, this is dangerous folks.  No, I don’t wish for any injuries, let alone fatalities, but this is what automobile racing is all about.  Finding the edge of the envelope and pushing beyond.

For that reason this year’s Indy 500 is more than worth watching.  Not in anticipation of carnage, but in the skill of the engineers and drivers, supported by their teams, racing.  Racing on the edge with some much needed individuality in the cars.

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, Indy 500, Racing | 2 Comments

Could Vettel have been Sandbagging?

Watching Sebastian Vettel last season was watching someone who just didn’t like racing any more.  There was no enthusiasm from the four-time winner.  He complained about the sound of the power units ( I didn’t like them either) and said that he felt the car was just not right.

Meanwhile Daniel Ricardo was driving the Red Bull car and having a blast.  He would grab a podium at every opportunity while Vettel would have a lackluster race that quite often ended early for him with some kind of failure.

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Then the word is out that Sebastian is moving to Ferrari while Alonso moves to McLaren providing Vettel with his seat. 

Tongues were wagging about Vettel being quickly past his prime since he couldn’t seem to cope with the new formula.  Was it that he could only win when his car had a blown diffuser and a mighty V8? 

With the Australian GP opener for this year’s F1 season Vettel  came in third and by the next race he qualified second and finished first!

Was last year’s poor performance an act so that RB would not hold him to his contract?  So he could slip over to Ferrari who couldn’t seem to put together a competitive ride for Kimi or Alonso? 

Suddenly Sebastian is making the new Ferrari fly and is joking with the Mercedes team.

It sure looks like a case of sandbagging to this viewer.

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Formula 1 for 2015–what???

Formula 1 is never without controversy, but this past weekend leads one to wonder – what’s the point?

I can understand that Mercedes is enjoying being top dog.  Who wouldn’t?  But to dominate to such a degree and block all other teams from enhancing their power units is not providing a racing environment.  It is stifling competition.

F1 rules are monumental in their detail and it is difficult to get a view of if you are not directly involved as a competing team.  There exists a bizarre points and chit system whereby teams can spend them to make certain upgrades to their power units.  When teams asked for the ability to make additional modifications and fixes that would allow them to be competitive with the Mercedes power units, Mercedes vetoed the request.  Yes, the way the rules are, a single team has veto power.

So it has gotten unbelievably expensive to fund a complete team in F1 and last Sunday’s race in Australia showed just what has happened as a result.  Only 11 cars completed the race and only 17 actually can be considered to have even participated.  It was pitiful to see that the third place car was over 30 seconds behind the Mercedes winners.  Not even in Vetel’s dominance with Red Bull were there gaps like that.

And Lewis Hamilton’s hair.

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Sheesh, he is starting to look like Grace Jones…

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Oh well, to each his own.

Teams are losing interest in F1 almost as fast as the fans, which is an incredible shame.  Its questionable that the “power unit” formula is really appropriate to what should be the premier automotive racing category on earth.

I’m not totally sold on the argument that tight rules restricting F1 car design is really cost saving at all.  From what I’ve seen the more an area of engineering is limited the more money is spent to maximize return within the allowable box.

Bernie Ecclestone needs to get his head wrapped around reality quickly or competitors just might stay at home.  For the moment it would be a more interesting competition if the race was just between the two Mercedes drivers.

Posted in Automobiles, Car Stuff, Cars, F1, Great Drivers, Racing | Leave a comment

The North American International Auto Show 2015

It was electric.  There I said it.  The E word.  My trip to Detroit’s NAIAS was electric in many ways.  Detroit has come forward with a recovery that shows itself clearly at NAIAS.  Just traveling from the airport to the COBO where it is being held I could tell that the driver was feeling good about his city and what the future might hold.  At the show itself, where over $600 million dollars had been invested I talked to the workers doing their jobs amongst the glitter and lights.  Their attitude was very positive and their perspectives were of the future and their expectations of a bright one.

But the main way this show was electric were the cars themselves.  It looked like every manufacturer had an electric car to showcase.  Walking into the exhibition hall I was immediately confronted with the concept of electric cars.

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Yes, even Porsche.

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Seeing a Prius at the Toyota stage area was not a surprise.  But here was a hydrogen powered drivetrain…

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Chevy showed its Bolt electric vehicle which they claim will provide 200 miles of driving before requiring a recharge.  If so, it will really shake up the industry.

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VW’s E car subtly incorporated the letter E into the side of its tail light.

How about a vehicle of the future from the folks at Toyota?

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Interesting and while a stretch it is more plausible than a flying car.

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The Chevy Volt with more improvements for 2015.

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Mazda had a couple examples of the new Miata MX-5.  One in left hand drive and one in right.

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A big part of getting fuel economy out of today’s cars is aerodynamics and here is a good shot of the underside of a car where things have been smoothed out as much as possible…

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The car companies are going for the revenue in aftermarket parts and accessories.  ford is even offering more aggressive tuning of the ECUs of some of their cars.

Car shows are the place where you expect to see some really amazing concept cars as well as the unveiling of new hot vehicles and NAICS was no exception.

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The Mini concept car above shows the BMW influence.  I love the windshield treatment.

Maserati had their car to celebrate a century of their brand.  It was stunning.

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I wasn’t sure how Buick feels about the portholes used on Maserati.

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Speaking of Buick, they had their own stunner in this long wheelbase sedan that would be a real hit in the China market.

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Here is the replacement for the NSX.  Another stunning vehicle that is a hybrid sports car.

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Mercedes has their own concept car.  Interesting ideas…

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Honda showed off their product line of cars and much more.

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Honda’s Indy series winner:

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As well as its F1 history…

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Honda will be reentering F1 and teaming with McLaren Racing.  This is the engine they use in the Indy Series…

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We know of Honda in lawnmowers and motorcycles…

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…but now they are ready to introduce their jet!

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The most stunning of the new cars debuting were the Ford cars…

…but before we get there let’s whet your appetite with a few Ford historical legends.

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the Ford GT40 above…

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The Ford GT street car from just a few years back…

…and now…

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The NEW Ford GT.

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On top of that there is the Shelby Mustang with magnificent handling and 600+ horsepower.

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Ford also has their aluminum F-150.

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Dodge has its Eco Turbo Ram truck…

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Nissan broke a 12 year rut and has come out with a new full-size pickup truck with a Cummins diesel engine.

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Take a look at the underpinnings…

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Its time to look at the various race cars that were on display…

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Not quite sure what I was supposed to take away with this race truck from Toyota.

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Not to loan them my truck?  Not to be a passenger?  Tough truck though.

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Toyota is in so many forms of racing.

This is a Lexus that while billed as a concept racer is highly likely to be seen in competition.

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These vintage race cars from Alfa Romero were eye catchers to introduce their new sports car…

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which looks suspiciously like a Lotus.

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Hyundai does their share of racing…

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And the new Corvette in racing trim…

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Ford…

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Mercedes

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Formula E

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Red Bull

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As a special treat the Autoweek editorial staff gave a group of us Autoweek Advisors a walking tour of the show.

There is nothing quite like having all their car knowledge on tap and being receptive to your questions.

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This show continues in Detroit through January 25.  It is an amazing show that is well worth a trip.  The venue is fantastic and the displays are outstanding.  The talent that helps to display the cars also know all the technical details.  A big part of their job is to listen to the attendees and gather the comments and information for input back to the automobile companies.

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Its not just the car companies that make up the NAICS, there are the key suppliers and vendors.

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Much of the thanks for the success of NAICS should go to the people of Detroit that have shaken off the down side of the economy and are coming back with all their heart and soul.

Posted in Cars | 2 Comments