Auto manufacturer involvement in racing is as traditional as the winner's ceremonial swig of Indiana milk in the victory circle after the Indianapolis 500.

Manufacturers have used racing to prove the performance and durability of their products since the first checkered flag was waved. But times have changed. What was once a pure test bed or a place to flex corporate muscle has become big business for the world's automakers.

"We rationalize our involvement in motorsports on five key deliverables," explains Herbert A. Fishel, executive director of General Motors Motorsports. "That's how it impacts our people, product, process, image and profit."

Racing also has become more of an entertainment activity than automotive proving ground. As a result, automakers are re-evaluating their racing programs with an eye on the future.

"I think there are certain areas of race car development where we'll be more involved and probably be relied on more," says Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing Technology. "Certainly in the higher series, on the engine development side of things, we'll be more involved, and in areas like aerodynamics and material sciences."

Mr. Fishel says the challenge is to balance the entertainment and competitive aspect of racing.

"If technology can be applied to achieve the right balance in competition and entertainment, then it shouldn't be looked at as an expensive or an unpoliceable type of application," he says. "But if the technology is compromised to the extent that there is no meaningful connection to a production vehicle, then a manufacturer has to stand back and ask himself 'What is the tangible benefit of being in this series?'"

Both Mr. Davis and Mr. Fishel use NASCAR Winston Cup as an example of a series that may need to adjust itself to guarantee future manufacturer involvement.

"The priority in NASCAR today is to have that entertaining, close competition," says Mr. Fishel.

Says Mr. Davis, "In Winston Cup, I don't know where we'll be in 10 years. It kind of depends on what they let us do and how involved they let us be. Right now, the race teams are the central focus of that activity."

Mr. Fishel points to the American Sportscar Assn. (ASA), which mandates the use of production Corvette engines, as a series that truly benefits manufacturers and competitors.

"This engine does a number of things," explains Mr. Fishel. "It cuts the cost by two-thirds and it gives really useful marketing and technical linkages back to a production engine or vehicle."

Les Unger, the national motorsports manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA, says the sport of racing needs to be careful not to let technology take over from the drivers.

"I think the sanctioning bodies are going to have to be careful in terms of controlling the degree to which technology is allowed to prevail," says Mr. Unger.

Mr. Unger, like others, is concerned about the rising cost of motorsports involvement.

"How high does the cost go before it's not a good investment?" he asks. "If it's higher than the return, then there's a problem."

One way to reduce cost is to shorten the traditional Friday-Sunday race weekend. This can be accomplished, according to Messrs. Davis and Fishel, by tuning racecars for specific race tracks by computer.

Honda's top racing executive, Tom Elliott, sees safety being more of a concern in the future, an area where manufacturers have excelled for many years.

"Trying to make racing safer will be a big focus," says Mr. Elliott. "And I think that will be encouraged by the manufacturers who have a lot of experience in making cars safer."

Another way to address all of the concerns facing racing in the future, says Mr. Fishel, is to design new racecars from scratch rather than allowing them to continue to evolve.

"In the next decade, to get this balance between competition, entertainment, business, technology, cost and safety, I think racecars are going to have to be revolutionary in concept," says Mr. Fishel. "In other words, somebody is going to have to sit down today and design the cars that we're going to be running in three or four years."