Al Unser himself felt let down. "I didn't think they'd make a good sponsor, being a toy company," he says now. "I thought we'd be kidded. But seeing what kind of a company Topper is, well, I knew if I won the race they would advertise it. They could capitalize on it. It's worth money to them and to me. The more advertising I get the easier it is to sell me, and the easier I can make a living."
Jones went ahead with construction of the Johnny Lightning cars. They were built, Cook says with a certain righteous satisfaction, "within two miles of Mattel's home office." The first sweet taste of possible victory came last March in the Phoenix 150, when Unser, driving the Johnny Lightning, lapped the entire field with the exception of his brother Bobby—also under contract to Johnny Lightning. Before the race at Indianapolis, Orenstein was supremely confident. He gave a prerace party in Jones' garage and set up toy race sets for kids who were invited. The day before the race Orenstein held a sales meeting in an Indianapolis hotel. The subject was: "What do we do when we win?" When Unser and the Johnny Lightning 500 took the lead early in the race Orenstein sought to head for the pits to celebrate victory. With 35 laps still to go Orenstein could be restrained no longer, and when Unser came in the winner Topper executives immediately slapped a sticker, JOHNNY LIGHTNING, WINNER OF THE INDY 500, on the car. "Where did you get that?" Jones asked. He was told that Orenstein had ordered several million printed before the race. "If we knew that, we would have killed you!" Jones screamed. Orenstein smiled, and Johnny Lightning has been rolling since.
After Joe Leonard won the Milwaukee 150 in the Johnny Lightning 500 he demonstrated the toy cars in a Topper exhibit at the Milwaukee County Fair last August. A youngster came in and offered to race his Mattel Sizzler against a Johnny Lightning. "We had done tests in our factory," says Ron Aaront of Topper, "so we knew what would happen. We gave him a third of the way head start and beat him easily. Our car can cover a 30-foot section of track in 1.8 seconds. The kid was flabbergasted. We went out and got more Mattel Sizzlers and Juice Machines and put on exhibitions everywhere we went."
Recently Topper came out with a flyer that asks, "Boys, which are faster—the new Johnny Lightning 500s or the Sizzlers?" And Al Unser answers, "The new Johnny Lightning 500s running on their tracks are twice as fast as the Sizzlers on their tracks or any tracks. That's a fact!" Topper recently ran an ad of this nature in Boys' Life, which prompted Mattel's ad agency to protest to the magazine. "A Sizzler car is a different product," says Bernie Loomis, the Hot Wheels veep. "This is like comparing oranges and bananas. It's like saying a hack dash man can beat Jim Ryun in the 100. But Jim Ryun isn't out to run the 100, he's a miler. Our concern is that that kind of ad to the kids isn't going to do the toy business any good."
Back at Topper, Henry Orenstein says, "Johnny Lightning has the fastest cars by far, and no single company can challenge that statement. In fact the Indy 500 has set the speed standards for the entire industry. To say that we are copycats is ludicrous. It is a common practice to try to improve on existing concepts." (Then last week, while the two companies were still arguing—and advertising—the Federal Trade Commission stepped up with formal complaints against them both, citing TV ads that "exaggerate or falsely represent" the toy cars, and asking both to cease and desist.)
Still, the rivalry shows no signs of lessening. Hot Wheels is getting ready to spring the RRRumblers and other surprises. Johnny Lightning is out to really cut the Sizzler down to size with a battery-powered trailer attachment called the Afterburner, which will be about one-third the price of a Sizzler. Will Hot Wheels hold on to the lead? Will Johnny Lightning gain ground? Mattel and Topper have different opinions, but that's what makes a horse race, or at least the Great Toy Auto Race.