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From a case of bubbly to a six-pack
Brock Yates
September 02, 1974
After years of developing a taste for champagne, racing will have to reacquire a thirst for beer as big-time sponsors continue to strip off the fancy decals, roll away the free tires and slow down on the subsidies
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September 02, 1974

From A Case Of Bubbly To A Six-pack

After years of developing a taste for champagne, racing will have to reacquire a thirst for beer as big-time sponsors continue to strip off the fancy decals, roll away the free tires and slow down on the subsidies

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Motor racing seems to be energized by chaos. When it is not the source of public outrage after yet another spectacular accident it is roiling right along on internal dissent. The bickering between the alphabet-soup lineup of sanctioning bodies and promoters, a rabble rivaling those in tennis for infighting, has left racing weak and fragmented. And now this mystically beautiful sport—a wedding of steel and flesh that in its best moments creates a unique 20th-century technological ballet—is facing its gravest threat in years.

"Listen, we're going broke," moans one racer. "This is like a crash on Wall Street. I'm just real thankful that nobody can get hurt too bad by jumping off a pit wall."

Much of big-time automobile racing is on the rocks. Faced with zooming costs and a steady erosion of support from industrial sponsors who have traditionally paid the bills, the men who race cars at places like Indianapolis, Le Mans or Daytona are trying to figure out what to do with an inflation that looks like a rail dragster's acceleration graph. They are faced with the grim truth that it can cost $600,000 a season to campaign a single car capable of winning Indianapolis-type competition.

The turbocharged Drake-Offenhauser or the Ford-Foyt V-8 engines used at the Speedway retail at more than $30,000 each and can burn up as much as $12,000 for a major repair job. Not the kind of tune-up a guy can put on his Shell credit card. The standard power plant for Grand Prix cars is a compact three-liter Cosworth Ford V-8 nearly small enough to fit into a bushel basket. Its cost approaches $20,000. And things get worse: the Porsche 917-30 racing car that dominated last year's Can-Am series retailed for $220,000 with extra engines thrown in at $74,000 apiece.

A Porsche Carrera GT car—a stubby coupe that looks like a Vic Tanny version of a showroom 911—cannot be purchased and prepared for serious racing for much under $50,000. A first-class Grand National stock car—a machine that is supposed to be just like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo parked in your neighbor's driveway—will gobble up $200,000 during one season of racing. Couple these blockbuster price tags with reduced race schedules, declining purses, fleeing sponsors and limited television exposure, and you've got a bunch of sportsmen living on the Thursday before Black Friday.

Competition has already been affected. Entries at all USAC national championship races, including the hallowed Indy 500, have been down this year. At the California 500 in Ontario last March management was forced to resurrect a pair of cars that had failed to qualify in order to flesh out the field to the required 33 starters. Other races, among them a 200-miler in Trenton, N.J., were run without a full complement of cars.

The Canadian-American Challenge Cup once was the country's premier series for all-out sports car competition. During the late 1960s its 11-race format attracted tremendous competition, including the legendary McLarens and Chaparrals whose noisy confrontations were witnessed by immense crowds. This year the six-race cadaver of the Can-Am is being picked over by a meager collection of aged cars manned for the most part by unknown drivers. The Trans-American championship, a once-vital series for dandy Mustangs, Camaros, Javelins and such—with major factory participation and big-name drivers—has sagged from 11 races a season to three pinched, unsung contests in 1974.

Even the elite Grand Prix circuit is hurting. While its 15-race schedule is attracting large audiences, the builders of the great cars—good old Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Maserati, Alfa Romeo—have long since left the field to small specialty manufacturers. Only Lotus and Ferrari remain from the days when Formula I was a glamorous battleground for builders whose automobiles were painted in the national colors of their homelands. Once the showplace for automotive innovation, Grand Prix racing has been forced to eschew such advanced devices as four-wheel drive, turbines, rotary engines and aerodynamic gadgets in favor of conservative, look-alike chassis powered in the main by the eight-year-old Cosworth engine.

Much of the crisis in racing can be traced to the decline and fall of sponsor support. The most recent departure, which hit the sport like a bomb, was made by Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., whose connection with racing can be traced back to 1911. The company points with pride that its tires have been on 48 winning cars at Indianapolis and, with the exception of Champion spark plugs, few other American firms have given the game such staunch support.

A.E. (Scotty) Brubaker, Firestone's vice-president of advertising and public relations, says the decision was based on dollars, pure and simple. "Costs have skyrocketed in the past few years, and there seems to be no end in sight," he says. He also notes that for many years racing technology was linked with tires used by the general public. But that old-time improve-the-breed rationale is diminishing. "With the trend first to bias-belt tires and then to radial tires, there is much less relationship and much less consumer benefit."

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