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Since the fourth Vanderbilt Cup race in 1908?last of the big American road events for Grand Prix cars?racing in the U.S. has steadily steered away from diversity and the open road in favor of commercialized speed and endurance on the closed-track oval. Similarly, racing has been less and less used as a proving ground for automotive development. Detroit built its own testing grounds, drew its lessons from manufacturing experience, and today concedes few passenger-car improvements to racing beyond the rear-view mirror, the balloon tire and the high-compression engine.
A TEST OF SKILL
Most of the growing thousands who turn out to watch the professional racing drivers care little that virtually all engines in the sprint, midget and big-car divisions are Meyer & Drake Offenhausers; that Kurtis-Kraft builds most big-car chassis and bodies or that big companies like Firestone tires and Champion spark plugs usually have Indianapolis sewed up between them. As a spectator sport, American racing is primarily a test of one driver's skill against another's; and as such it is a huge success. Its soaring popularity is evident from the prize money alone: $407,294 for 12 National Championship races and one hill climb last year; $442,165 for the 11 races run-so far in 1954. With two still to go, the total is likely to exceed $500,000. Attendance figures are growing in proportion: 356,-277 fans watched in 1953, and this year 388,876 have already passed through the turnstiles.
Controlling body and Dutch uncle of paid U.S. motor racing is the American Automobile Association ( A.A.A.) Contest Board, a member of the International Automobile Federation ( I.A.F.), which in turn governs worldwide racing. The A.A.A. was formed in Chicago back in 1902, when various clubs banded together to standardize the rules of tours, races and hill climbs. The Racing Committee in charge of this work became the Racing Board in 1907 and was renamed the Contest Board a year later.
Yearly, the A.A.A. sanctions some 12 National Championship races and one hill climb?Pike's Peak?held in 10 states, all of which count for points. Of this total, 10 are dirt tracks and three? Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Darlington?have paved surfaces.
Scoring is based on an award of two points per mile for the winner, 1.6 points for the second man and 1.4 for the third. Pike's Peak counts as a 100-mile event, of which there are 10.
In addition to the National Championship races with a 270-cubic-inch displacement limit, the A.A.A. controls eastern and midwest sprint races (220 cubic inches) run on half-mile dirt and asphalt tracks; stock-car races, also on half-mile tracks; and the dwindling midget-car races (102 cubic inches).
GLAMOR BOYS OF THE TRACK
Currently registered with the A.A.A. Contest Board are 247 big-car drivers, 234 stock-car drivers and 194 midget drivers. The glamor boys of the track, however, are those who compete for big purses in the National Championship races. Accidents are fewer but still high?this year, five men were killed, including Master Mechanic Clay Smith, a camshaft specialist and automotive genius who prepared the winning Agajanian Specials at Indy in 1952?but the A.A.A. points with pride to its driver protection. Example: in 100-mile races, a $28 benevolent fee covers each driver and car owner for up to $5,000 hospitalization, with a $40 weekly indemnity for 10 weeks and a further $25 weekly until the injured can resume work. Of this $28 fee, the driver and car entrant each pays $7 and the promoter $14. In case of a fatal accident, a $2,500 death benefit is paid to next of kin.
Toting up the dollars this year is Jimmy Bryan, whose 1954 National Championship status already has earned him $55,650 prize money plus bonuses in nine races. Bryan is now so far ahead in points (2,230) that no one can displace him; but Jack McGrath, 1,220 points, Jimmy Reece and Indianapolis winner Bill Vukovich, tied at 1,000, may get left by that Peruvian bomb, Manuel Ayulo, before the last checkered flag falls at Las Vegas. "Iron Man" Vukie has run only once since his $75,000 Indianapolis cleanup, and that was at Milwaukee where he didn't finish but still picked up the $500 appearance money offered to the Indy winner.