MINI-STOCKS IN AMERICA
by Larry Roberts
April 18, 1997
Excluding full-sized pickup trucks, the most popular vehicles sold in this country are Ford and Toyota four-door sedans - economical compacts that offer comfort, economy, style and a reasonable amount of speed. They have mass appeal and we buy or lease hundreds of thousands of them every year.
But here's a question: would you pay to go watch a couple of dozen of them slug it out with each other on a race track?
Roger Elliot of Super Touring Championship is betting that lots of you will and that automakers around the world will recognize the fact and supply financial support when it happens. Elliot's organization promotes races for two-liter, four-door sedans in supporting events for the CART Indy car races. Indy cars, as you know, are the premiere racing events of this country.
They're premiere, that is, until you talk to a dyed-in-the-wool NASCAR fan. Then you will be told in no uncertain terms that stock cars are the greatest and that watching full-fendered cars go head-to-head on high-banked ovals or on road courses is the most exciting automotive competition in the world.
Elliot is hoping that this enthusiasm will rub off on owners of smaller sedans who will exhibit the same brand loyalty that NASCAR fans show for their favorite marque. It's true in Europe, where auto makers support competitions like the British Touring Car Championship and wins on Sunday are reflected in sales on Monday. There BMW, Toyota, Honda, Ford and the rest put considerable support behind the four-seaters that are fighting it out for the championship.
But before you dash out and have a roll cage welded into your family's Accord, be aware that these are no-kidding race cars capable of doing 150 MPH and exerting prodigious amounts of G-force in the turns. They're purpose-built by European companies that are in the business of building race cars, and the drivers are all real pros. Last year's cars which are no longer competitive are sold off to "independents," those content with mid-pack results.
And that's were Roger Elliot's Super Touring competitors come in. Most of the cars that compete here are brought over from Europe after they've done a season or two. American Super Touring is only in its second year and the troops are still sorting things out. Last year's champion was Randy Prost, an experienced SCCA sedan driver from Florida, and his Honda Accord, which was built with several others by the MSD team in England. The major competition for the winning Honda came in the form of a Dodge Stratus in the hands of ex-Indy car driver Dominic Dobson. His car was one of two American-produced (albeit underpowered) cars in the series.
But all that's history and last year, Super Touring didn't have the blessing (and promotional clout) of CART. Now, a couple of CART teams have expressed an interest in running Super Touring cars of their own, seeing a chance to gain more recognizable exposure for their drivers as well as for their corporate sponsors.
For '97 there have been some changes. Prost has switched to a BMW (perhaps seeing the potential advantage of rear-drive) and Pete Cunningham, the Honda/Acura "Racer For All Seasons" will be in an Accord the entire season. Dave Jolly, an old-time Mazda RX-3 driver of much experience, is fielding a Metalcraft-prepared Pontiac Sunfire, while Desire Wilson (she won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb for Peugeot a few years back) will be driving a Mazda V6.
Only time will tell if America is ready for high-tech small sedan racing. With only 20 cars in the fray, it's going to be hard to keep spectator attention on restricted-vision tracks like Long Beach. But as time goes by, hopefully another 30 more will contest the championship.
And judging by the way Super Touring competitors were all over each other last year, a much expanded field would make for some great racing.