SUPER TOURING EVALUATION
by Larry Roberts
October 10, 1997
The Super Touring Championship finished up its second season at the Laguna Seca CART race on September 7th and it was a good event. The action was close, the cars were pretty evenly match and the winner, Australian Neil Crompton, had to work hard to put his Honda Accord across the line first in both of the Super Touring races held that day.
But there was a couple of things wrong with those two races that day: there were only 10 cars in the event and most spectators took the opportunity to visit the rest rooms while the events were going on.
The Super Touring series is a good idea on the face of it: small 2.0 liter sedans (Honda Accord, Mazda 626, Dodge Stratus, etc.) totally prepared for racing but recognizable as cars available from a dealer's showroom. Two years ago its youthful promoters felt that it would work as racing entertainment since spectators could "identify" with "their" brands that were being raced. It works for NASCAR where "Win on Sunday - Sell on Monday" has been a proven philosophy for decades.
Unfortunately, the difference is that race-goers at NASCAR tracks have brand loyalty that may go back several generations ("My dad and grandad owned Fords and so do I," is commonly heard at NASCAR events) while Accord, Taurus and Camry drivers usually buy with their heads and not with their hearts. Most owners don't get sentimental about their Mazda 626s.
Being a small sedan racing fan for many years (I raced them myself four decades ago), I was hoping that the Super Touring concept would catch on. But professional racing is expensive these days and without factory participation, hitting the big time is almost impossible. Aside from the PacWest Dodge Stratus team of ex-Indy car driver Dominic Dobson and David Donohue, there's been a conspicuous absence of factory participation. The HART team is manned entirely by volunteer Honda engineers who maintain and prepare the team's Accord but this hardly qualifies as "factory participation." Dodge puts financial support in the PacWest Stratus team but I haven't had any promotional hoopla come across my desk ballyhooing its winning the championship.
CART sanctions the Super Touring events and virtually all Super Touring races are warmer-uppers for Cart Championship races so there's a locked-in spectator base for the little sedans. But CART enthusiasts are traditionally intrigued by and drawn to CART's world-class technology and internationally diverse driving talent. It seems far-fetch to think they'd get pumped up about a small number of ostensibly mundane grocery- getters chasing each other at relatively low speeds around a first-class track like Laguna Seca. CART fans usually even look down their noses at the fast and furious NASCAR Winston Cup races as being too low-tech.
Name recognition is lacking in Super Touring too. Dobson was never a "podium" driver for CART and Donohue's only claim to fame is that his father was Mark Donohue, a multi-talented driver 30 years ago. Desire Wilson, a French hill-climb and rally champion some years ago showed up for two super Touring races early in the season, tried it again several months later, then disappeared from the scene. While her name-value is low, her background could have been capitalized on. The same is true for Rod Millen, Toyota's accomplished Pikes Peak winner but he only appeared on the grid one weekend at the CART event at Portland.
It's possible that professional small sedan races just aren't suited to American tastes. International pro rallying is popular in Europe but the concept (and its international teams) bombed when it was tried here. The Super Touring concept is like pro soccer: it may catch on with American fans but it's going to take time and lots of determination.
The first Super Touring of the '98 season will be with the CART Long Beach Grand Prix this coming April. With more cars and a few more name drivers, it may make it for another year. If not, it may join SCCA professional mini-truck racing as an auto racing anomaly that flashed briefly on the scene and burned itself out.