Motorsports

SEARS MONEY MAKES PONY CARS PRANCE

Larry Roberts

September 11, 1998

Remember the golden days of the American Pony Car? Thirty years ago almost every American auto maker produced a vehicle that was the average American's idea of a sports car. It was a close-coupled coupe built on a compact sedan platform and carried a powerful mid-sized V8 engine under the hood. AMC, Chevrolet, Ford, Pontiac, Dodge and Plymouth were competing with each other in the market place for the hearts of the 30-something crowd with Pony Cars of their own. The generic name came the Ford Mustang, the first of the genre to appear.

If you were a fan of sports car road racing at the time, you no doubt remember that the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) held professional Pony Car races which it called the Trans Am series. The races were so popular that Pontiac attached it to is own Pony Car and still pays a licensing fee to the SCCA for its use.

What the general public doesn't know is that the Trans Am series is still alive after all these years and is now the longest ongoing road race series in the U.S, having started 35 years ago. Maybe a better description is that the Trans Am went on a roller coaster ride for several decades. At times it was hotly contested (especially when the rules allowed foreign cars on the grid) only to fall on hard times when the promotional effort on the part of the SCCA administrators didn't match the action on the track. Promotion and entertainment is the name of the game in modern professional auto racing and for proof, you need look no further than the wildly successful NASCAR Winston Cup series. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and the rest have attained the sports status that's usually attributed to baseball and football stars but I'd be surprised in one person in 10,000 could name even one contestant in last year's Trans Am series.

But that may change in coming seasons. While the series was almost moribund two year ago for lack of big-buck primary sponsorship, a cash infusion last year from Sears in the name of National Tire & Battery (NT&B is that mass-merchandiser's stand-alone chain of auto parts stores) came to the rescue. NT&B has mounted a major program to make motorsports enthusiasts in particular and the American public in general aware of the SCCA Trans Am series.

Unfortunately, NT&B has a major struggle on its hands. A Trans Am renaissance occurred some years ago when Audi entered the fray but was so dominant that the SCCA legislated imports off the starting grids. Only two years ago both Ford and Chevrolet were involved with factory teams but due to lack of promotion on the part of the sanctioning body both of the auto makers have left the series .Among with the factory teams went its stars-in-the-making most of whom are now appearing in the lineups of various NASCAR venues.

Also coming to the rescue is the Trans Am Council, an organization that is dedicated to ironing out problems in the series before they become major auto racing political battles. Roger Penske (a very big name in early-day Trans Am racing), Bill France (NASCAR's titular head man) and a few other big names who don't want the series to disappear or fall into the "wrong" hands.

In its hey-day, the Trans Am was a stand-alone feature event that was preceded by lesser support races. Now it's has itself become a support race for such star attractions as the championship CART race at California's Long Beach and the NASCAR Winston Cup road race at Watkins Glen in New York. In the eyes of the SCCA, it's a lesser series than its own floundering USRRC endurance races and is sometimes a warmer-upper for its Can Am specially-constructed two-seaters.

There are rumors that with the eroding of its NT&B series sponsor, the SCCA is considering opening its Trans Am grids again to imported makes and that may will bring in spectators from the ranks of Mazda, Toyota, Nissan, Audi, Porsche and Mercedes owners.

The good old days for the Trans Am may still be ahead of us.

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