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The Callahan Report: Racing and the Auto Industry Don't Go Hand-In-Hand

14 January 1998

LOS ANGELES: Just how important is motorsports to the automobile manufacturers of the world? If a visit to the Los Angeles Auto show is any indication, racing is about as important to the auto industry as hair spray is to Michael Jordon. Visitors had to search hard to find racing related promotions at the L.A. show. Los Angeles is the largest automobile market in the country.

It is true. Californians love their cars. Judging from the lack of motorsports representation at the show, they love their cars much more than big time auto racing. Either that, or the marketing managers and the interpreters of demographics missed the mark terribly.

The biggest racing presence at the show was The Indy Racing League (IRL). The championship winning car of Tony Stewart was prominently displayed at the Oldsmobile exhibit. The sleek racer sat proudly alongside the new Aurora. What was more impressive was the fact that the personnel at the Oldsmobile area were very knowledgeable of the series.

Dr. Jack Miller, Infiniti Power all of '97
Dr. Jack Miller
Infiniti also had an Indy engine displayed at their section of the show. One would think they wouldn't bother with advertising their powerplant after its dismal performance during last year's competition. By the end of the 1997 IRL season, only two teams were still using the Infiniti engine. Their display at the L.A. Auto show demonstrates a continued commitment to the series and the sport of racing.

Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) was almost playing the part of The Invisible Man at the show. All major manufacturers claim that motorsports is very important to their marketing programs, as well as research and development. The engine manufacturers competing in CART must have forgotten the marketing portion of their racing efforts at the L.A. Auto show.

Mercedes Benz announced to the racing world last week that they have a new, more powerful, and more reliable engine for the 1998 CART season. Their exhibit area at the L.A. Auto show was enormous. When the question was asked, "Where is the CART display . . . or at least the new engine you guys announced last week?" the response was, "Oh, we don't have any racing stuff here." All the MBs looked good on the showroom floor. It was just a shock to find there was no representation of their CART involvement. They are the official car of the series and a major engine supplier. Also, one of the most successful men in motorsports uses Mercedes power in his CART cars. That same man has several business interests in the L.A. area. Among all those beautifully engineered passenger cars, there was not room for one of Roger Penske's Mercedes powered Indy Cars.

In just a few short years, Honda went from being a moving chicane on the race tracks to one of the most dominant power plants the CART series has ever seen. Their cars have won the last two CART titles. Their way of capitalizing on this fact at the L.A. Auto Show was in the form of a billboard looking display with a couple of paragraphs describing their accomplishment. Another missed opportunity to brag about the achievements of a company's engineering. Showing the visitors your machinery (or in the case of racing cars . . . your art) is much more powerful than words.

A Toyota Indy Car was on display at the auto show. It wasn't in the Toyota section. In a room off to the side, there was a section called "Cars of The Stars." In that room sat the Toyota Racer of Jaun Fangio. It was placed next to the Rolls Royce which starred in the Grey Poupon mustard commercial. It was great to look at, but it did seem out of place. It may have been placed next to the mustard car due to its "pickle" of a performance in the 1997 CART season.

Ford Motor Company has a new acronym. Where FORD used to mean "First On Race Day" it now means "Forgot Our Racing Decals." The company is heavily involved in both CART and NASCAR. There was no presence regarding their CART efforts. On the NASCAR side, there was a Bill Elliott, McDonald's sponsored racer on display right in the middle of all the production cars . . . right where it should be. Ford made the switch from Thunderbird to Taurus this year. The car on display had no decals indicating the racer was a Ford Taurus. In fact, it looked suspiciously like an old Thunderbird. One of the Ford representatives said "It is a Taurus frame."

Chevrolet had lots of empty floor space in their display area. While the area was easy to navigate around running children and eager tourists with cameras, it would have been nice if Chevy had remembered the fact that their Monte Carlo is the defending NASCAR title holder. With all that empty space, a fully dressed/decorated NASCAR Winston Cup Monte Carlo would have been a nice touch. Well, at least they remembered to bring a couple of racing pictures (which they placed in a collage of non motorsports related photos in the back corner of their display).

Real racing fans and motor heads visiting the show were more at home in the basement of the L.A. Convention Center. It was there that the aftermarket performance parts were displayed. There were WoO cars, SCCA, Trucks, CART, Karts, and a variety of streets rods on display. It was a beautiful exhibit.

Sure, the L.A. Auto show was not about motorsports. It was about selling production cars. But to race fans, the two go hand in hand. To the average person shopping for a new car, it is not important wether or not the car he or she buys is a proven race winner. One thing is for certain though. Race fans and non-race fans enjoyed viewing the limited amount of spotlighted racing cars which were on exhibit at the show.

After visiting the L.A. Auto Show it became obvious that racing needs the auto industry a lot more than the auto industry needs racing. NASCAR has a traditional loyal following that continues to grow in astounding numbers each year. On the other hand, the battle for audiences in CART and the IRL continues to rage. While CART missed the opportunity to give its series more exposure, the IRL played the marketing game correctly. Their champion's car and their logo were there for all to see . . . in front of the biggest car fanatics in America. The exposure worked. The Aurora display looked as if a weather system was moving in. The camera flashes looked like lightning on the horizon.

Terry Callahan -- The Auto Channel

Editors Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more) can be viewed in The Racing Image Galleries from The Callahan Racing Page.