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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

April 25, 1997

There was a time 30 years ago when the Sports Car Club of America put on a racing series that rivaled the NASCAR Grand National races for popularity and enthusiasm. Its Trans Am races were for American-built "pony cars" and all the automakers were in it - even American Motors with its Javelin. The irony of it was that in the hands of Mark Donohue and the Penske team, the Javelin won lots of races.

But now the SCCA Pro Racing department and its Trans Am series is in trouble. Since those halcyon days when American auto makers backed teams, the Trans Am series has fallen to the point where it's a "support" race for events like the NASCAR truck races and CART Indy Lites events. Things have changed.

And maybe it's to be expected. Of the original field of American pony cars, Ford still has its Mustang, Chevrolet its Camaro and Pontiac its Firebird. The thread of continuity is that they're all front- engined, rear-drive sedans and they still sell well. The bad news is that the Camaro and the Firebird are both scheduled to become front- drive coupes sans V8 engines.

There are a couple of other cars that are prepared for Trans Am racing, but they're hardly in the pony car class. The Pontiac Grand Prix is a family sedan converted to a rear-drive racer, as is the Olds Cutlass. If the aim of a series is to develop a cadre of hard-core enthusiastic fans of American sports cars, these cars are a step in the wrong direction. If Dodge and Plymouth made pony cars again, the Trans Am might have a chance, but that's wishful thinking.

It wasn't too long ago when Trans Am races were open to foreign competition. In times past, the championship was contested by Porsche 924 Turbos and Nissan 300 ZX Turbos, and in 1988, the championship was won hands-down by Hurley Haywood and Hans Stuck in an all-conquering Audi Turbo Quattro. To add insult to injury, it was a four-door sedan. Needless to say, it only carried all those doors because it was the only Audi body style that was eligible.

But the next year, the Audis were restricted in turbocharger size and boost and wheel sizes were reduced, all of which effectively put them out of the competition. After that, the field was restricted to American cars. The Olds Cutlass and the Chevrolet Beretta Trans Am cars sprouted rear-drive like NASCAR, and the series did, indeed, become an all-American production. It can only be conjectured on that the American manufacturers brought pressure on the SCCA to make changes.

And for a long time, the series did well, fielding upwards of 30 cars per event. It picked up series sponsorship from Escort radar detectors at one point, and then from Tide.

But time has been catching up with the SCCA and its Trans Am races. The public appetite has waned for sports cars in general and sports car racing in particular. The IMSA prototype sports car series was saved only by the intervention of sports racer enthusiast Andy Evans and his deep pockets. Oval tracks and The Big Show have been getting center- stage and the most successful racing sponsors have recognized that auto racing had to be entertaining to be accepted by spectators in front of the TV screen as well as in the stands. The drivers have to be promoted as celebrities and no organization has been nearly as successful in this area as NASCAR, not even CART with it's Indy car stars.

Last year Chevrolet pulled its financial support from Chevy teams. That money now goes to the spectator-pleasing NASCAR trucks and now that Ford has no competition, its departure too is almost assured. The SCCA is still looking for a corporate sponsor and money is so tight in Trans Am that its best drivers are looking to other racing venues.

Dan Greenwood of SCCA Pro Racing openly discusses selling it off to Professional SportsCar Racing for assimilation into its sports car program. Maybe Greenwood is right and it is fitting to bury the Trans Am beside its Can Am SCCA stablemate.