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by Larry Roberts

In the auto-making business, its an axiom that success in big-time auto racing equates to success on the showroom floor. Win on Sunday - sell on Monday. NASCAR has religiously lived by this rule all through its 50 years of existence and recognizes the fact that brand loyalty makes for enthusiastic spectators.

And no where is this brand-name recognition more fervently adhered to than in Europe, where a horde of international race drivers are idolized by home-country fans who treat them with an awe usually reserved in this country for movie stars and big-name football players.

This continental hero-worshiping has not been lost to the marketing folks at the corporate offices of European auto makers either. Like their American counterparts, they want their brand names and logos in front of the public as often and with as much force as possible.

Late last year, BMW announced that after an absence of many years, it would return to the world of Formula One international Grand Prix racing in 1999 by supplying specially-built BMW turbocharged V10 engines to the British Williams team whose Number One driver is Canadian Jaques Villeneuve. Villeneuve won the Formula One world title for Williams last year and is a former Indy 500 winner.

But BMW Motorsports wasn't idle during 1997 racing season. It's formidable BMW-McLaren GT1 car was very good in international endurance races - good, but not as good as the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz CLK-GT1 coupe. That juggernaut had burst on the long-distance racing scene early in the year and snatched the Federation Internationale Automobile (FIA) GT1 championship away from BMW.

But as prestigious as wins are at Germany's Hockenheim circuit or the hilly track at California's Laguna Seca, the crown jewel of endurance racing is the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, the oldest on-going endurance race in the world. Its first twice-around-the-clock contest for sports cars was held in 1923, although much shorter Grand Prix events were held on the track as early as 1921 and other Le Mans local races date back to 1896.

And it's back to Le Mans that BMW intends to go this coming June 14th with a BMW-labeled, open cockpit, no-holds-barred prototype sports car. The machine is currently under construction at Williams Grand Prix Engineering in Oxfordshire, England and will be powered by the same production-based V12 that powered the BMW-McLaren GT1 coupes for the past three years.

BMW has already signed five world-class drivers, including Nelson Piquet, the Brazilian ace who won the Grand Prix world championship in 1983 driving a BMW-powered Brabham Formula One car.

Future plans for the BMW sports car prototype include the installation of a production-based 4.0 liter V8 to be campaigned here in either the newly-reinstated and SCCA-sanctioned United States Road Race of Champions (USRRC) series or in the World Sports Car series sanctioned by Professional Sports Car Racing.

And if past experiences count, BMW dealers in this country can expect an upsurge in sales on Monday mornings if the BMW prototype is successful on race weekends.