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by Larry Roberts

October 16, 1998

Auto racing is now considered an entertainment industry and as it is in the movies or on TV, recognizable names are what bring in the public.

Throughout the year, we get lots of press kits in the mail from various auto racing teams and they're all hoping for the same thing: press exposure. Marketing and merchandising is the name of the game and corporate car sponsors like Pennzoil, Coca Cola and Tabasco want as much public exposure as possible. They all scramble for spectator support but none of the professional organizations, the IRL, CART, PRO SCCA or PSCR, are in the same league with NASCAR. Its teams put out the biggest, glossiest and most eye-catching press kits in the business and a good example of this is the NASCAR STP team that links the names Andretti, Petty and Pontiac. All are recognizable to most of the general public and are famous in their own right.

While its NASCAR involvement doesn't march its winning days of the '50s, Pontiac is nonetheless a name to be reckoned with on the Winston Cup circuit, a series that reaches from the 2.5 mile superspeedway oval at Florida's Daytona Beach to the wild and rugged road circuit at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. In decades gone by, Pontiacs were being raced with their own big displacement V8 engines but due to the streamlining of the structure of General Motors, the V8s that are used by Pontiac (including its Winston Cup racers) are, in truth, Chevrolets. But like classical music, G.M.-based NASCAR engines are variations on a theme and the reliability and performance of the particular powerplant is determined by the engine builder and the trackside team that fields the car. Pontiac Winston Cup cars are as fast as any in the field and the reason for their infrequent wins (albeit Bobby Labonte won for Pontiac earlier this year at Talladega, Alabama) may be due to their numbers. Pontiacs are outnumbered three to one by Chevrolet and five to one by Ford.

Another recognizable name capitalized on by NASCAR promoters is "King" Richard Petty, legendary winner of numerous stock car races that go back several decades. Petty was also NASCAR Winston Cup national champion many times and his trademark cowboy hat, sun glasses, mustache and toothy grin are as recognizable (at least in the Deep South) as most Level Two movie stars. It's been said that in his hey-day, Petty could have run for the President of the Confederacy and won in a landslide. Now out of the driver's seat, Petty is the owner of a STP-backed Pontiac Winston Cup Pontiac which is a consistent top-ten contender.

In the world of racing, Andretti is another name that is recognizable although many Americans are unable to put a face with the name. And this is understandable since Mario Andretti, the elder member of the racing clan is retired and his son Michael is most often seen with his helmet on and seated behind the wheel of his Swift Championship CART car. But there is magic in the name and the Petty/Pontiac/STP team utilizes it in the form of John Andretti, the nephew of the omnipresent Mario. John drives for Petty in the electric blue STP Pontiac and at one time wished only to emulate his cousin and uncle in CART open-wheel competition. He was on that circuit for a few years (he won the CART Surfer's Paradise in Australia 1991) but he claims now to have found a "home" in NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

So Fred Simmons, manager of Pontiac Motorsports is happy (other Pontiacs have been podium finishers several times this year), the folks at STP are happy (they keep paying the bills),Richard Petty is happy since his cars are doing well, and the NASCAR fans are happy since they are packing the stands at tracks all over the country. John Andretti is happy because he has a steady, reliable and good-paying "gig."

And in the entertainment business, that's what it's all about.