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by Larry Roberts

April 23, 1999

Among racing enthusiasts, it's common knowledge that most of the "also-ran" drivers in professional sports car endurance racing have to rent cockpit time trackside and often participate in joint ventures with three friends as a "pick-up team," just like schoolyard basketball.

It's also well-known that many of the professional drivers in NASCAR, CART and Formula One Grand Prix racing have to bring big-buck corporate sponsorships to the table when they negotiate for a season-long "ride."

But recently at a dinner that proceeded the CART race at Long Beach Calif. for Champ Cars, two "seats" in race cars went for an astonishing $100,000 each for a 10-lap warmup race to be held at the event next year. That figures out to $10,000 per lap, a stiff fee even in these days of astronomical racing costs and high-profile events.

The event that attracted such high financing is the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race that's held in the afternoon on the day preceding the Champ Car event. At this year's race, the Pro/Celebrity was green flagged at one in the afternoon and proceeded the Toyota Formula Atlantic race for Toyota-powered single seaters. The Formula Atlantic series features up-and-coming young drivers who are vying for the attention of "talent scouts" for the Champ Car teams. Many of the Champ Car pilots who drive in the main event on the following Sunday got their final boot up into the big-leagues by performing well in Formula Atlantic cars.

But the Pro/Celebrity race is much less serious and involves drivers from the ranks of professional racing as well as celebrities. But usually, the pros come from other racing disciplines. For example, this year the professional drivers included motorcycle, off-road and drag racers.

The celebrity side of the race features an eclectic collection of recognizable names from a diverse field of endeavors. Donny Osmond was one of the participants in the '99 event (he rolled his car on the fourth lap) along with super-model Kim Alexis (she finished ninth out of 18 starters). From the sports world, Snowboard World Champion Shaun Palmer (not unexpectedly the winner of the event) and Olympic Gold Medalist Carl Lewis (with a seventh place finish) were in the field.

But the most interesting entry to me was Ze'ev Drori, head man of Clifford Electronics. Drori gained his seat in one of the racing Celicas by attending the posh Grand Prix Foundation's annual Charity Ball that was held on the Wednesday evening preceding the race weekend last year. The Grand Prix Foundation is an organization that raises money for local charities. The climax of the ball is the auctioning off of a "ride" in one of the race-prepared Toyota sedans. Drori was the high-bidder last year, hence his eligibility to be one of the "celebrity" drivers.

But that was last year, and my records don't show what his high bid consisted of. But this year's bidding will go down in history as an all- time high - at least so far. Jon Shirley is a retired president of Microsoft Corporation and his spirited bid of $110,000 prompted Toyota Motor Sales to put up another race car to anyone who would match Shirley's bid. That challenge was take up by Don Simons, president and CEO of TelSoft Solutions, Inc., a leading software supplier.

So stay by your TV sets next year and watch the televised rebroadcast of the Pro/Celebrity race that is part of the Toyota Grand Prix extravaganza. Besides seeing entertainment and sports stars in unusual (for them) settings, you'll get to see a couple of guys who are so well-off that they can spend $110,000 each (albeit for charity) for the right to race through the streets of Long Beach at top speed in a couple of Toyota sedans. And the police will just smile and wave them on.