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Hyundai Gambles On Obscure Motorsport Program

by Larry Roberts

May 21, 2001

The U.S. is in the midst of a motorsports "craze" that is unlike any that we've ever known. The names of Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are almost as well recognized as those of American baseball and football stars.

And to a much lesser degree, Juan Montoya, Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser have a certain amount of notoriety for being star-quality drivers in American open-wheel racing at the Indy 500 and the Long Beach Grand Prix, events sanctioned by the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).

Other national motorsports such as professional sports car endurance racing and off-road desert races are occasionally seen on television, but they're usually viewed at odd hours and on cable stations by dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts.

The reason for this diminishing level of TV coverage is obvious: auto racing is entertainment and the purpose behind corporate race sponsorship is to get viewers and spectators to go out on Monday and buy the products that are being promoted on Sunday.

And that's why the relatively large sponsorship investment by Hyundai Motor America in a full-fledged, highly modified Hyundai Tiburon professional rally car seems such a gamble. For several years, Hyundai has engaged the services of Libra Racing to construct a world-class professional-level rally racer to contest the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) ProRally back-road high-speed rally program. ProRally is ostensibly a semi-pro series that's made up for the most part of amateur drivers in more-or-less standard production cars.

The SCCA ProRally series is patterned after the wildly popular World Rally Championship that's as closely followed in most countries around the rest of the world as NASCAR Winston Cup races are here. The factory- owned and fielded cars are almost as technically sophisticated as Formula One cars and their drivers are highly-paid professionals who compete somewhere almost every week.

That the Libra Racing car is the class act of the series is attested to by the fact that its racers have won the past five ProRally manufacturer titles. Although there's only 11 ProRally events each year, Libra Racing has won 33 overall events, as well as four driver's championships. Its current competitor boast of all-wheel drive (a device not found on production Tiburons), a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine that puts out 370 horsepower and a plethora of other specialized race car hardware.

One might be lead to believe that Hyundai has decided to throw its financial support behind a relatively obscure form of racing so that it could enjoy the role of a big fish in a small pond. And until now, that has been the case. But now Subaru has introduced an international rally car look-alike into the American market and is airing TV commercials showing its racing counterpart in European action. And Mitsubishi is unveiling a production car known as the Lancer, the model that's the basis of the company's international world rally car. Exposure is the name of the TV promotional game and it seems that back-road rallying is beginning to make inroads into the field of American motorsports.

Perhaps the public here is ready for a new and exciting form of racing, one which harkens back to our early days when events were held over the dirt roads that connected country towns and villages. ProRally is racing in which spectators and TV crews must face the elements as well as primitive conditions to even watch or record the action.

Professional auto rallying isn't a sport for sissies and enthusiasts are usually the only spectators in attendance. Hyundai hopes they'll watch the racing Tiburon win trophies and then going out and buy a street version the next day.

Unfortunately, it won't have 370 horsepower or all wheel-drive.