As we approach the 25th anniversary of RACER Magazine’s debut in April 1992, we will be posting a retrospective series on the 25 most important issues out of the 283 we’ve published during our first quarter century. We begin with the issue that preceded all those and which very few people saw. It is safe to say it has made everything that followed possible.
The idea of creating a new high-quality American racing magazine that would rival the best from Europe and Japan was first discussed on an early Saturday morning in January 1978 by Paul Pfanner and Jeff Zwart as they motored north on Highway 101 in Zwart’s bright yellow Porsche 914-6. The pair was on their way to Central California to scout camera rig mounting positions on the Schkee DB-1 Can-Am car for an upcoming cover story photo shoot. At the time, Pfanner was the art director for SCCA’s SportsCar magazine and was scheduled to drive the car in a test at California’s Willow Springs Raceway; Zwart, who was still attending the Art Center College of Design, was on only his second professional automotive photo assignment. Pfanner had been part of the FORMULA magazine launch back in 1973 but left the title after three years. He and Zwart believed that while FORMULA had raised the bar for American racing magazines, something more ambitious would have a much better chance for success. During that fateful drive, they promised each other that someday they would make this dream of a great American racing magazine happen…
That someday came in the summer of 1987, when Pfanner started developing a series of mock-up magazines intended to explore the concept of this new publication – a publication that would celebrate the passion, beauty, people and technology of auto racing worldwide. By then, Pfanner was (and still is) publishing SCCA’s SportsCar magazine, and Zwart had become a world famous automotive photographer featured in Road&Track and was also shooting advertising and collateral images for top automotive brands such as Porsche and BMW. Over the following months they re-committed themselves to generating the money and resources to make their decade-old dream reality.
To move the project forward, Pfanner enlisted the help of SportsCar publisher Bill Sparks and SportsCar editor John Zimmerman, who had served as managing editor of FORMULA (later known as RACECAR magazine) and had held a similar role at OnTrack magazine. In 1989 Pfanner enlisted the help of two close friends, OnTrack magazine’s founding former editor, Steve Nickless, and former Autosport magazine staffer and OnTrack editor Jeremy Shaw. In 1990 they began a more elaborate prototyping process with the help of noted graphic designer Tim Meraz.
Several names for the new monthly magazine concept were explored, including “Drive” and “Driver.” A weekly concept titled RaceWeek was also developed but was abandoned after a yearlong flirtation with a weekly format. A breakthrough came in the fall of 1991 when writer Gordon Kirby (who had been involved in FORMULA with Pfanner and On Track with Nickless, Zimmermann and Shaw) suggested the name “Racer” to Pfanner, who was still obsessed with the concept of a high-quality monthly. The idea of using Racer as the name for new title had in fact been briefly considered a year earlier when Pfanner saw a photo of then-SCCA president Nick Craw’s “RACER” personalized license plate from his days as the director of the peace corps in Washington D.C. during the early 1970s while he was also an active IMSA racing driver. Kirby made a convincing case for the Racer name and Pfanner quickly realized that it held the potential to be the defining brand in American motorsports media.
Once the decision to go with RACER was made, several detailed prototype covers were created with the help of then-SportsCar magazine art director Mark Hancock. The final concept became the basis for a printed magazine-style launch media kit that showcased the high production values and page count of the proposed new publication. It was produced in early January 1992 and mailed to prospective advertisers. A launch date was set for April 1992 with a May issue cover date.
The RACER prototype was met with enthusiasm and some valid skepticism, but thankfully there was sufficient interest from advertisers to move forward with a direct mail subscription campaign created by RACER‘s founding (and current) publisher, Bill Sparks. The original $23.97 annual subscription price was quite high for the era, but a promise was made to readers that RACER would strive to be the best. This initial subscription promotion was far more successful than anticipated, so the team at RACER took the final steps to finally bring the new magazine to life.