This is the seventh installment in RACER’s ongoing 25th anniversary celebration during which we share the 25 most important issues from our first quarter century.
American racing’s most publicized – if perhaps not its most eagerly awaited – month of May in memory delivered headline-grabbing smack-talk, tragedy and even a little unintended comedy. But even before the competing spectacles of the Indy Racing League’s first Indianapolis 500 and CART’s U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway had played out, many minds had been made up – and the consensus view would benefit no one on the open-wheel side of the U.S. racing landscape.
CART’s drivers and teams, considering themselves locked out of Indy by the IRL’s rules, made much of the fact that the new league’s field lacked top level experience and so represented a safety risk. This theme was underscored by CART’s claim that “the real cars and stars” would be at its race rather than the more familiar one in Indiana. IRL entrants were no less contemptuous of their rivals. It all made for a toxic promotional brew that surely turned off casual fans even as it galvanized the partisans.
The grim mood got darker when Indy pole winner Scott Brayton was killed in a freak accident during practice, but the race itself provided a welcome respite from mourning and ill will. Buddy Lazier battled through the field to win, overcoming a back-breaking crash at Phoenix just a month earlier to emerge as a exactly the sort of all-American hero the new league had been seeking. But would that be enough to overcome the downside of a fractured fan base?
Meanwhile in Michigan, those turned off by what they saw as CART’s arrogant presumptions of superiority were bemused by the multi-car wreck before the start of the U.S. 500, but when the delayed race finally got underway, it too delivered a sensational spectacle of speed before also crowning an American winner in Jimmy Vasser. His cheeky “Who needs milk?” one-liner in victory lane charged up the true believers on both sides in opposite ways, but proved ironic: They all did, as the declining TV ratings for both races compared to the previous year’s Indy 500 – and their continuing slide in the years to come – were to demonstrate.
And NASCAR just kept doing its own thing – which, as Gerald Martin related in his portion of our three-part cover story, was not merely maintaining its momentum but expanding it by leaps and bounds. With IndyCar bleeding from self-inflicted wounds and Formula 1 continuing its self-imposed isolation from U.S. shores, stock car racing was riding a wave to unprecedented domination of American racing business, as Bill King explored in a prescient feature story, “Popularity Contest.”
RACER‘s F1 focus that month would also be familiar theme, albeit in different circumstances, for today’s readers as Maurice Hamilton examined the struggles of McLaren to shed a period of inexplicable mediocrity. History would prove that the efforts underway would indeed return the team to world championship form, something the harried McLaren of 2017 might take heart from.
During the first half of 1996 RACER’s in-house creative services agency, Pfanner Communications, was busy and growing. One project in particular captured a lot of attention. It was a TV spot created in collaboration with our clients, the No Fear action sports apparel company. With the growing tensions of the dueling 500s as a backdrop, the spot was intended to run in the first commercial break in the 1996 Indy 500 and it was conceived by RACER founder Paul Pfanner and directed by RACER co-founder Jeff Zwart. The idea was refined by No Fear’s marketing director Jim Hancock and the script written by No Fear’s creative director Rick Bolton.
The spot’s message was that the soul and identity of Indy car racing was defined by the best athletes who were competing rather than the track owners, team owners, sponsors, manufacturers or toxic politics of the day. After passionate input from a leading team owner in the CART series, No Fear’s marketing team made the decision to instead run the TV spot in the first commercial break in CART’s U.S. 500 – which ironically happened to fall just after the so-called “Cars and Stars” of the series were involved in a chaotic pace lap accident that red-flagged the race before it began.
Needless to say, the No Fear TV spot’s message was lost in the context of what had just happened and it could be argued the war for perceived superiority was also lost by CART in that fateful moment.