On December 18, 1979, the company that would eventually publish SportsCar beginning in 1984, create RACER magazine in 1992, launch RACER.com in 1997 and acquire Vintage Motorsport in 2019 was founded by Paul Pfanner, Suzette Catheron-Smith and the late Geary Brown. It was then known as Pfanner+Catheron+Brown, Publications, Inc. and was based in Santa Ana, Calif.
The company’s first office was adjacent to Interscope Racing, the fabled Ted Field-owned race team that won the 1979 24 Hours at Daytona with Field and lead driver Danny Ongais. Not coincidentally, the new company’s first project was the creation of livery illustrations and collateral materials for the original Interscope-entered Porsche Indy car that sadly never raced due to a last-minute rules change by USAC prior to the 1980 season. The car shown in the poster (above right) is the venerable Parnelli VPJ chassis that Ongais drove to multiple USAC Indy car victories in 1978 and had been updated with Porsche’s six-cylinder turbo engine that had been evolved from the Porsche 935 and 936 prototypes.
Pfanner+Catheron+Brown Publications, Inc. was created to attract custom publishing opportunities so that the company could eventually launch a great American racing magazine. Within a month of its founding the company, the trio produced their first issue of the monthly Finish Line magazine for the Cal Club region of the SCCA. Six months later the young company began producing its second monthly title, Alfa Owner for the Alfa Romeo Owner’s Club. During the summer of 1980, Pfanner was contacted by his friend Skip Barber about designing a new logo and overall corporate identity for the Skip Barber Racing School. Today the school is under new ownership but the iconic logo (pictured at left, above) remains in use.
The genesis of RACER magazine came five years earlier and was directly related to SportsCar. 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 SportsCar 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 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.
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.
The design of RACER issue No. 1 was overseen directly by Pfanner, who had previously been the art director for both FORMULA and SportsCar magazines. He brought in his friend, ex-McLaren and Arrows graphic designer David Aronson, to create the first RACER logo that was finished just before the magazine went to press.
Founding publisher, Bill Sparks, developed printing specs aimed at creating something very special in contrast to RACER’s primary perceived competitors. The magazine was printed in a larger page format with a perfect-bound spine on heavier, brighter paper stock to showcase the lavish use of full-color photography. Production for the premier issue was old school with minimal use of computers, so page layout was completed via typesetting hot-waxed to art boards which then moved through an archaic non-digital pre-press process. Sparks, who today serves as RACER’s publisher also created and managed the successful RACER subscription marketing launch campaign that generated a response well beyond expectations.
Barely two weeks before the 1992 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a decision was made to host a launch party at a small motorsports art gallery and bookstore in downtown Long Beach. And so it came to pass that RACER magazine debuted to the American racing community on Saturday evening, April 11, 1992. Al Unser Jr. and his uncle Bobby pulled back a black shroud to reveal the new magazine (pictured, top) to the assembled VIPs, including Emerson Fittipaldi, who graced the cover of the premier issue following his recent win at Surfers Paradise. Following remarks by the founders, Pfanner’s friend and National Speed Sport News editor/publisher Chris Economaki raised a glass for a champagne toast to the success of RACER and the team that created it, stating “there is room in racing for both of us.”
The content of RACER‘s first issue created buzz and with it, some real controversy. Maurice Hamilton’s blunt assessment of Williams F1 star Nigel Mansell’s mercurial temperament in a feature story titled “The Enemy Within” raised eyebrows with its honesty and accuracy. In 1992, the Indy 500 and IndyCar racing between Chevy and Ford were the kings of American motorsport and Gordon Kirby’s “Indy Engine War” cover feature on the intensifying battle hinted at looming challenges for the health of the series overall. Kirby’s opinion column, titled “Looking Forward, Looking Back,” tackled the thorny issue of American racing’s habitual failure to manage technology, costs and audience momentum. Kirby also examined the growing stature and marketing power of NASCAR in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Respected journalist Pete Lyons assessed the flagging fortunes of the IMSA Camel GT Series that was facing the imminent departure of manufactures and teams as a result of spiraling costs in a story titled “Sports Car Racing’s Twilight Zone.”
Once the afterglow of RACER‘s launch passed, the team was confronted with the harsh realities of publishing the magazine with woefully insufficient capital. Thankfully, Zwart quickly stepped forward with the needed investment and his valuable hands-on assistance, making good on a promise made to Pfanner on the fateful day in 1978 when they first discussed the idea of someday creating a premium racing magazine for America. The next 12 months were fraught with many challenges, but RACER was now very real, and it was soon growing fast both in scale and influence and the long journey that began on December 18, 1979 had reached its initial goal but much more was yet to come for the company that is known today as Racer Media & Marketing, Inc. and Racer Studio.