It was 30 years ago this weekend that RACER magazine was launched at a gala party held during the Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend. RACER founder and CEO Paul Pfanner looks back on the launch and the story leading up to it…
After a gestation period that spanned three decades, RACER magazine was finally a go for launch in April 1992 with a May cover date. Founding editor John Zimmermann and founding art director Mark Hancock worked long hours with the support of managing editor Bernadette Phillips and production editor Dyanne Gilliam. RACER‘s first “editors at large” were Gordon Kirby (whom Paul Pfanner had originally worked with at FORMULA magazine in the early 1970s) and Steve Nickless, who was the founding editor of On Track magazine and later the group publisher at Pfanner Communications during the latter half of the 1980s. Both men were heavily involved in the final five-year in-house development process for RACER and were central to establishing the credibility of the new magazine. Media sales were handled by a young, all-female team led by ad director Donna Chamberlain and her able colleagues Judy Morley, Laura Stoner and Lisa Williams.
A core element of the RACER strategy was to hire and showcase the best and brightest writers, photographers and illustrators to celebrate the beauty, bravery and technical brilliance of racing. In addition to Zimmerman, Kirby and Nickless, the premier issue of RACER contained stories and columns by Pete Lyons, Maurice Hamilton, Eoin Young and technical writer/illustrator Giorgio Piola. RACER attracted an A-list team of shooters led by the late Michael C. Brown, Paul Henri-Cahier, Jeff Bloxham, David Hutson, the late Ron Hussey, Gary Gold, Geoffrey Hewitt, Bob Tronolone, Bob Costanzo, Ron McQueeny and renowned lensman Jeff Zwart, who originally hatched the idea with Pfanner for a new high-quality American racing magazine back in January 1978.
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 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 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.