The saying, "And you can take that to the bank" was heard in auto racing long before Barretta was a cop. The phrase helped build tracks when racing was heralded as The Sport of the '70s.
"In those days, a bank would lend money to promoters of a new track if they could show one of the major clubs had granted them a date," recalled Tracy Bird, executive director of the Automobile Competition Committee of the U.S., headquartered here. "That's changed. Racing dates are not entirely bankable items now."
Auto racing, in general, is healthy, Bird feels, especially the big oval track championships. Road racing is the international sport, however, and its dates in this country are not the choice plums they once were.
There is not a major series to draw European driving stars here and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), older of the two clubs specializing in road racing, is having trouble keeping its pro racing events alive and well.
Bird was the SCCA's executive director for five years in the early '70s when it ran three strong, popular pro championships. The Can-Am for two-seater sports cars with unlimited engines was the blue-ribbon event. It died after the 1974 season. Bird thinks it failed because private entrants protested the dominance of Porsche factory-supported teams.
The series for Grand Priz-type open-wheeled racers eneded after last season. Lack of big-name drivers and an absence of strong promotional effort did it in. "The tract operators are probably more organizers than promoters, and you must promote," Bird observers.
Only the Trans-Am series for sports sedans (Camaros, Mustangs, etc.) survives and it only after several shaky seasons. However, its events are similar to those staged by the younger International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) since both are for sedans or fairly familiar sports cars.
The Can-Am will be revived this year by the SCCA but cars will have engines limited to 305 cubic inches for stock models or 183 for racing motors. The purpose is to give last year's open-wheeled racers another chance to race, if they enclose their wheels to qualify as a "sports car."
"No one knows how race fans will take to this revamped series," said Bird. this is probably why promoters are slow to confirm race dates.
"There really should be a series for cars with unlimited engines, like the old Can-Am," says Bird. "That is where the ingenuity is."
IMSA, now seven years old, is in much better shape. It is operated by another ex-SCCA executive, John Bishop. He has put together two championships, obtained solid commercial sponsorship, attracted large fields and good crowds. SCCA safety and communications workers usually staff IMSA races whose members are almost all competitors.
"The problem today is that IMSA cannot supply the number of races a permanent track needs to operate profitably," Bird says. "A track needs at least three profit-making dates a year. IMSA goes to some tracks twice a year but a third visit may not be a moneymaker," he points out.
Bird maintains, "It is up to SCCA to fill the gap. Its amateur races are competitive, but it is the pro races with star drivers who draw crowds now."
A winning amateur road racer himself, bird says amateur racing can flourish without pro events, as long as there is a track to race on. "The point is some tracks suffer without a profitable pro schedule," Bird explained. "If the track hurts, eventually so will amateur racing."
Commenting on international racing, Bird said, "Escalation of purses for Grand Prix races and other costs may force some tracks to drop these races, as popular as they are. Purses are noe $250,000 plus transportation costs for competing teams plus a share of the gate receipts."
Both the American Grand Prix events are on solid footing, reports Bird. The new Long Beach, Calif. race through city streets will be renewed April 3 and the older race at Watkins Glen, N.Y. on Oct. 2, a week before the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport this year.
Today's Dogwood doubleheader races for late-model sportsman sedans and modified stock cars at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway carries an $81,800 purse. Jack Bland and Reds Kagle are among the local entrants. Racing begins at 12:30 p.m. over the half-mile paved track with each class racing 250 laps or 131.25 miles.