The automotive craze hit the Soviet Union almost 45 years ago. It beginnings were humble, starting with contests between drivers of trucks and tractors, and it has largely been relegated to Siberia and similar outlying areas.
But it has survived and grown to take its place in Soviet life alongside other sell-out attractions like ballet and boxing.
"I believe auto sports are probably the nation's No. 1 spectator attraction, surpassing even soccer." Prof. Leonid Afanasvev, president of the Soviet Auto Sports Federation said, in a recent interview, "We don't advertise competition because the crowds are already huge. It is common for 100,000 people to come to a road race. Winter races at hippodromes (horse tracks) are usually sold out hours before they start. If we advertised, the crowds would be even larger."
Every form of entertainment seems to sell out in the major cities. While the car is still a luxuary here, it is evident interest in auto sports reaches beyond the four million Russians who own cars and 200,000 licensed to race them. The drivers compete for cups and metals, but no cash awards are made in Soviet racing.
"Our first events, around 1933, were with trucks," explained Afanasyev. After all, trucks and tractors were what were building then." The events were - and still are - cross-country runs against the clock on circular courses now called autocrosses.
Trucks still compete, much to the federation's dismay, and so do sedans and a variation of dune buggies in autocrosses. Open-wheeled, single-seat race (formula) cars, and speed records cars are other racing machines now competing regularly in Russia. All but a few are owned by the government-supported clubs to which all competition drivers belong.
Challenging the popularity of autocrosses are long-distance, open-road rallies inaugurated in 1957, the year, the first closed-circuit road races were held in Russia. Kart racing began about 15 years ago and has enjoyed "spectacular growth" according to the Russian officials. All events are held year-round.
"We have sedan racing on oval tracks, the hippodrome, during the winter when they are flooded for ice racing," he said. "There is no drag racing here. The public is just not interested. We do support record-breaking attempts, however."
The autocrossing trucks, over-age kart racers, and sites for new tracks seem to be the major problems facing Afanasyev, who also serves as rector of the 14,000 student Moscow Institute of Automobile and Road Construction.
"We would like to stop the sport with trucks, but we can't," he said, giving the impression that trucks just don't fit the image the federation is striving for "I've people enjoy it too much. There are about 10 million truck drivers in Russia and it seems all of them want to compete."
The trucks, about the size of small moving vans, have open bodies. A rollbar is fitted to the cab but the engines are not modified.
"In the past five years we have developed dune buggies here. They too compete, so we must have three national autocross titles - trucks, sedans and buggies. The buggies are built by the clubs and souped up just a little. They are not hot rods," Afanasyev explained.
"Our rally championship is a series of events, each at least 1,500 miles long. Four classes of sedans compete, grouped by engine size and state of modification. Of course, we have adapted the international rules to meet our needs," he said.
"For example, Group 2 cars have slightly modified engines and are usually driven by drivers holding thhe "masters ranking," he said. Drivers are rated as first, second or third-class and then advance to master classes. There are about 450 racers holding the top rating in Russia. "They drive the faster cars for reasons of safety, of course," said Afanasyev.
The cars competing are usually Moskviteh sedans with engines under 100 cubic inches. They, like the Lada export model, are based on designs by Flat, which builds cars in Russia.
The rally championship usually includes one event that attracts international stars and all the Lett cab drivers compete in the traditional Ray Taxi in Letvia. Russian cars and drivers have been competing regularly in rallies in Western Europe but have not recorded any major victories.
Development of road racing in Russia is hampered by a lack of tracks. "We have several in use now," said Afanasyev. "In Leningrad, Minsk, Estonia, Tbilsi and in the Ukraine. Our drivers also race on Eastern European tracks in sedans and formula cars.
"We have the money to build three or four more tracks and to update the Minsk circuit" he said. Minsk is the site of Russia's international meets. "It will not be upgraded to Grand Prix or Formula One standards," said Afanasyev. "We have no plans for Grand Prix racing now."
New circuits are planned for Byelorussia, Kazakhistan and Siberia, but not Moscow, which lacks a large racing plant. "Too many problems here, especially with noise," explained Afanasyev. "If we tried to build a track, we would get a mass of protest letters. After all, not everyone is as enthusiastic as we are."
Besides the Mosyvitch and Lada sedans, Russians race Estonian-build formula cars on the road. Although under development for 10 years, the cars are reported to be heavy and under-powered by Western standards. They rarely appear beyong the Iron Curtain, while the sedans, especially the Moskvitch, have done quite well elsewhere.
"The Estonian factory now builds 50 cars a year," reported Afanasyev, "and there are now more than 700 formula cars racing in three classes here. Clubs often build their own cars, too. They get help from the auto factories."
Since 1962, karting has been the easiest way to enter Russian auto sports. "We now have two factories, in Tallin, Estonia, and Leningrad, turning out 1,500 karts a year.We are astonished at its popularity, particularly with young people," said Afanasyev.
Attempts on world speed records face the same problem in Russia they do in this country.
"We used to have a big salt lake, like Bonneville (Utah), but the salt is being taken up to use for chemicals," Afanasyev said. "That course was in south-central Asia, and now it is difficult to find a site for record setting."
Last year, the Russian Kharhov speedster set several long-distance international records and a Soviet electric car set a mark. There was no official interest expressed in trying for a world land speed record, however.
With all this activity, it would seem to be not long before Russia makes a serious effort at competing in international events. It is planning now to enter the European Touring Car Championship. Russian cars and drivers have had increasing success racing against Iron Curtain rivals in the Cup of Peace and Friendship events.
Motorcycle racing governed by a separate group has been in international competition since the 1960s. Soviet riders have competed regularly for the world's speedway title and films of cycle racing on ice in Russia are now an American television staple.
"There is a trend toward more professionalism in driving," said Afanasyev. "We are making 5000 cars a day now, so there are more and more drivers. Auto sports will benefit from this."