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Original Issue


Tiny cars are careening through twisty circuits at a dollar a lap in a fast new race-it-yourself game

Of all the race circuits in North America—including old brick ovals and latter-day road courses—the Grand Prix of America track in Troy, Mich. is the oddest on several counts. The Troy circuit is far and away the shortest and smallest in America: a mere third of a mile of asphalt that winds back and forth so compactly over 3½ acres of greensward that from the air it looks like a schematic of the human intestines.

In terms of spectator appeal—the usual measure of success—the Grand Prix of America track in Troy is a real bust. Its 200-capacity stands are rarely halffull even on weekends, but no one in GPA management really cares how many people come to watch. Troy was conceived and designed not for spectators but as a race-it-yourself track that would put ordinary people in the driver's seat. At Troy any licensed auto driver with an itch to scorch it on a racetrack can do so for a dollar per lap in a spiffy little machine that is three-quarters the size and a reasonable facsimile of the McLaren M14 cars that growled around real Grand Prix circuits a few years back.

A sign posted outside the Troy track to lure customers reads: "Drive this $15,000 car for one dollar." This come-on is a gross understatement. Counting all that GPA has spent on design, fabrication and modification to produce a machine that would take a beating and still turn a profit, each of the 12 mini-McLarens now being driven by Mr. and Mrs. Average Leadfoot costs about $60,000.

The 26-hp Wankel engine used in the mini-McLarens is for sure a tidbit compared to the power plant of a full-size Formula I car. On an unlimited straight the little McLarens can do 65 mph, and that is speed enough since 40 mph is about all the hottest driver can manage in the tight convolutions and chicanery of the Troy track. At Silverstone, Zandvoort, Zeltweg and other big-time Grand Prix venues there are straights where a driver boils along for 10 seconds or more without turning the wheel. Quel ennui! By comparison, the twisty little track at Troy makes even the 14 wrinkled miles of the N√ºrburgring seem as smooth around as a hen's egg. Troy is curves, curves and more curves. Curves of every kind: hard rights and lefts, lazy esses, 180-degree hairpins and double apexes—19 curves in all, the two farthest apart being separated by a scant three seconds of driving time.

What the mini-McLaren lacks in size and performance is compensated for by illusion and sensations that are very compelling. Thirty-five mph in an ordinary sedan is modest indeed, but for a driver wedged for the first time in a mini-McLaren, with his eyeballs barely higher off the track than those of a turtle, the asphalt and greenery whiz by in a blur. The Gs of acceleration, the lateral Gs, the exhilaration when the rear end goes adrift and all the lusty thrills enjoyed in the mini-machines are only a sample of the real thing, but still heady enough to keep customers coming back. In the past 2½ years, more than 80,000 drivers have run at Troy. Forty-six percent of those who drove in the first year came back for another go at it, and the return rate is now running about 65%. Naturally, a large percentage of the patrons are young Jody Scheckters, wild in heart, but there are quite a few steady customers as old and bald as Juan Manuel Fangio. In a five-week sampling last spring, GPA found that whereas almost 50% of its drivers were under 25, a solid 20% were over 35.

The mini-track at Troy was a hit from the day it opened in mid-October of 1972. But it was not until last fall that GPA began looking for investment money and started a modest mass production of mini-McLarens at a plant of the Outboard Marine Corporation in Manawa, Wis. Seven weeks ago the first franchised track opened in the city of Pomona, in an area of Southern California that swarms with motor maniacs. The initial price of a franchise is steep, about $55,000, and each mini-McLaren still costs $6,000, but to judge by the action at Pomona it's a bargain. Although the Pomona area already offered drag racing, Go-karting and half a dozen other flashy ways for a racing buff to sate his cravings, on opening day the mini-McLaren operation sold 7,465 lap tickets—almost four times more than the Troy track did in its debut. At Troy on weekend evenings there are often 30 drivers in line, some of them waiting more than half an hour for a ride. To cut down the long lines in busy periods, Pomona has two 1,900-foot circuits, each with its own stable of racers. On the busiest Sunday since it opened 2½ years ago, Troy managed to get 2,758 laps run; the twin circuit at Pomona has averaged better than that daily since opening day.

Anyone who loves honest, unmuffled noise, anyone who craves the ultimate din of a dozen big four-barreled cars howling in concert will be greatly disappointed with mini-racing. To oblige the communities in which it makes a living, GPA has equipped its cars with outsized mufflers and resonators that cut down the decibels drastically. The sweet screech of cornering tires can be heard, and when drivers back off abruptly, the flatulent little cars often let out a raucous splat, but for the most part they whip around the course grumbling about as loudly as a power mower.

There is plenty of unexpected action in the infield, however, for at Troy an overeager leadfoot occasionally goes too far into the last turn too fast, loses the road and takes away a section of fence. For all that, in 590,000 laps run at Troy and 90,000 laps at Pomona, no one has flipped or burned or otherwise totaled himself or his machine. No one has needed medical attention except one small child who had to be patched up with a Band-Aid after falling in the lobby of the Troy administration building.

Mini-racing is definitely not a dicey game. Passing other cars on the track is forbidden. Each driver competes only against a digital timer that functions off photo cells at the start and finish. A separate computer system measures the speed of each driver over the first 10th of the course and holds the next driver at the starting line for a calculated period, so that even if a rank novice is poking along at a pace of 75 seconds per lap, he has enough lead to keep a fast driver from overtaking him.

The challenge of beating the clock hooks some people right off and barely affects others. In five laps a beginner may lower his time from a sluggish 65 seconds to an impressive 49 and walk away merely amused. On the other hand, a novice who has spent $10 hammering his time down to 55 seconds often will spend another 10 and, failing to do better, fork out still another 10 trying to shave off a sliver of time.

The most talented drivers at the Troy track, a 20-year-old printing clerk named Renee Bove and a 34-year-old Fisher Corporation draftsman named Mike Moretti, enjoy almost total obscurity (the modest limelight at Troy is barely worth basking in). Renee Bove is the only woman who has turned the course in less than 46 seconds—a worthy mark considering that both Roger Penske and Carroll Shelby, two authentic knights of the roaring road who have run at Troy, needed more than a dozen laps to get down to 48 seconds. However, last September when Renee clocked 45.82 to lower her own record for the umpteenth time, the local press gave her no notice. All she got for her feat was a ripple of applause from three of the five spectators in the stands and 10 free lap tickets (which she used immediately to lower the women's record still further, to 45.65). The male record holder, Moretti, who in height, weight and feature is a fair facsimile of Mario Andretti, does get some recognition, not ail of it deserved. Out of the 80,000 who have run at Troy, only three drivers have clocked under 45 seconds: in addition to Moretti, a trucker named Doug Kwarsick and a printer named Larry Swift, who now works for GPA at the Pomona track. Because Moretti has knocked off 44-second laps so often and holds the track record of 44.01, whenever either Kwarsick or Swift turned a hot lap, habitués seeing the time flash up on the board simply thought it was the great Moretti out there doing his customary thing.

Both of the tracks at Pomona are 124 feet longer than the Troy course, and one of them, called the South Track, has 21 curves. However, because they both have two straights more than 100 feet long, allowing top speed of 45 mph, the clockings are not much slower than Troy's. The best time made to date on the faster, 19-curve North Track is 47.20 seconds—an unofficial mark since it was made by Swift. The official record by a customer is 47.78 seconds, set by Bill Willett, a 22-year-old machinist who, before getting into a mini-McLaren, had never driven anything spunkier than a hearse. Although the Pomona region is overrun with hot-rodding young bucks, only Willett and a laborer named Mike Maierhoffer have gotten under 49 seconds.

The idea of offering the public something better to race than a Go-kart was borrowed by GPA from a man who gave birth to it largely out of desperation. Five years ago Malcolm Bricklin, currently the proud father of a new sports car, was sole U.S. importer of the Japanese vehicle known as Subaru. At a time when Bricklin was well-stocked with Subaru 360s, the smallest model in the line, Consumers Report solidly denounced the 360 as a dangerous highway machine. To get at least his bait back out of an inventory that was suddenly unwanted, Bricklin put the little Subarus to work on five small dirt tracks in New Jersey, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and California. For people afflicted with the racer's itch the Subarus were definitely more appealing than Go-karts. The response was very good, but for a welter of reasons—decibels of noise, two-cycle emission problems, poor track layout and whatnot—the enterprise failed.

One of Bricklin's managers, Zachary DeLorean (who prefers to be known as Jack rather than Zach), asked for and was given permission to pursue the idea his own way. Jack Zachary DeLorean took the proposition to his brother John Zachary DeLorean, who is commonly known as John, not Jack or Zach. By any name, in any automotive venture, John Z. DeLorean would smell as sweet. For 25 years he was a very constant winner, first with Chrysler, then Packard, and finally upward through the divisional mazes and into the corporate mangle of General Motors. In the spring of 1973, half a year after being named GM group vice-president for domestic cars and trucks, John DeLorean quit because, to oversimplify slightly, he felt he had been confined too long in one industry. Although as an engineer and management consultant John DeLorean has irons in quite a few fires, his only concrete automotive involvement at present is the little track in Troy—a bit of a comedown for a man once responsible for 86% of the action in the biggest auto business of them all. When his brother Jack left Troy, John DeLorean, as major investor, was left holding a small but very expensive bag. As it turned out, however, also a bag of great promise.

At present, mini-tracks are under construction in Phoenix and Dallas, with openings scheduled for early summer. By the end of this year there will probably be two more in Southern California and one in Florida. GPA anticipates that in time there will be a demand for longer, faster and more challenging circuits and beefier cars for experienced lead-foots who have earned the right to ride a trifle harder. The present operations are perfectly suitable for the Walter Mittys of today but not quite enough for the Willetts, Morettis and Maierhoffers of tomorrow.