Rahal won CART's 1987 title, and was also the first MC winner. (LAT archive)
As IndyCar explores ways to enhance its market share in today's diverse sports world, it's interesting to look back on a "big-event concept" that was tried 25 years ago.
On Oct. 31, 1987, the CART IndyCar World Series launched the "Marlboro Challenge," a non-points all-star race run for a big cash prize as part of its regular season finale on the temporary circuit at Tamiami Park in near Miami. The race, run on the Saturday, was run to half the length of the points-paying race, requiring one pit stop among the competitors. That first race had a representative result, with runaway championship winner Bobby Rahal taking the win – and a $225,000 prize, big money in those days – with his Truesports Lola.
But the race still provided a whiff of controversy. First, the grid for the race was set by a draw – an especially significant advantage to whoever picked a low number, given the difficulty in passing on the Tamiami street course – and the race distance proved just too far for several contenders to make on that one stop – including Marlboro-sponsored Emerson Fittipaldi, who ran out of methanol on the last lap, while Rahal freely admitted to running conservatively to ensure he made the finish. "More an economy run than a dash," sniffed commentator Pancho Carter on ESPN's coverage of the race.
The concept was loosely based on NASCAR's Winston Million bonus, and like that program was financed by a big tobacco sponsor, which bankrolled it for six years. Marlboro took the likeness even further the following year by initiating a "Marlboro Million" bonus program, under which any driver who won CART's Marlboro Grand Prix at the Meadowlands, the Marlboro 500 at Michigan, and Marlboro Challenge in the same season would win a $1,000,000 bonus. However, this trifecta was never achieved and the Marlboro Million was dropped after the 1991 season.
The Marlboro Challenge lasted only one more season, having moved from Tamiami to Nazareth Speedway and Laguna Seca Raceway. Its status as an exhibition event always made the race something of an afterthought, and few fans lamented its passing when it was discontinued after the 1992 season.
The drivers did miss the money, though...