A pit crew wearing Honda colors watches its race car roar past again and again. And again. Suddenly, the crew springs to life as the racer pulls in unexpectedly.
'What's wrong?' the crew chief asks, alarmed.
'I'm thirsty,' replies the racer.
You can get away with that sort of advertising when your racers seem to be winning every weekend and you've just won the CART engine manufacturer's championship.
It has been only two years since the horror of Honda's debut season in CART - America's premier open-wheel racing series - with its failure to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and its continuing debacles as the season went on. But it might as well be decades ago.
Now it is a rarity if at least one of the six Honda-powered drivers is not on the victory podium come Sunday. And Honda wants to make sure everyone knows about it.
Just the same, Honda's approach is not to 'Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,' said Thomas Elliott, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. executive vice president and top man behind Honda's racing effort.
'Our purpose is long-term, to develop the corporate image of the company. Sales gains from winning a race are irregular at best. It's more about relationships,' Elliott said.
In its market research, Honda has tracked public attitudes regarding the company's prowess in technology and advanced programs. Since Honda started succeeding in racing, those readings have spiked. Elliott said he believes such attitudes drive sales.
So Honda is using more of a widespread marketing attack, rather than the traditional philosophy of 'We won Sunday. Buy our car.'
In addition to the standard national and regional advertising barrage, Honda is providing racing show cars and a video of Honda's 1996 success to display at dealerships as well as at regional auto shows. Honda's Internet site keeps statistics on all six drivers. Posters are given away en masse.
But there are other benefits involving vendors and sponsors. Motorola helped develop the engine control system for Honda's race cars; now Motorola supplies the engine control unit for all V-6 Accord engines built at the Marysville, Ohio, plant. Long-distance telephone carrier LCI sponsors driver Andre Ribeiro; Honda gets good phone rates and promotional tie-ins.
American Honda also gets its employees revved up in the racing effort. Before the race in Long Beach, Calif., all six Honda-equipped drivers came to the American Honda headquarters to sign autographs. That day, Honda also presented Jimmy Vasser with an Acura NSX for winning the 1996 driver's championship.
Elliott also sees the global promise for Honda in the CART series. It used to be that Formula One was the only way to reach a global audience. But now, with races in South America, Australia and Japan, as well as a flock of European and South American drivers, CART is rapidly growing on a world scale. And Honda is leading the way.
Eying that same sort of recognition is Toyota, which after little more than one developmental season in CART, still must be content with back-of-the-pack status for its four cars.
'We haven't reaped any benefits yet from motorsports. We're suffering the growing pains from this venture. We're going through a big learning curve very quickly,' admitted John Koenig, vice president of motorsports for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and president of Toyota Racing Development.
What sorts of growing pains? For instance, last season, Toyota had money earmarked for a racing commercial, but when engine development became more expensive than expected, the ad money got yanked over to engineering.
This year Toyota had hoped to make major strides with the development of a more powerful, second-generation engine. Increased marketing and dealer involvement in the race effort had been anticipated as a result.
But a fire that leveled a supplier's plant in Japan forced a production realignment within Toyota. The plant that made prototype engine parts for the racing program has been drafted to produce brake proportioning valves, leaving the racing program with a shortage of new parts as well as limited developmental resources, said Les Unger, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.'s national motorsports manager.
For now, only one CART driver, Max Papis, has the new Toyota engine. The other three drivers must make do with the engine designed last season. What's more, development work on further improving Papis' engine also has been brought to a halt.
The saving grace is that there are enough spares for the older engine that Toyota will be able to field teams. That situation likely will continue through the end of May. Unger said he hopes the new engines will be ready by May 24 for the inaugural CART race in St. Louis.
The bright side is that the motorsports effort also has a bigger budget this year, although it is still less than $100 million, Koenig said. With that comes increased marketing opportunities.
Toyota is sponsoring the Miami Grand Prix, Michigan 500 and Nazareth (Pa.) Grand Prix, as well as the three California races at Long Beach, Laguna Seca and Fontana. Toyota also is the official car and truck of the Road America race in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and the official truck of the Cleveland Grand Prix.
All but the Cleveland sponsorships were done by the national office. But Koenig applauds Cleveland's dealer association, which redirected its incentives and promotions budget toward a race sponsorship.
'We get a lot of exposure where we're a sponsor, a ton of signage, local promotions. The idea is to draw floor traffic,' Koenig said.
Perhaps the hardest part is getting local dealers to come to races, to get them enthused enough about Toyota's effort to tie in the race with a sales event.
Koenig estimates perhaps 30 percent of Toyota's 1,200 dealers are interested in and knowledgeable about racing.
'The big key has to be winning a race. Once we start winning, you'll see a higher level of dealer interest because it will create more exposure,' Koenig said.
How soon will that be? Koenig predicted some top-five finishes later this year, and a victory next season. But Koenig realizes Toyota may not have the same quick results as Honda, whose history in motorcycle and Formula One racing helped to quickly propel the company to the victory circle.
Taking a less expensive direction is Nissan Motor Corp U.S.A.'s Infiniti Division.
Infiniti is competing against Oldsmobile in the Indy Racing League, which was originally intended to wrap around the CART schedule as a lower-cost, oval-only, nationalistic series with the Indianapolis 500 as its crown jewel. But in 1995, series creator Tony George forbid CART teams from racing in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 unless they participated in the series' other races. The CART teams passed, and the IRL was launched without big names like Unser, Andretti and Penske.
For its second season, the IRL decided not to use race-bred, turbocharged engines like CART, instead choosing engines that have some connection to street-legal powerplants.
To accommodate the larger street-block powerplants, the IRL also decided to switch from CART chassis built by Lola and Reynard to chassis with taller and wider cockpits built by Dallara Automobili da Competizione of Parma, Italy, and G Force Precision Engineering of Sussex, England.
So the 4.0-liter V-8 engine that runs in the Infiniti Indy comes from the same roots as the 4.1-liter V-8 that powers the Infiniti Q45 sedan. Exactly how much is in common is the stuff of pit row chuckles, but the basic idea is there.
And that's what Infiniti is trying to get across in its infant marketing effort.
Infiniti is gearing up for the Indianapolis 500, which it has set its sights on winning - a victory there would be a first for a Japanese manufacturer. Thirteen of the 64 cars on the official entry list have Infiniti engines; the number of those cars that will be ready to try to quality for the 33 spots on the grid remains to be seen.
'We have a chance to participate in the crown jewel of motorsports. There's nothing like winning Indy to cut through the clutter,' said E.C. Mueller, Infiniti model line manager.
Even though Oldsmobile had more time to work on its engine, which is based on the Aurora's V-8, the growing pains associated with any inaugural racing effort are very much in evidence in the IRL.
Infiniti was able to provide engines for three cars at the Phoenix 200 in March. Two failed, but the division now has fixed the problem, according to Nissan Motorsports Director Frank Honsowetz.
Twelve of the Oldsmobile engines also failed in Phoenix either during practice or the race, and only nine cars finished. Afterward, the IRL canceled test sessions at new tracks in Texas and Colorado so that teams, chassis manufacturers and engine builders all could concentrate on preparing for the 81st Indianapolis 500. It would not make great publicity if the Indy winner was the car that came closest to finishing 500 miles.
Since Infiniti's entry into IRL is only two races old, there has not been much public exposure, other than some dealer promotions near the Phoenix and Orlando, Fla., race sites.
At Indy, in addition to traditional advertising, dealer promotions and hospitality, Infiniti will be the main sponsor of the Indy FanFest's Indy 500 Heritage Museum, which will display past and present engines used in the race. The division also has cutaways of street-legal and race engines for the 1997 IRL season, to point out similarities.
To show the parent company's racing heritage, Infiniti also will display old Datsun 510 racing sedans, a restored Datsun 240Z, and 300ZX and other race cars from the Pro Sports Car Racing series, formerly called IMSA.
Mueller said, should Infiniti win IRL races, the post-race advertising will go beyond the standard race-win spots - though he declined to say how.
Racing wags have termed the IRL the Rodney Dangerfield of racing, and say a victory at this year's Indy 500 should be tagged with an asterisk because it does not count for much.
Mueller bristles at the suggestion: 'We're just there to race.'
Last year, attendance at Indy was down by at least 20 percent compared with the 1995 CART race. This year, the cars, sans turbochargers, make about 200 fewer horsepower than the CART engines, taking speeds down 10 to 15 mph. And there has been a prevailing skepticism about the quality of the competitors, due in part to a rash of accidents in 1996.
So this year, the world's most famous race will be a test of the appeal of the IRL more than any team, driver or engine.
If it works, the new hardware will firmly establish the IRL on a path different from rival CART -and provide Infiniti and Oldsmobile with plenty of luster. And if it does not ... well, Honsowetz said after Phoenix that Nissan is 'committed to the series for the long haul.'
Mark Rechtin is an Automotive News staff reporter in Los Angeles. J.P. Vettraino, motorsports editor of Auto-Week, a sister publication to Automotive News in Detroit, contributed to this report.