IF YOU GREW UP IN AMERICA during the mid-1980s and had cable television, infomercials and an explosion of quick-hit commercials from unfamiliar brands could not be avoided. They were like a needy family dog—always there, breathing in your face, begging for attention.
Tom Vu promised to sell his secrets to wealth and a life spent yachting with dye-job blondes, adult-themed hotline ads made for awkward teenage viewing, and then we had the undisputed champion of heavy rotation: L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The self-help book, penned by the founder of the Church of Scientology, was cable's equivalent of annoying elevator music.
At the same time, freed from the limitations of ABC, NBC, and CBS, cable also became a natural outlet for motor racing as ESPN, TNN, TBS, and other channels emerged as hosts for the sport. It wasn't long before the two entities became intertwined; a Sunday spent watching the CART IndyCar Series or IMSA GTP cars on cable was guaranteed to include a half-dozen ads for Dianetics.
In my mid-to-late teens, I was the wrong audience for the purpose Dianetics was meant to serve. Sheer repetition from the commercials with questions like 'How can I improve my life?' and 'Can I have a happier marriage?' led me to believe Dianetics was nothing more than a lame book for adults stuck in shitty lives.
And yes, back then, I was too stupid to realize Dianetics was L. Ron Hubbard's paperback gateway for Scientology . . . until I sat down to watch the November 1988 GTE World Challenge of Tampa sports-car race on cable.
The non-championship race, which pitted the finest IMSA GTP prototypes against Europe's Group C prototypes, was a mash-up of unbridled awesomeness. Admittedly, the Group C field was a bit weak, but IMSA's nastiest cars—Nissans and Jaguars and more—were at their peak, and quite a few turned out to make sure America won the sports-car grudge match.
But there was one Group C entry from Germany's renowned Kremer brothers that was promising. Thanks to the recruitment of Mario Andretti and his son Michael—two of the biggest motor-racing stars on the planet—the No. 10 Kremer Racing Porsche 962 was expected to make a big splash with its IndyCar drivers behind the steering wheel.
Those plans almost came crashing down when Mario—Italy's favorite God-fearing son—arrived in Tampa to find the Porsche dressed in sponsorship logos for Dianetics. As the broadcasters revealed at the top of the show, Andretti refused to drive the car until it was cleansed of branding for Hubbard's homemade religion.
With that simple piece of information in hand, it finally registered for me that there could be more to Dianetics than was advertised. As I soon learned, Hubbard also founded a church centered on the belief that at birth we're inhabited by the spirits of extraterrestrials, which can, through Scientology, be eliminated. Andretti was aware the entire time.
"The Kremer brothers from Germany were coming over, and they got these [Scientology] dudes down there all over them, throwing money at 'em," Mario recently told me of his Scientology showdown. "It was Michael and I driving this Porsche , and good money to put this Dianetics, this Scientology thing [on the car]."
"[Dianetics] was like their bible," Andretti continued. "We still said no. [The Kremer brothers] said, 'You know, it's lots of money.' I said, 'You don't understand, I'm sorry, I'll be excommunicated by the Pope if I do that. We're not going to drive.' So they took [the] off. They were pissed. These Germans were pissed. To their defense, they didn't really understand, they didn't get it. They only saw the money."
With the 1978 Formula 1 world champion holding his ground, the Kremer team relented and came up with a workaround: The Dianetics branding would move to the sister 962 driven by South Africa's George Fouché and Germany's Volker Weidler.
In the absence of Dianetics branding on Andretti's Porsche, the Kremers were steadfast in appeasing their sponsor and came up with a compromise: Instead, Bridge Publications—the publishing house that printed the book—would fill the empty space on 962's bodywork.
The fact that Bridge was founded by the Church of Scientology to publish Dianetics was sufficiently abstract; the nondescript company triggered no alarms with Mario or Michael, which eased the Andretti's faith-based objections. Problem solved.
On November 27, Geoff Brabham and John Morton mauled the GTE World Challenge field in their Nissan GTP ZX-T—the same car Brabham used to set IMSA's all-time win streak and earn his first GTP championship in 1988. Piloting the rechristened Bridge Publications Porsche 962, Mario and Michael finished sixth, four laps behind the all-conquering Nissan.
Tampa's Scientology-scandal-in-a-teacup only resonated within the small North American road racing community, and with the Andretti's star power not directly associated with Hubbard's product, the lesser-known Weidler and Fouché did little to build awareness among IMSA fans.
Scientology's strategy to use motorsports as a promotional tool was largely born out of necessity. Partnerships with theologically neutral stick-and-ball sports would never happen. Auto racing is the one sport that always has its eyes closed and hand extended, hoping for someone—anyone—to fill it with $1000 bills.
As much fun as it would be to see the National Basketball Association powered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Nation of Islam's Major League Baseball series, or the NFL presented by Dianetics, Hubbard's group chose the path of least resistance.
Professional race teams depend on big annual budgets to stay in business, and for a lucky few, Hubbard's people weren't afraid to open the bank vault through Bridge and Dianetics. For an emerging religious institution like Scientology—one that thrived on the age-old practice of recruiting the masses to follow and donate their earnings—there was a simple brilliance in paying to be on race cars: It came with access to large, brand-loyal crowds at motor races.
With each racing fan representing a possible revenue stream for the church, the cost to sponsor a team was nominal compared to the collective fortune waiting to be plundered in the grandstands. As far as relationships go, Scientology and racing seemed meant for each other.
After my Dianetics realization during the Tampa broadcast, I did a quick accounting of the other race cars that carried the name in 1988 and thought of Roberto Guerrero's Lola-Cosworth Indy car. The first wave of Dianetics-sponsored cars broke cover around 1987, even appearing at Le Mans, but the serious push by Scientology through racing began the following year. And it mostly concentrated on Indy.
As unfathomable as it might seem today, IndyCar racing was king at the time. IMSA and NASCAR fought over a distant second place in America's heart, making Scientology's interest in open-wheel racing a smart fit.
Guerrero's unmistakable Granatelli Racing machine briefly sported Dianetics stickers, and as with Andretti, I've always wondered about the sponsor's sudden appearance and rapid disappearance from the Colombian's Day-Glo rocket. In fact, when I saw the car at the April 1988 season opener in Phoenix, STP was the primary sponsor; Dianetics had yet to arrive on the IndyCar scene.
Long Beach, the second race on the schedule, is where Dianetics, Granatelli, and Guerrero finalized a contract and started the clock on their tempestuous collaboration. By mid-June, the Dianetics stickers were stripped from the car and headed for a landfill. What happened?
After spending 30 minutes on the phone last month with Vince Granatelli Jr., another one of my old questions was finally answered. Holy shit was it answered.
By 1988, the Granatelli family, pillars of the Indy 500 with its Novi-engined cars and the renowned STP Turbines, was fighting to keep pace with IndyCar's giants. The Granatellis were actively seeking increased funding to match the war chest Roger Penske had for Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan, and through an odd turn of events, ended up benefitting from one of Penske's sponsorship cast offs—Bridge Publications.
"I became acquainted with the Bridge Publications, or Dianetics, if you like, through John Travolta, who was a personal friend, and Kirstie Alley," Granatelli said. "They were good friends of mine and still are. They were friends prior to my association with Bridge Publications, and I didn't really know much about Dianetics or Bridge or Scientology at the time.
"How I really became involved with [Bridge] was that I was approached by somebody who represented Dianetics. He approached me in Long Beach. They were [ready to become] a sponsor of Roger Penske. They were all set, they had a deal, and I talked to Roger about it. He said that his wife . . . did not want him to be associated with Bridge Publications and Dianetics. That was the end of the conversation, [and] they didn't do it."
When Penske declined the sponsorship, Granatelli swooped in to secure the funding. With two of his famous friends—key advocates for the Church of Scientology—adding an element of comfort to the deal, negotiations proceeded. Even still, Granatelli knew inking a contract underwritten by a new-age religion would have a polarizing effect.
"I was underfunded at the time and paying everything out of my pocket," he continued. "So I made the deal with them. And really, technically—and I'm open-minded about this—Bridge Publications wanted to present one of their books, which was called Dianetics. Now that has really nothing to do with the church.
"It is associated with the church, of course, but it really doesn't have anything to do with the church. If the church makes a book and they want to sell the book and they want to sell their philosophy, there's nothing in the book that says you need to be a Scientologist in order to live by the rules of the book. I could read Tom Sawyer, and it doesn't mean I'm living in the South. In other words, you can read whatever you want to read and take away from it whatever you want to.
"I frankly am not against any particular religion, but I never found anything objectionable in Dianetics in selling the book. I didn't agree with some of their philosophies, but it is none of my business, if you know what I'm saying. They came to me as a sponsor and gave me a lot of money to run Long Beach, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. And I did that. "
According to Granatelli, the relationship started out fine, but in Milwaukee everything quickly started going downhill. After emphasizing to me that it was his own decision to end the sponsorship, Granatelli took a deep breath and uncorked a winding tale of habitual line stepping, the stigma attached to Scientology, the church's attempt to indoctrinate Guerrero, and unsettling behaviors that led to the end of their IndyCar relationship.
"This is not a negative story, it's just the way some people operate," he said. "They were a good sponsor, but the thing I didn't like was, first of all, they do have a negative connotation to the public. I had a driver (who he wanted to hire for 1989), and he didn't want to drive for me because he was worried about Dianetics . . .
"After Long Beach, and after Indy, we went to Milwaukee, and there was a lot of support from Bridge Publications. Every hotel you went into, they had postcards on every front desk with the picture of the car. Under normal circumstances, they did a good job in promoting their product. They had 50, 60 people at least at every race. I didn't want them in the pits, but they would come around. Frankly, it was like they were too nice. You couldn't piss them off. I'm serious. It was just that sort of weird thing that I didn't particularly like.
"I would tell them, 'Nobody in the pits, please. You may work for the sponsor, but this is a race team, it is not an advertising campaign. During the race, nobody in the pits, I don't want you hanging around the trucks in the pit area, you do your thing somewhere else.' 'Okay, yes, Mr. Granatelli. No problem.' And [they'd] go away and never [had] an argument."
While Bridge Publication's excessive involvement annoyed Granatelli, it was the next story he told me about the church, Guerrero, and an unfortunate string of turn-two accidents ending in Milwaukee that led to the first real cracks in the sponsorship arrangement.
"In 1987, we ran 600 miles at a tire test in Indianapolis, and when it was over, we called Roberto off of the track coming down the main straightaway," Granatelli said. "He was out of the throttle, lifted going into turn one, went through the short stretch for turn two at probably 150 miles an hour, then a camber link on the left rear wheel broke, he spun, and he hit the wall coming off of turn two. A right-front wheel broke off the suspension and hit him in the helmet and put him unconscious for 17 days.
"This was September. Unconscious for 17 days, he came back in December. We tested at Phoenix, he was good. As a matter of fact, we were on the pole at Phoenix for the first race in April until Rick Mears went out and knocked us off the pole, [but] we started in the front row. So suddenly Roberto was good.
"[Then] he starts the race in Indianapolis, and in the first lap, 16 seconds into the race, he is in turn two, Scott Brayton is on the inside, loses control, spins, [hits] Roberto, collects him, puts him into the turn two wall. There's a reason for all of this story.
"Now we go to Milwaukee, we have a fast time in practice, we are ahead of everybody. We're not just talking about slow guys, we're talking Mario, Michael, [Bobby] Rahal, Mears, [A.J.] Foyt. We had a fast time in practice, and there was a bump in turn two. It had been there, [and] with the speeds you were running, obviously, it is going to upset [the car].
"Roberto hit the bump, spun coming off of two, hit the wall, rang his bell, got in the ambulance, and by the time he was halfway to the hospital, he was reciting his phone numbers. The [EMT] asked him, 'What's your phone number?' to see if he was alert. Roberto said, 'Where, here or California?' He really knew what was going on. But because if you get your bell rung within 24 hours of when the race starts, you can't run the next day. So we packed up and went home."
Despite Guerrero's apparent lack of concussion symptoms immediately after the crash, he was taken and admitted to a local hospital. Granatelli's wanton belief that his sponsor and its book were disconnected from the Church of Scientology finally changed in Milwaukee.
"What happened was during that time I had one of the guys come up to me that worked for Bridge, and said, 'We would like to, what they call 'audit' Roberto,'" he continued. "Do know what auditing is in Dianetics? If you read the book you know what auditing is."
For the unfamiliar, auditing is a rigorous Q&A process, and according to the church's website, "Scientology auditing can bring people from a condition of spiritual blindness to spiritual existence." Seeing Guerrero's most recent crash as a call to action, the church swept in to help him, Granatelli says.
"They said, 'We think that Roberto has a psychological thing about turn two in his head," he recalled. "'He crashed in turn two in 1987, he hit the wall in turn two in Indianapolis last month, and now he crashed into turn two in Milwaukee. We would like to audit him. We would like to talk to him.' I said, 'The second you talk to my driver about crashing in turn two is the day you lose me. You will no longer be my sponsor. You can think whatever you like. I have been in racing for 40 years, and we are talking about a coincidence here.'
"They said, 'Okay,' and then the next thing that happens was John Travolta sent flowers to Katie, Roberto's wife, when Roberto was in the hospital. And I asked John, 'Why did you do that? You're not exactly best friends with Roberto and Katie. Why did you do that?' He said the church asked him to send her flowers. I said, 'What does the church have to do with you sending flowers to my driver? Or his wife?' It pissed me off. It got between me and John there for a moment. I told him, 'John, I don't understand this.'"
The church's peculiar advances during Guerrero's recovery period left Granatelli questioning its true intentions, but there also wasn't much he could do about the situation.
"If they want a relationship with Roberto directly and they go around me, they obviously could try that, which they did," he said. "How do you stop your sponsor from going to the hospital to visit your driver? It is their driver, too. But for what reason are you going?
"So they wanted to audit Roberto, and they started to talk to him about it. Roberto came to me, and I said to him, 'I don't think that is a good idea, Roberto. If you want to go through it, you are a grown man, do what you want to do, but I don't believe that's going to make a difference. They want to say that you crashed your car and you were unconscious for 17 days and now after being audited by Dianetics and reading the book and being a believer in this, all of a sudden they have converted a guy, a race driver, to where they want to take credit for you coming back as fast as you did in December when you didn't even know them.' It didn't make any sense to me."
Through the years, Guerrero and Granatelli have come to share the same view. "I believe it was the reason they wanted to sponsor me and Vince," Guerrero said. "It was the first year of me coming out of the accident, my head injury, and I believe they wanted to put that together with the Scientology thing."
At the time, though, Guerrero was less suspicious and agreed to the auditing process, which ended up being a step too far for the Roman Catholic IndyCar driver.
"They sent John Travolta to my house," Guerrero continued. "He took us for dinner, and he told us all about it, and he was the nicest guy ever. And through him they got me to do the auditing, which is the stuff they do in Scientology. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever. After one session, I said 'I think I'm OK.'
"They thought they were going to take away all the bad things that happened to me because of the accident. They were going to do all these sessions. In fact, they wanted Katie to do it too, and she turned them down . . . because they said could take [away] all the negative stuff with the birth of [our] children, and I said there was nothing negative . . . it was a very strange deal."
Leaving Milwaukee, Granatelli sought a speedy divorce from his sponsor. But the church wasn't ready to give up on the relationship.
"So then they call and offered me a half-million dollars for each individual race I was going to run for them after Milwaukee," he added. "I said, 'No, we are through.'"
Granatelli was walking away from an obscene amount of money. With inflation, the church was offering today's equivalent of $1 million per race. Compare that to cash-strapped IndyCar teams in 2016, where most operate on an average budget of $375,000 per event, and the offer is even more remarkable.
"They paid me over $1 million ($2M today) to run the first two races at Long Beach and Indianapolis, and then $500,000 ($1M) for Milwaukee," he said. "And then when I said no after Milwaukee, they went to $750,000 ($1.5M) per race. And I still said no because I didn't like the way they did things.
"Then they called Roberto. And they told Roberto, 'Vince is turning down $750,000 a race here. Can you talk to him?' So Roberto called me and said, 'Vince, can we afford not to spend their $750,000.' I said, 'Roberto, has anything changed in your salary? Are you still getting paid? You are still getting paid. What is happening here is they are getting between you and I.'
"These are people that are aggressive, and they are trying to sell the product, which is all okay. But now they are doing it in a way that I don't agree with. Then I got of call from [Scientology's] chairman of the board, and I said no. There were probably 10 races left that I could have picked up $750,000 for them ($1.5M), and I didn't do it. It was really the principle of the thing more than anything else."
Had Granatelli chosen to stick with the Bridge Publishing and the church, he would have nearly doubled his team's annual budget requirements.
"$4 million ($8M) is what it would cost to run the whole season—you could run competitively," he said. "They spent a lot of money in sponsorships. They had luxurious parties. They had locations in several states. When they sponsored me they were talking about giving big money."
Twenty-eight years after the business arrangement concluded, Granatelli maintains his stance on the core purpose behind their relationship.
"First of all, there was a lot of other people that would come to me and tell me I shouldn't have them as a sponsor," he said. "I disagreed with all those people. I didn't see anything wrong with having Dianetics on the car. I just really didn't."
Granatelli also distances himself from any criticism leveled at the church or its high-profile disciples.
"What do churches do?" he asked. "They raise money, don't they? That is what they do. I have never found more people that were more devout to a church than some of the celebrities like Travolta and Kirstie Alley and Tom Cruise. And you might look at them as being brainwashed. I don't particularly see that. Anybody can believe whatever they want in any religion. But they have a lot of people there."
To Granatelli's point, by using his team, Kremer Racing, or any other teams as a conduit for recruitment, the Church of Scientology was working from the same marketing and promotions playbook used by every other sponsor. PPG Industries sponsored the CART IndyCar Series as a means to drive more business towards its paint products. Camel wanted to sell more cigarettes in the 1970s, found a perfect target demographic in IMSA's fan base, and poured untold millions into the rebranded "Camel GT" and "Camel GTP" series over three decades. Winston did the same with its cigarettes in NASCAR's "Winston Cup."
If hawking cancer-causing tobacco products to race fans was considered acceptable, it's hard to judge a cash-wielding, alien-centric religion for over-paying to reach the same audience.
The presence of Bridge, Dianetics, and Scientology in racing's upper echelons diminished after the church's problem-filled experiences with Andretti and Granatelli. After Tampa, Dianetics branding made at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and in IMSA's lower-tier classes, but few paid attention. Scientology's efforts to use racing as an income generator was mostly abandoned by the early 1990s. The church did revisit the idea in 2006 when it sponsored a NASCAR team using the motto "Ignite your potential," but that didn't last long.
I wanted to get the church's take on its involvement in motor-racing sponsorships—was it successful from their perspective?—and submitted several questions by email. After the story published, a Church of Scientology International spokesperson got back to me, mentioned they had read the story, and supplied the following quote:
"The motor racing sponsorships in the late 1980s and early 1990s were all part of the many ways Bridge Publications has kept Dianetics in the public eye and a perennial bestseller for now 66 years. There is no denying that the book is considered to be a phenomenon in the publishing world. "
Racing teams have been sponsored by Payday Loan revenue, drug smugglers, pop singers, and a steady stream of misguided oddballs. I'm not sure where Scientology belongs among motorsport's strange or nefarious spenders, but at least it left some good stories behind.