Hot Wheels has been synonymous with motorsports diecast from its very early years to the modern day, sponsoring everyone from legendary drag racers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, to SCCA Trans Am standout Jack Baldwin, to even Danica Patrick during her NASCAR Nationwide Series tenure. Throughout its history, top race cars have found their way into the Hot Wheels lineup in everything from mainline releases to their own standalone series.
After the Pro Circuit line covered NASCAR, CART, NHRA, and SCCA entries in 1992, it would be another five years before Hot Wheels again put its efforts behind motorsports. But much like the Pro Circuit line, the Pro Racing issues of 1997—coinciding with Kyle Petty’s return to Petty Enterprises, and the brand’s primary sponsorship of that effort—were an example of Hot Wheels going all-out in the world of racing.
The best-known Pro Racing cars were, unsurprisingly, the NASCAR issues; with top names like Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Ernie Irvan, and of course Petty, among a dozen others. But Hot Wheels was also responsible for some of the last mainstream issues of CART diecast as well, issuing cars for 10 of the nearly two dozen entries that ran the full 1997 schedule as part of its 1998 line.
As with its NASCAR issues, the Pro Racing line featured two levels of quality, designed to fill two different roles in the marketplace. The first, and more broadly represented, was the premium line. Designed specifically for the adult collector, the packaging boasted of the diecast body and chassis, detailed interior, and “rubber” tires. Eight different drivers made it to the lineup, including 1997 champion Alex Zanardi, 1997 Rookie of the Year Patrick Carpentier, Max Papis, and Autosport’s 1997 British Driver of the Year, Mark Blundell. All issues were on Reynard chassis except for the Newman-Haas Racing duo of Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi, who raced Swifts; Newman-Haas was the only CART team to license its cars to Hot Wheels in both the Pro Circuit and Pro Racing lines.
In addition, the Pro Racing line also featured a number of cars designed to run on Hot Wheels track. While nearly every NASCAR licensee made it to both castings, only four CART entries got the plastic treatment—and two weren’t part of the adult collector line! Team Rahal’s Bryan Herta and Della Penna Motorsports’ Richie Hearn joined the fray, pairing with Walker Racing’s Gil de Ferran and Tasman Motorsports’ Andre Ribeiro, the only two drivers to make it to both lines. Interestingly enough, while Hot Wheels didn’t spring for a Lola casting in the higher-quality line, Hearn and Ribeiro both got the Lola treatment in this set (Ribeiro switched chassis mid-season).
These cars are among the last mass-production issues in 1:64 for CART as a racing series. Racing Champions was still in the game that year (see above), adding Jimmy Vasser, Hiro Matsushita, and P.J. Jones to the lineup (among others). But while Indy Racing League diecast became more and more prolific, CART vehicles only became harder to come by, especially as top teams began to defect and the series crumbled to a shell of its former self. Hot Wheels would elect not to pursue further CART licenses, instead staying with NASCAR through 2005 and eventually picking up the IRL as America’s two open-wheel series reunited in the late 2000s.
A decade later, Greenlight sent of the renamed Champ Car World Series off with dignity, as the Panoz DP07 that ran in CCWS’ final season made it to the brand’s Road Racers line a number of years later. Sebastien Bourdais’ championship-winning McDonald’s livery, another iconic Newman-Haas Racing car, was the lucky representative. It was a long way to fall for what was once a racing series that challenged Formula 1 for both driving talent and international recognition, but Hot Wheels’ Pro Racing issues are a fond reminder of just what once was.