The first three years of the Indy Racing League were tumultuous, at best. From depleted Indianapolis 500 fields that featured very little of the era’s top racing talent, to gaffes like the scoring error that led to A.J. Foyt’s infamous victory lane punch of Arie Luyendyk in Texas, to say those first few seasons has their share of struggles would be a slight understatement.
To be fair, it’s the same way with any new racing series, even one with one of the world’s most famous races as its linchpin and primary reason for existence. There are a number of factors to consider, from vehicle formula (the series commissioned a completely new spec) to schedule makeup (all ovals, keeping with Tony George’s vision of more USAC drivers making the jump from the Triple Crown to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing).
All the way at the bottom of that list is choosing a diecast manufacturer. At this point, Racing Champions had a pretty decent stronghold on the racing world at large, having lost only Dale Earnhardt of the sport’s biggest names in NASCAR and CART. As such, it’s no surprise to see the first two IRL seasons comprised of the same castings that its rival series had been riding for a number of years.
What makes these issues compelling, though, is the casting switch between 1996 and 1997. Racing Champions, like most companies to take on open-wheel diecast in the era, created a single chassis that served as a close (but not exact) representative of any car in the series. However, it also created two distinct wing packages: a superspeedway set with straight-on wings, and a road course set with larger Gurney flaps and more small details.
Strangely, while the superspeedway kit was used in 1996, the road course kit made it to store shelves. Perhaps it looked a little more like the new Dallara-Oldsmobiles that had taken over the series, perhaps it was to distinguish cars from each of the two seasons for collectors. Either way, it served as the beginning of the end of Racing Champions’ foray into open-wheel diecast, not just for the IRL, but as a whole.
Enter Maisto, and perhaps the most disappointing professional auto racing diecast in recent memory.
A number of diecast manufacturers have taken to producing affordable (read: less-detailed) replicas within different motorsports. Hot Wheels was a good example in this same time period: alongside its adult-oriented Pro Racing line, the brand produced kid-friendly models with slightly less detail and plastic wheels that could perform on its orange track.
The problem with the Maisto models was that the affordable line was the only line.
Although the larger 1:18 models were full-color replicas, tampos were simplified for the 1:64 production line. Nowhere is that more evident than the Team Menard rides of Tony Stewart and Robbie Buhl, whose iconic tri-color Menards stripes were simplified to a single red line. It was clear that there was a limit on coloration with these cars, which makes sense for inexpensive dollar-store offerings, but not for a racing series that boasted the sport’s biggest event.
It was no surprise, then, that the IRL-Maisto deal ended after a single year, with the casting only living on as a generic offering since. It was also the impetus for a switch to Johnny Lightning the next year, which not only served as a homecoming for that brand, but also produced some of the largest and most detailed 1:64 lines the sport had seen to date… but that’s another story!