As Hot Wheels celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2018, it makes perfect sense to lead off this year’s essays with one of the brand’s most groundbreaking and landscape-altering lines.

The year is 1997, and NASCAR’s stock is still in an aggressive growth pattern thanks to rising viewership and attendance. Racing Champions, once the undisputed king of stock car diecast, is still producing cars for most of the top drivers on the Winston Cup grid, save for Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt is the crown jewel in Action Performance’s roster, having brought his Dale Earnhardt Inc. lineup to the brand exclusively—a move that would pay long-term dividends when his son became one of the sport’s next mega-stars.

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That year, two brands made a major splash on the NASCAR diecast market. The first, Winner’s Circle, was a Kenner (later Hasbro) imprint formed in conjunction with Action to bring affordable versions of top cars to the retail market. (I’ll touch on them some other time.) The second is Hot Wheels, which returned to major-league motorsport in a big way with its Pro Racing line.

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This was anything but Hot Wheels’ first foray into professional racing diecast, of course. Buddy Baker’s Valvoline and Davey Allison’s Havoline rides had made it into mainline Hot Wheels release in the 1980s, while the Pro Circuit line of 1992 featured more than a dozen NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA, and SCCA Trans Am drivers. All of those cars were perfectly adaptable to standard Hot Wheels track, and Hot Wheels honored that tradition by producing another track-friendly line in 1997.

But, much like the CART vehicles I’ve already profiled, the deluxe versions of the cars were an entirely different story—and among some of the best models that any brand had produced at the time.

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By my count, 18 drivers, and 21 liveries, made it to the signature Pro Racing line in 1997—more would be made available in 1998 or in special sets. The packaging was unique to each driver, as were the Upper Deck-produced trading cards that came with each model. The driver roster wasn’t too shabby: defending Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte, back-to-back Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin, and future NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin were just three of the big names involved, while Labonte, Bill Elliott, and Michael Waltrip were the lucky trio to see multiple liveries in production. (That’s not even including Kyle Petty, whose Hot Wheels-sponsored homecoming to Petty Enterprises was one of the driving forces behind the launch!)

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The deluxe Pro Racing cars featured fully detailed interiors, rubber tires, and metal body and chassis, making them some of the heaviest 1:64 cars that you could find. But they were also among the most accurate in execution, even down to the grilles on the front of the car. In fact, besides putting out the collectors’ 1st Edition set, Hot Wheels issued distinct Superspeedway and Short Track versions of the cars that featured different grille patterns for each type of track. The tooling wasn’t different, but the change in tampo from one to the other gave collectors yet another variation to chase after!

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By 1998, Hot Wheels’ presence expanded dramatically. It added established drivers in Joe Nemechek, Wally Dallenbach, Brett Bodine, Chad Little, and Ricky Craven; picked up 1997 licensees Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin with their new teams; and added the new entries of Jerry Nadeau, Johnny Benson, Todd Bodine, and Dennis Setzer (in a one-off ride). But beyond Irvan’s old ride at Robert Yates Racing, not a lot of cars dropped off of the line between its first two seasons. It was that impressive first season that served as a launchpad for nearly a decade of Hot Wheels’ sustained involvement in NASCAR.

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