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In August 2004, Nelson Hoyos sped a Chevy Cobalt across the salt flats of Utah and into racing fame. Over a straight, glassy-smooth seven-mile course, Hoyos edged his car past 243 mph, shattering the world speed record for front-wheel-drive cars. It was a pinnacle in the racing career of the 46-year-old Hollywood resident. Hoyos had won back-to-back world championships drag-racing his Cobalt. Now, he was the undisputed fastest driver in the world in his class.
But as Hoyos deployed the parachutes that slowed his car that day, he also began a slow descent in his racing career. In the months since his big triumph, Hoyos' racing program has been downsized and the driver himself fired by Chevy in a corporate-style reshuffling. With six kids between him and his wife, Hoyos decided to gamble it all to stay in drag racing, a decision that could bring him more fame or -- just as likely -- ruin.
Last weekend, Hoyos' home track, Moroso Motorsports Park in northern Palm Beach County, opened the season for drag racers of compact cars. It's a sport that developed out of street racing; the National Hot Rod Association's sport compact division provides a legitimate racing venue for the tiny Civics and Chevys that you sometimes see speeding through lanes on I-95. The supercharged cars cover the quarter-mile track in about eight seconds at speeds nearing 200 mph.
The potbellied Hoyos, looking more like a middle-aged dad than a competitive driver, arrived at the final race Sunday morning without a major sponsor and, sans race car, with no way to compete. "It's strange," Hoyos, said, walking among the race cars in the pits. "You go from the top to the bottom very quick in this sport."
For the Cuban-born Hoyos, his racing career began during his days at Hialeah High School in Miami, when he bought a '66 Pontiac GTO to race on deserted roads in Homestead. It was more hobby than career until Ford hired him as team manager of a Focus drag car five years ago. He won his first world championship that year as a team manager, but Ford discontinued the racing program in 2001, and Hoyos found himself souping up street cars again.
Then in April 2002, Hoyos subbed for the ill driver of a Cavalier race car, and a month later, Chevy hired him to become their driver. Gambling that the gig would be permanent, Hoyos quit his salesman job in December 2003 for Ferrea Valves and Racing Components in Fort Lauderdale, becoming one of only two full-time drivers who drag-race small street cars.
When Hoyos signed on, the sport was seeing steady growth. Mostly the interest came from the "tuner nation," the teenagers who installed turbo chargers and pumped nitrous oxide into Hondas and Toyotas, tiny cars otherwise meant for quick forays to the supermarket. The sport compact event held last weekend attracted only 5,000 fans to Moroso during its first race there in 1998, says Laura South, the track's executive vice president. Now, the yearly event attracts around 12,000. South says the sport's popularity grew largely because technology made it easier for anyone to soup up street cars. "It used to be you had to get greasy and dirty, but now you just change a computer chip and you make your car faster," South says. "When that happened, we had a lot more people attracted to this sport."
But drag racing has never been a big spectator sport. From the stands at Moroso last weekend, fans got a good view of the starting line and a nose-full of the burning rubber. But the cars quickly disappeared down the track, making it impossible to see who won in races that lasted only a few seconds. The lack of spectacle means the sport rarely gets much time on TV; last weekend's race was relegated to a half-hour spot on ESPN 2 that will air April 14. While the sport grew quickly in the first few years, South says, the number of spectators has hit a plateau in the past few years.
With little TV revenue and few new fans, sponsors are hard to come by. The main sponsors, mostly car companies, see the races as a form of guerrilla marketing, says Carmen Smith, program manager of GM Racing. Few tuner teenagers can afford to go out and buy a new car, so GM's hope is that they'll be so impressed at seeing the Chevy Cobalt do well in a race that they'll develop a brand loyalty for it that they'll keep for life. "You want to make sure," Smith says, "that the Cobalt is a car they desire."
In these otherwise unsteady times for the sport, Smith summoned Hoyos to the GM Racing's office in Detroit on December 20. In classic corporate-speak, GM execs told Hoyos they had decided to "go in a new direction" with a "new business module." They were going to discontinue their racing team. Instead, GM would provide parts and support to several drivers. They would no longer need his services as a full-time driver.
"I didn't take it as they were firing me, because they weren't," Hoyos says, toeing the company line. "They were creating an opportunity for me."