Scientology once tried to sponsor professional motorsport, but failed in a big way, Australia/May 12, 2016

By Matthew Dunn

DURING the mid-1980s, cable television in America became a hub for motor racing.

It also played host to a plethora of infomercials including an advertisement promoting L. Ron Hubbard’s self-help book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

Somehow, these vastly different entities became intertwined and what ensued was a series of bizarre events involving religion, million dollar sponsorship offers and John Travolta.

It was the 1988 GTE World Challenge of Tampa when Scientology first attempted to immerse itself into the world of professional motorsport.

An advertisement of the book penned by the founder of the Church of Scientology, Dianetics, was already on heavy rotation during broadcasts, but this wasn’t enough.

Wanting to raise its profile, Scientology paid to have Dianetics added as a sponsor of the Kremer Racing Porsche 962 — driven by superstars Mario and Michael Andretti.

However, things didn’t go according to plan when Mario Andretti — a strong Roman Catholic — refused to drive a Porsche dressed in sponsorship logos for Dianetics.

“The Kremer brothers from Germany were coming over, and they got these [Scientology] dudes down there all over them, throwing money at ‘em,” he toldRoad and Track.

Knowing Dianetics was considered a bible to Scientologists, Mr Andretti spoke to the Kremer brothers and said he couldn’t drive with the sponsorship, no matter how much money was on offer.

“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 Dianetics logos] off,” he said.

“These Germans were pissed. To their defence, they didn’t really understand, they didn’t get it. They only saw the money.”

Not wanting to lose the 1978 Formula 1 world champion as their driver, the Kremer brothers quickly formulated a new plan to move the Dianetics dressing to the sister Porsche 962.

Wanting to appease their cashed-up sponsor, the Kremer team developed a solution to Andretti’s faith-based objections.

The solution saw the Dianetics sponsorship replaced with branding for Bridge Publications — the publishing house founded by the Church of Scientology to distribute the book.

With motorsport requiring big budgets to stay in business and with Scientology having money to spend, the religion continued its push into professional racing.

As IndyCar racing was one of the most popular motorsports at the time, Scientology reached out to Granatelli Racing and sponsored the vehicle of Roberto Guerrero.

By the second race of the 1988 Indy 500 schedule, the Granatelli Racing machine was dressed with Dianetics sponsorship, although it was to be short lived.

Team owner Vince Granatelli Jr said he originally accepted the sponsorship so they could remain financially competitive with the giants of the sport.

“I became acquainted with the Bridge Publications, or Dianetics, if you like, through John Travolta, who was a personal friend, and Kirstie Alley,” he said.

“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.”

Mr Granatelli said he his first real exposure came after he was approached by a representative of Dianetics, who approached him for sponsorship after racing personality Roger Penske declined their offer.

“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,” he said.

With two close friends involved in Scientology, Mr Granatelli didn’t hold the same qualms and decided to strike a deal.

“I was underfunded at the time and paying everything out of my pocket. So I made the deal with them,” he said.

Despite knowing Dianetics was associated with the church, Mr Granatelli wasn’t concerned he was fuelling propaganda.

“I frankly am not against any particular religion, but I never found anything objectionable in Dianetics in selling the book,” he said.

“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.”

Things were going smoothly with the sponsorship until Guerrero crashed at turn two in three consecutive races.

Mr Granatelli was then approached by a member of Scientology who said he wanted to perform auditing — bringing people from a condition of spiritual blindness to spiritual existence — on his driver to help him overcome his psychological problem with turn two.

“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’,” he said.

Things only got stranger when John Travolta sent Guerrero’s wife, Katie, flowers while he was recovering in hospital after the most recent crash.

“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,” he said.

Members of the church then approached Guerrero personally and suggested the auditing, which Mr Granatelli had previously shut down.

The team owner quickly advised Guerrero he didn’t think it was a good idea and suggested the church had an ulterior motive in play — he believed it wanted to attract members by taking credit for his driver’s return to form post crash.

Despite the warnings, Guerrero agreed to the auditing process, although later discovered it was too much to handle given his Roman Catholic beliefs.
“They sent John Travolta to my house,” Guerrero said.

“He took us for dinner, and he told us all about it, and he was the nicest guy ever.

“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’.”

Fed up with the interference, Mr Granatelli attempted to cut ties with his sponsor, but not before Scientology attempted to salvage the deal by offering the team half a million dollars per race.

Mr Granatelli declined the offer, which was then increased to $750,000 per race.

After being denied once more, Scientologists reached out to Guerrero to let the driver know his boss has turned down the generous offer.

“These are people that are aggressive, and they are trying to sell the product, which is all OK. But now they are doing it in a way that I don’t agree with,” Mr Granatelli said.

“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 and I didn’t do it. It was really the principle of the thing more than anything else.”

Following its short-lived, problem-filled experiences with Mr Andretti and Mr Granatelli, Scientology decided to end its attempts to secure members through the sponsorship of professional racing.

In 2006, it did attempt to sponsor a NASCAR team, but that was also short lived.

Looks like it’s back to the drawing board.

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