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As drivers rattle their way across America during the Great Race, spectators wince as car parts break, engines die and radiators boil over.

But such glitches are an essential part of the drama and hilarity in the annual 15-day cross-continental race among 110 vintage cars in one of North America's fastest-growing-and oddest-amateur events.

The 13th annual Great Race entered a new dimension this year by crossing international borders for the first time. Starting July 1 in Ottawa, Ontario, and finishing July 15 in Mexico City, the race is expected to capture a record 800,000 spectators.

The Great Race also has reached new heights of corporate sponsorship, prompting organizers to shop around for new corporate backers for next year's competition, including a replacement for longtime title sponsor Interstate Batteries.

"Despite the zaniness of racing vintage cars, the sponsorship side is dead serious business," said Whitten Pell, director of marketing and sales for Dallas-based GreatRace Ltd.

More consumer appeal

As its allure grows, the Great Race's organizers are now seeking to line up sponsors with more broad, consumer-oriented brands, with less reliance on automotive channels.

One example of the new class of sponsors is Ottawa-based Corel Corp., makers of the popular computer software graphic design program Corel Draw!

Targeting general audiences and families, Corel backed the race as a major sponsor for the first time this year, also producing a consumer CD-ROM showcasing dozens of vintage cars.

Corel also sponsored its own vehicle in the race, a 1941 Chevrolet police cruiser driven by two members of the Ottawa Provincial Police Department. Numerous other cars received individual corporate support.

Other major race sponsors include credit card marketer MBNA America Bank; General Motors Corp.'s Buick and Chevrolet Trucks divisions; Featherlite Trailers; and the U.S. Navy.

Deals with major sponsors vary, but all receive on-site exposure, and marketing and sales promotion opportunities.

The event was conceived in 1983 by Dallas-based Interstate Batteries Chairman Norm Miller and Great Race Executive Director Tom McRae, creator of the franchise enterprise I Can't Believe it's Yogurt!

Where it's at

Cities and towns along the route also pay for their involvement in the race, which is being highly publicized on local and national TV and this year will be covered by ESPN in several hourlong segments beginning Aug. 6.

To host an overnight stop, cities must fork out $10,000 to $15,000 in sponsorship costs; lunch stops cost $1,500 and the twice-daily official race pit stops are $750 each. It costs at least $35,000 to serve as the race's starting city.

"The race is getting so competitive that people are fighting to ride along just for one half a day. And cities are starting to race each other to be on the route," Mr. Pell said.

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