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HEARD ON THE BEAT

Revving Up New Game

May 12, 1997

Auto racing is an incredibly expensive business, and to help underwrite costs most race cars look like rolling billboards. Now computer game maker Virgin Interactive is joining the ranks of sponsors who usually have something to do with the automotive world or with beer and cigarettes.

The Irvine-based company, a unit of Spelling Entertainment Group, plans to hit retailers' shelves at the end of next summer with a new auto racing game that replicates a season of professional sports car racing, down to the bumps in turn four at Watkins Glen. No surprise then, that Virgin has signed up as a sponsor of the nation's preeminent sports car racing circuit.

The company's logo will be on every car at every race and it will have signs posted conspicuously on race courses such as Daytona and Sebring.

NASCAR, Indy car and Formula I racing all have their race games, but Virgin figures that sponsoring the sports car circuit will help its game outsell the competition. The reason? That circuit features Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes and the like--cars whose appeal knows no national boundaries.

"The Formula I game does well in Europe but not so well here because Formula I is better known in Europe," said Jim Page, an executive producer at Virgin. For the same reason, he said, the NASCAR and Indy race games do well in the U.S. but aren't so hot overseas.

"But everyone knows the sports cars," Page says. "It's not regional, that's the key.".

He won't say what it cost Virgin to become a sponsor, but company officials figure that whatever the price, it was a good deal considering the exposure Virgin will get with millions of people watching the races in person or on ESPN and its new motor sports channel, Speed Vision.

Page said two teams of programmers--a total of 16 people--will be working for the next 18 months to develop and perfect the race game software.

John O'Dell can be reached at (714) 966-5831 and at john.odell@latimes.com.

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