Race promoter, team owner, and attorney Cary Agajanian spoke to an audience of about 40 people on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Watkins Glen, N.Y. as part of the International Motor Racing Research Center's (IMRRC) ongoing "Conversation" series. The July 19 talk featured stories and pictures from the Agajanian family archive, covering over 50 years in motor sports racing and promotion.
In welcoming the audience, IMRRC Governing Council member, Michael Argetsinger stated that in the second half of the twentieth century in the U.S., the Agajanian family was the "most important racing family I can think of." That is saying something from Argetsinger, whose own father Cameron, is called "the father of road racing in America," having brought the sport to the small upstate New York village in 1948.
Cary Agajanian explained how his grandfather came to this country from Armenia with $5 in his pocket and how his family eventually settled in Southern California and set up a refuse business and hog ranch there. The company collected refuse and fed it to about 5,000 hogs as was done in those days.
This business paid for the family's eventual interest in motor racing. When Cary's father, J.C. Agajanian, wanted to race cars, his immigrant father said, "So, you are going to be a race driver; that's fine. Just a few things I want you to do first. Go kiss your mother goodbye; pack your bags since you won't be living here anymore; and while you're at it, change your name."
Cary said that this statement was repeated by his father to him years later, and Cary has repeated it to his own children.
Motor racing was dangerous in those days, even more so than it is now, so the grandfather Agajanian made an agreement with Cary's father that he could be involved in racing if he owned the car and got someone else to drive it. That's how the family came to be involved in race promotion, which continues to this day.
Part of the family's interests involved setting up Ascot Park, a dirt oval track that was built on an old landfill and operated in Los Angeles from 1957 to 1990.
"We all grew up at the racetrack," Cary said. He said that his father became known for his cowboy hat. He used to call his cars "used food specials" because of where the funding came from for them. The cars sponsored by the Agajanians bore a decal of a pig wearing a Stetson; the decal has appeared on every car since 1958. One of the early racers J. C. sponsored liked the number 98, so that was put on his car, and the 98 stuck with Agajanian cars after that.
As a promoter, J. C. Agajanian ran cars in the Indianapolis 500, winning in 1952 with driver Troy Ruttman and in 1963 with Parnelli Jones. The tradition continued to as recently as 2011 when Cary himself, with a partner, owned the winning car driven by Dan Wheldon.
During his talk, Agajanian showed several pictures of his grandfather, father, and himself and his brother, Ben. For his part, Ben Agajanian became a professional football player with the New York Giants working with players such as Frank Gifford and Tom Landry. An anecdote Cary shared about his brother was that he had lost his toes in an accident in college and eventually became the first "specialist" kicker in the game.
Highlighting that the family business was located in Southern California were samples from the family archives of photos containing touches of Hollywood glamor. J.C. Agajanian's motor sports promotions often included Hollywood entertainers -- a picture of a well-known figure in the newspaper, Cary said, was always desirable in those days to help bring people out to the race track. Cary showed pictures of stars like Clark Gable, Bob Hope, James Garner, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman taking part in his family's promotions of race events.
Photos of Richard Nixon and Soichiro Honda (before Honda made their famous cars) were also among the family archives. Cary explained that the family holds many boxes of photographs and materials that they are only just beginning to explore.
Cary also explained that his father, J.C., had been involved in promoting and sponsoring Pike's Peak, boat races, and motorcycle racing as well as traditional car racing and racers. It was through the motorcycle side of the business that he struck up a relationship with Robert "Evil" Knievel. Knievel, said Cary, was a "back marker" in motorcycle racing, but he eventually approached his father about jumping instead. He asked J.C. to give him $1 per person for the number of people over the normal spectator count expected if J.C. would promote his jumping stunt at the next event.
When the event took place, 2,000 additional people showed up. However, Cary described the dare devil as a "difficult" guy to get along with. "He didn't always listen to what he was supposed to do," Cary said, though he was "an amazing guy, really." Their relationship went sour over business dealings, and later on Knievel also got in trouble with the law.
The Agajanian days of promoting well-known racers and events did not end with J.C.. Cary (who is J.C., Jr.) has continued the tradition and currently represents NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and team owner Tony Stewart, among several other drivers and racing entities. Some he has worked with for contract deals on specific projects.
Cary described working with a young Jeff Gordon, for example, meeting him when he was just a young racing star coming up. Gordon, who was racing in Northern California as a teen, hung around the track at Ascot in Los Angeles and expressed interest in racing in Southern California.
Cary explained that it would be illegal for him to do so since he was still too young at ages 14 and 15. When Northern California racing connections found out about this, they banned Gordon from racing up there as well. Gordon moved his efforts out of state until he came of age. Later on, Agajanian represented Gordon in some contract dealings.
"We have a great relationship now," Agajanian commented, "but it started off kinda rocky." Now, he said, Gordon quips that Agajanian was one of the people who forced him out of California when he was younger.
The last picture Cary showed the audience was of him accepting the award for his late father's induction into the International Motor Sport Hall of Fame. Fittingly, the award was presented by Parnelli Jones.
After taking questions from the audience, Agajanian joined them for refreshments and more conversation at the Racing Center.
IMRRC fundraising raffle tickets for a Fiat 500 Abarth Hatchback Turbo and trip to Italy were also on sale. The annual car raffle is the Racing Research Center's major fund-raiser. Support through the Center's Sponsorship Team campaign is the other key source of funding. The Center is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization.
The next talk in the IMRRC Conversation series will be in October when Steve Zautke will speak about the Milwakee Mile and Road America. In November, Mike Martin will talk about the USRRC series of the 1960s.
The drawing of the winning ticket for the car and Italy trip will be on Dec. 13 at 1 p.m. at the Center. Tickets are $40 for one or $100 for three. Only 3,500 tickets will be sold.