In the mid-90s the world of sports cards began to change; printing presses were being slowed down, high energy and wild designs were being tamed and fringe card companies were either shuttering or being bought out by the bigger companies. Companies were also looking to go outside the box, something more was needed to grab the attention of potential customers.
Believe it or not the most profound change came from two companies producing NASCAR cards, Wheels Racing and Press Pass, when they introduced collectors to the memorabilia card in 1996. Little did they realize they would ignite a revolution. A year later Upper Deck became the first major card company to jump on board the memorabilia train when they inserted three limited edition jersey relic cards in their 1997 Upper Deck baseball release, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn and Rey Ordonez were the first baseball players included on a relic card insert checklist.
But before there was jersey swatches and bat relics there were fire suits and wheel rubber swatches. Wheels Racing even went further outside of the box when they used animal skins, which did not go over well with animal lovers. They only made three different inserts in 1996 and 1997 before they ended the experiment. I have finally gotten my hand on the third insert to complete my set.
In 1996 Wheels Racing released the Diamondback Authentic insert. There were actually two versions; one showed each driver with a fabricated skin the other showed the driver with real Western Diamondback skin. Cards were a horizontal landscape card; I actually like the card design better than the 1997 versions. They used a Western Diamondback relic, with the racer to one side and the skin to the other side. The card is foiled and in the background in an image of a race car. The back includes a snake related description and at the bottom right corner was a printed #/749, mine is #541/749.
In 1997 Wheels went beyond the Diamondback cards. They still had the Diamondback Authentic series but the cards were now horizontal with the driver above the rattler’s scales. The background is a high energy, colorful etched foil board. For some reason these cards were not serial numbered.
The next animal used in 1997 was the American Alligator. Like the Diamondback cards there were two Gatorback versions, a real skin and a fabricated skin. The design uses the horizontal design similar to the Diamondback 1996 layout with the driver on one side and the gator skin on the other. The cards were foiled and the background looked like gator skin, there were cards made using back scales and stomach skin, mine is a stomach skin version so it is smoother. The back of the card had a swamp related message and hand written serial numbers, mine is #121/450.
The final animal used was the Great White Shark. The cards are horizontal, foil and have a water theme. There is only one version of these cards; they all have a real shark tooth. The tooth is embedded in the surface; you can actually touch the tooth. I have seen white teeth and dark colored teeth, mine is a white tooth. The back of the card includes a water related message and the serial number is both hand written and printed. My card is #190/500. This Sterling Martin card was the final addition to my animal set.
Wheels Racing continued to release sets for another decade before finally being taken over by Press Pass a couple of years ago but they were done using animal relics for their cards. They did continue to use animal names for some inserts but went with what has become the traditional inserts in racing sets like fire suits, race wheel rubber, sheet metal, flags, etc.
If you are interested in picking up either a real Diamondback or Gatorback cards make sure that the checklist number has correct numbering with the “A” added. The added “A” stands for “Authentic”, which was the designation for the real skin. Some sellers have posted the cards as “Diamondback Authentic” or “Gatorback Authentic”, because that is the sets name, but they do not state that the card has the fabricated skin. These cards are also prone to chipping because of the foil board fronts.