August Editorial 2 - The Changing Arena Of Motorsports
Gary Horrocks takes a lengthy look at where sportscar racing stands in North America.

What is the state of health of Sportscar Racing in 2003? I think history will show that we are in the midst of a classic era in the sportscar racing arena, but is it all it should be? In terms of competition and variety, I don’t believe we have had it any better than it is now. But is that good?

In some ways, sportscar racing has always been viewed as the “ugly step-child” of racing. Yes, there have been eras of prominence, but for the most part, other arenas of racing have dominated. Sportscar racing has always been about the cars, the variety of sights and sounds, the technology. Sometimes the closeness of the racing is secondary.

Look back on the golden eras of sportscar racing. The mid-50’s with Ferrari, Mercedes, and Jaguar are revered, but to many, the late ‘60’s to ’71 are the golden era. Ford vs. Ferrari, followed by Porsche vs. Ferrari. But what is the common theme here? Factory teams. Yes, the Porsche 917 era was incredible, but was there really much really competitive variety back then? What made it great was that there were some awesome cars driven by legendary drivers. Siffert, Rodriguez, Elford…

The same was occurring in the revered Can Am series. For the most part, you needed an orange colored, big-block Chevy powered beast driven by someone named Denny or Bruce. Along came the Porsche / Penske / Donohue combination, and soon even Can Am was gone, but the series is still remembered as an incredible time in racing. But what happened?

Factory teams dominated. The economy went down the tubes. Rules were changed. Sound familiar?

Where are we now? On the surface, things can be perceived as all bright and cheery. The ALMS has just held one of the best races they have ever staged, with close racing all the way through at Infineon Raceway, with the added bonus of a true privateer winner from a “perceived” junior class. Car counts are good and the interest is strong. Grand Am has charted their own course that looks like it is gaining momentum after an almost non-start. Wow, great. Sportscar racing is alive and thriving. But is it all good?

Advance ticket sales at Infineon were said to be strong and attendance was reported to be good, but there was no way at all that it was close to NASCAR standards for the same track – but we shouldn’t expect it o be. Yes the stands were empty, but really sportscar racing fans are not ones to stay in one place, especially on a hot day without much available shade. Call them nomads, but they do like to wander the track. But you have to face it; NASCAR has changed the game of racing in the US and possibly in the world. What sponsor would look at NASCAR and Sportscar racing in the same light?

A problem for me with the attendance at Infineon was the import car show that was going on during the race on Sunday. A large portion of the paddock was taken up for the car show, concert and bathing suit contest that was going on. Somewhat like a mini-Sebring, but on a much smaller scale. Now maybe I am a prude, but if I had a young son with me at the race, that just might not be the experience I would want him exposed (emphasis on exposed) to. Yes, you do what you can to bring in the crowd, after all ticket sales do pay part of the way, but is that the way to go? How many really were there for the race, and how many thought it was a distraction to the concert?

For the teams competing, when the race on the track was over, another race was about to begin. As soon as possible on Sunday, the transporters for the ALMS competitors were loaded up for the long trek across North America for the Trois-Rivières race. This is probably one of the most brutal cross country races I could think of. Call it the 72 hours of North America. In fact some of the stories from this haul could be very interesting, possibly more interesting than some of the real races. But was it necessary to schedule it this way? Presumably there were no other options. Obviously I wasn’t involved in the schedule making, and what went on behind the closed doors, but from comments I have heard, it is obvious that many of those involved in the sport are not happy at all about it.

The schedule now for the ALMS Series is absolutely brutal. Five of the nine races are scheduled in a seven week period from late July to early September. And that stretch starts in California and also ends in California. And this was after a four week gap in the schedule without any racing between Road Atlanta and Infineon.

As long as the ALMS series is so closely tied to the ACO and their schedule for Le Mans and the test weekend, there will always be a gap in the schedule. But do the ACO really need to keep the test date in early May for a mid June race date, effectively tying up over two months of the calendar? OK, some dates are traditional, and as such, should not be changed. Sebring, Trois-Rivieres and Petit and others are all established dates and really shouldn’t be changed. Tradition can be good, and in sportscar racing tradition is and always should be kept in mind, but where do you draw the line? Even if the Mexico and DC races were not cancelled this year, this would still be a brutal schedule right now.

Another problem with a schedule like this is quite visibly illustrated by the Banana Joe’s team. An unfortunate accident on Saturday destroyed their Lola-MG. How many races will they have to miss in this stretch before they are ready to go again? It is not like there is a tremendous amount of money flowing around here that enables teams to have complete spare cars sitting around, just in case.

Factories will come and go, along with their massive budgets. When they all go away, the rules typically change to attract them back. Sportscar racing has never been really stable. The current ACO rules package is about as stable as things have been, world wide, but what does the future hold, especially with the new 2004 regulations and are they actually good for the sport? Who knows? How will the European Series next year influence car counts for the ALMS? Can the Grand Am really keep their rules package stable for 20 years? Again who knows?

Le Mans has always been (partly / largely / entirely – you choose) for the Factories, but are their rule packages really suitable for the privateers and shorter races on very different tracks? Race series have always depended upon privateer efforts for much of their grids in the past, while Le Mans is typically the target of many manufacturers because of the prestige associated not just with winning but competing.

Of course, if a factory comes in and wants to race, they will be given priority if it is good for the sport. How and why do you think Bentley was promoted so much, when they really have only run in four races in three years? Le Mans and the ACO thought it was good for the sport. That is fine, but did the ALMS get anything out of it, except an appearance at Sebring this year. No, not at all.

What the rules have done – and, frankly, the natural raising of the level of competition, which always happens - is discourage the participation of privateer efforts. Some teams who have been extremely happy with the way they have been treated in the ALMS are now really concerned about the future. The simple economics is that it costs more to run a Porsche in the ALMS GT class than it does to run a Daytona Prototype in the Grand Am. Will some teams change? Possibly. The change could give them a better chance to run up front and compete for an overall win. Even if “traditional sportscar fans” don’t like it, there are some things to be said for the Daytona Prototype concept, even if the visual execution is a little odd.

Do you think it was the choice of the ALMS to penalize BMW and Saleen? No way. The competition, prestige and attention they brought were great for the ALMS. But the rules were changed by the ACO to encourage and enforce the spirit of the rules, even though some rather larges sums of money were spent to develop these cars.

In a positive view, it is hard to find an era that is showing as much variety as right now. In my humble view, only the mid ‘60’s to ’71, and the IMSA / Group C era of ’82 to ’92 come close. But as is human nature, we tend to look back on the good old days as all good, and view the current time in a more critical vein. And what was common; Factory ran or supported teams usually dominated.

The situation back then is very much similar to what is happening now. It is just now that we have the ALMS, both FIA series, Grand Am, and many multiples of national GT series under the sun. To follow all of it is almost impossible, as Malcolm well knows. And soon we will have the ACO backed European series.

But look back at history. It is very cyclical in nature. And as ever, who ever has the money usually will win, unless you are maybe Cadillac. I don’t care what rules package you run under. A team with more money and better organization will almost always rise to the top.

The ‘60’s were very much the end of an era, in more ways than one. As more and more Factory money came into play, mainly due to the Ford effort to beat Ferrari, sponsorship and the resulting money became more of a factor. At first it was just the privateer efforts that had sponsorship, such as Penske / Sunoco, but by 1970 even Porsche had sponsorship on their factory efforts.

The influx of money brought in political and money related decisions that were not always in the best interest of the sport. A prime example of this was at McLaren in the Can Am days, just after Bruce was tragically killed. The team brought in Dan Gurney to drive, but this only lasted a short time due to sponsorship conflicts between Dan and the team. While I’m not saying that if the team had been able to keep Dan on the team that they would have been able to fight the on coming Porsche onslaught better, but it might have been interesting. Who knows, maybe the Can Am might have lasted longer. Doubtful, but who knows.

In hindsight, the racing of the late ‘60’s was wonderful. But really how wonderful was it? Most of the time, endurance races were dominated by a particular make or team, taking out a lot of the suspense. At first, Ferrari dominated, but when Ford got their army moving in the right direction, it was their turn, followed by Porsche. Can Am was much the same way, being mostly a McLaren show, followed by Porsche. Yes, there were some really interesting cars during the era, but where was their success? Even the Chaparral make was not as successful as history makes it appear. In what some people consider the greatest seasons of endurance racing, 1970-71, most of the battles were between the dominant 917s that were running.

The cars were the stars, as it always seems in sportscar racing, but the drivers of the era were also very important to the overall picture. Unfortunately we lost way too many of them during this time (losing even one driver is way too much), and along the way we lost the innocence and simplicity of our time. Soon the FIA decided that sportscar racing was too much (too fast, too popular, and too much of a distraction from F-1) and effectively killed it.

The new improved prototype rules, mandating a 3-liter maximum displacement led to a Moses like wandering through the ‘70’s, that brought little interest from fans, manufacturers, or most anything at all. Sportscar racing was in a shambles, of which I guess the decade of the ‘70’s can pretty much be summed from an overall perspective.

Out of this wilderness some good did come. The Group C / IMSA GTP Prototypes were actually originated in the ‘70’s and thankfully, the rules were adopted to allow resurgence, and in 1982 the Group C concept started another “golden” era of sportscar racing. At the same time the IMSA group adopted similar rules, and things looked very promising. Unfortunately, the two groups never came together, and Group C stayed with the fuel restricted regulations, and IMSA went their own way with weight / displacement / engine type formula. For the first few years, it became a matter of which color Porsche 956 / 962 would win. There was some great racing that went on, but not great variety at the front of the field. When other manufacturers became interested, Porsche had left, abandoning the market the 962 filled, leaving the privateer teams without a weapon. Soon Jaguar and Mercedes factory efforts took over Group C, and Nissan, Jaguar and then Toyota took over IMSA.

This was great racing, but again the FIA got in the way. They decided that a change was needed, and mandated 3.5 liter F-1 type engines. Can you say deja vu to the 1972 regulations? Well it lasted a season or so, and then fell apart again. Many of the factory teams that supported Group C such as Mercedes, Peugeot, Jaguar and Toyota, eventually had a presence in F-1, so in effect the FIA got what they wanted.

And we started all over again. The early WSC and BPR days were very much like the dark days of the ‘70’s. Thankfully, through some ups and downs, we have arrived at where we currently are. But where is that?

The BPR series was taken over by the FIA. Mercedes jumped in, dominated and drove off the competition. The series almost died, but has now evolved into a strong and stable (if that is possible in this arena) series. ALMS has been dominated by Factory Teams at almost all levels. Grand Am, seeing that their prototype class was down to 2 cars started over. So far, the jury is still out on the Daytona Prototype class; some see it as the future and some see it as Satan on four wheels. Maybe the concept is correct, but the timing or execution is not right. Maybe it truly is the future. Who knows; time will tell.

What sportscar racing is fighting right now is the age old problem of factories vs. privateers. Factories dominate. They don’t run short of money. They may run out interest, but typically not money. The privateers stay around, trying to pick up the crumbs, but without them, there may be no racing.

Closely mandated regulations will drive away the traditional fans, who love the technology. But tighter rules can promote close racing. You can’t always have it both ways.

What to do? Give the privateers a break? Where do you draw the line for a privateer? Last season at Sears Point, Champion Audi was classified as a privateer, but they had factory drivers and I’m sure more than a bit of help from Germany. Kind of muddies the image a bit. But where does the line between privateer and factory get drawn? On one hand, if it is only possible to start up a car with factory personnel present, does that truly make a team an independent privateer? But if they are not allowed all of the factory goodies, can they really be considered a factory effort?

How do you assist the privateers? Rules breaks? Financial assistance? If the privateers become too competitive, do the factories go away, taking away their marketing might and exposure? Many people in the sport have expressed concerns about this, but nobody really appears to have the answer. While we all watch what is happening on the track, the real battles are occurring in the background, as the sport we all love continues to try to find the right path to follow for the future.

Will the trend towards production based vehicles make GTS the playground of the factory efforts in the future? How many Prototypes will be at The Rolex 24 at Daytona next season? Would it be possible to again see a GT car win Daytona again, given recent rules changes and will the grids ever reach the levels they were at in the ‘80’s? Can so many series continue in these tough financial times? Who really knows, but remember, sportscar racing has always been the changing arena of motorsports. To me, that is part of the excitement, and why I follow it.

Short term, the privateers can beat the Factories in prototypes and GTS. Thank heavens for Rob Dyson, Jon Field and Frederic Dor. Short term, let’s rejoice in that fact. Next year will inevitably be different, in ways we cannot yet comprehend.
Gary Horrocks

 

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