The 41st Rolex 24

It Certainly Was “Most Interesting”

"But Where Does Grand Am Go Now?”

dailysportscar.comIt was as wide open as anyone suspected, and the battle between the Racers and Rennwerks Porsches and the genuine contenders from the DP class was an absolutely fascinating one for hour after hour, this class versus class struggle making the 41st Rolex 24 into a thoroughly worthwhile endurance event, in our view. It appeared on the surface to be the little guys against the big guys, and seeing an ‘underdog’ perform so effectively against the “premier” class made it a race to remember. But was it really ‘little guys’ against ‘big guys’, and what happens next?

Remember when Racers Group Porsches were what our Janos Wimpffen might call “OK midfielders” – usually likely to fill out the top six in the GT class, but hardly prospects for a class win? Numbers 67 and 68 probably continued to fill Janos’s description at the 41st Rolex 24, but #66 was wholly different – as we know from last year’s run of success. With factory drivers Bernhard or Bergmeister at the wheel, the car’s progress on the track was metronomic: for hour after hour, #66 was setting remarkably fast and regular times. In fairness to Kevin Buckler and Michael Schrom, it wasn’t that much slower when they were at the wheel. The Champion Porsche could have been expected to mimic #66’s role in the race, but instead it was David Murry and Johannes van Overbeek performing wonders in the Rennwerks car.

How the Multimatic and Brumos entrants must have tired of seeing Porsche 911 performance at its absolute (factory-supported) best.

Had those Brumos Fabcars continued to perform as their opening hours had suggested they might, this could have been a very dull race for the lead. A Brumos 1 – 2 had looked on the cards for a while, both looking as they could eke out an advantage over #66 and #83. But it was the Multimatic (Focus?) that ultimately helped to make the race, Maxwell / Brabham / Empringham proving us well and truly wrong by coming back from seven laps down and at least 32nd place to fight for the lead. We felt such a comeback would be impossible, with such a small margin between the classes. These three in #88 never could quite confront that Buckler car (which upped its pace as and when necessary), but the fight to the front from such a new machine was testament to the skills of those at Multimatic. Fourth was a fitting reward.

A steady run from the Cegwa Toyota-powered Fabcar and a fast lap from the so-new Doran were the only other highlights from the small DP class.

In four weeks time, it will be Homestead, for Round 2. Brows must be furrowing at Grand Am at the prospects for that race. How odd the sportscar calendar is (has almost always been). The headline race in one series takes place within four or five weeks of the start of the year, and with a slight doubt about Watkins Glen, no other race in that series has anywhere near the attraction of the first. Teams contesting other series – on other continents, in some cases – can race at Daytona and never be seen in Grand Am again. And a good number of them didn’t even bother with Daytona.

It’s probably too soon to expect any other DPs to appear yet (who will be next, do we know?), so six is the most that will race at Homestead. Is there a top class GT team that now sees an opportunity this year to regularly harry the DPs – to perform the Buckler role, race after race, and receive due attention as a result? Until there are a good number of DPs racing (will there be?), a good little ‘un chasing a good big ‘un is going to be the only significant appeal of the GA races, isn’t it? Although shorter races could see the DPs with a modest advantage.

And that brings us to the original grouse observers had when the ‘DSC’s were announced a year ago: lack of power. With a decision taken to make the Porsche engine one of the mainstays of the class, there doesn’t seem to be much leeway to gain performance. The BMW V8 runs in restricted form in the Picchio, but surely that engine’s unrestricted level of power would have been a better foundation? Yet there is a clearly stated intention that there are no plans to increase performance levels from the DPs.

And who decided on that enormous cockpit area? Aren’t the Mosler and the Saleen much more pleasing to the eye? Lack of power hauling round a large frontal area equals 911 (and a little bit more) performance – and poorer fuel consumption. Heaven knows why they seem to have become slower since the first tests. Do they have manufacturer appeal? Do they?

Sadly, the (never announced?) attendance at Daytona tells its own story: many regular Rolex fans didn’t turn up. Fans don’t turn up at Homestead anyway! And how many teams will?

It’s going to be a long haul for Roger Edmondson, Dave Watson and Mark Raffauf to turn this series around.
Malcolm Cracknell

Janos Wimpffen – who’s been observing the scene longer than most of us – adds these remarks.

dailysportscar.comSome have said that comparing LMPs with DPs is apples with oranges. A more correct metaphor would be that LMPs are apples while Grand-Am has invented a whole new fruit. Is it edible though?

What we have is the top (winning) class of GT being the former bottom class and even then it is restricted. Just imagine what unrestricted GTs and GTS cars would have done to the DPs, not to mention the SRPII--which looked pathetic. Moreover, a car in the purported top class of DP costs twice as much as the winning car.

I read one comment on the Grand-Am forum about "it was so crowded that you couldn't move"--not sure what race this guy was at. Of all the commentators I was the most charitable at saying that the crowds were down, but not drastically down. Every veteran observer I spoke said it was “empty”.

Without seeking it out, I got into conversations with five knowledgeable and astute fans, two at the circuit, and the others at the airport - plus my seatmate on my first flight home. These guys were exactly the type of fans that sports car racing needs to attract. They were all reasonably affluent and each considered themselves fans of racing in general. They also had in common a mix of interests covering the technical aspects of the cars and the personalities. Closeness of racing (Grand-Am / NASCAR's mantra) was not a high priority. Each of them attends five to six events around the country and several were Daytona regulars. To a man they found the DPs ugly, with an unpleasing sound, horribly slow, and indistinguishable from each other (?) and from the other cars (?). Moreover, three of these five guys were relatively knowledgeable about sports car racing and said that one of their reasons for coming to a race is to see the diversity of car types and classes, teams from factories to amateurs--in short, the attributes that the very non-sports car oriented powers behind Grand-Am want to eradicate. The respondents in this unscientific sample were unanimous in expressing that they have no interest in seeing another Grand-Am race as long as "real" prototypes were not allowed back in. To a man they couldn’t care less if there were 20 or 30 DPs out there. They found them too unappealing to bother with.

I also had a discussion with Dave Klym. He noted that he has had many inquiries from important figures in the sport. When asked if any of these appear to be heading towards firm orders, he admitted that they did not. When I questioned him as to whether he thought that Grand-Am would ever be able to draw fans, he answered that IMSA was able to have crowds of 40,000 in the GTP days, but this went away when WSC came in. He implied that DPs would bring them back. I made the point that ALMS now routinely draws those crowds for what are effectively WSC races. He seemed genuinely surprised, as if he had not been to an ALMS race recently.

What all of this indicates to me is that many in the sports car racing world (to whom I would sometimes add us at DSC) exist in a bubble. There is a tendency to not understand the economics of factories, privateers, sponsors, promoters, and spectators as it relates to the very specific niche of sports car racing. Scott Atherton and his staff have proven perhaps the lone exception to this rule. His counterparts at Grand-Am have far to go before they are in a similar league. Oranges may have a different botanical structure than apples, but they have to taste good before they become agriculturally viable.

I stated in my preview that one does not grant a student a degree even he does exceptionally well on an exam, nor do you expel him if fails the first time out. So to be entirely fair, neither extreme is applicable to DP after Daytona. I believe that the fairest grade that Prof. Wimpffen can assign is "C+". The DPs moved toward accomplishing the goals set out by Grand-Am. But are these goals for the good of sports car racing? That remains to be seen. Again using the education analogy, the introduction of DP represents what charitably can be described as democratization vs. elitism, or from a negative connotation can be described as dumbing down. Rather than raise the bar and encourage innovation, Grand-Am is catering to the lowest common denominator.

There was nothing in the results of the Daytona 24 Hours to indicate that the DP concept is fundamentally flawed. However, there was nothing in the results of the weekend to indicate that the category has any viability beyond being a spec. series for the competitors.
Janos Wimpffen

 

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