John Graham – NASCAR BUSCH Man
last conversation we had with John Graham was at scrutineering just
over a year ago, ahead of the Le Mans 1000 Km, so it was something
of a surprise to see John racing the #72 Ceriality Chevrolet in
the recent Busch Series race at Phoenix, but that was as good an
excuse as any to catch up with the Canadian, and find out, well….
But what happened at
Phoenix, John’s first Busch race?
hours of practice, I had just eight minutes on the track. In happy
hour, I had 12 minutes. We had blown engines, a whole bunch of problems….
but we made the race.
had a tyre go down, I had a front brake problem, then I had a love
tap from Robby Gordon – so it was a nightmare. But the objective
was to get some races in this year, to go about it quietly, before
a full program in 2005 – with the details still to be announced.”
So the issue
we have is that here’s a man whose “heart and soul are
in sportscar racing”, but he’s driving a Chevrolet (this
year, above) in NASCAR. The explanation takes a little telling.
the Panoz-Mugen, and Don’s car last year (right and below),
plus the Lola in which we won 675 at Le Mans in 2000, and the Reynard
– I really loved driving those cars. The Panoz was an awesome
car. I love prototypes – those are the cars the fans want
to see, I believe. They want to see the GTS cars too, but in the
position I was in, I had to look at motorsport as a business –
and at my age, trying to do what I want to do, race cars, I had
to look at where I could do that.
not going to compare sportscar racing with NASCAR – that wouldn’t
be fair. The France family has spent thirty some odd years developing
it to where it is now, while Don Panoz has only been involved for
a few years. Before Don, we had Sebring and that was about it! Without
Don and his commitment, there would be a lot of frustrated sportscar
guys out there.
“But NASCAR is
a very well oiled machine, and there’s a lot of thought that
goes into everything they do. For example, look at the Chase. NASCAR
took a fair bit of heat for that idea, but they made the decision,
and now TV ratings are up – it’s just like the play-offs.
They thought about it, and they realised that out of the ten cars,
they’d probably have all three manufacturers involved –
and they’re even going to give the eleventh guy a million
“But it has taken
a long time to get it to this stage. Does it drive itself? No, I
don’t think it does: if you think it does, that’s a
sign of complacency, and NASCAR is anything but. But after such
a long period of growth, the sponsors are very receptive to talking
to you. In NASCAR, there are 50 cars going for 43 places, and the
other seven are all sponsored.
“Take a look at
the budgets – for $5m you could be doing the CART, or racing
an Audi in the ALMS and at Le Mans, or for maybe half that you could
race a Daytona Prototype, or race in the Busch or Craftsman Truck
series. I want to compete at as high a level as I can, and if I
presented these figures to a sponsor, hands down they’d choose
had to look at it and ask myself in which series could I generate
the dollars, and the answer was NASCAR.
at Ron Fellows: he has no problem racing, and earning an income,
and doing what he wants to do. But the ALMS only has Audi and GM.
Nobody jumped as well as the ALMS did, when they started out. I
have nothing negative to say about the ALMS at all – but we
have to hope that Scott (Atherton) can bring in more manufacturers,
that’s what they need.
“TV numbers and
crowd numbers are up in the ALMS, and the series has had a real
impact, and they’ve created a very strong following –
that following is probably the biggest achievement of the ALMS so
far. The next stage needs to be to bring in corporate partners,
and get more entrants to commit to it.
“Scott has a huge
task ahead of him, but I believe he can do it. The ALMS is still
in its infancy – whereas NASCAR has 75 million fans and the
President of the USA has to decide how to motivate NASCAR fans to
win him the election”
So there we are, John
Graham’s view – and a very interesting one.
In a nutshell,
“I had to go out and make something happen, but I’d
be in a sportscar if I could make that work.”
Perhaps though, NASCAR
is in a very special, very privileged position. It has the big three
all securely positioned somewhere where they all have to be –
and the France family has considerable power and influence over
what the manufacturers do. In sportscar racing, there are potentially
more manufacturers who could get involved – but they’re
not in one (North American market) and the divisions in our kind
of racing mean that no governing body has any real control over
what the big (and small) car makers will do.
As John Graham points
out, “if we had Audi and Porsche and Mercedes and BMW (the
German manufacturers) showing the enthusiasm (all together) that
Ford and Chevrolet and Dodge show, it would be awesome.”
But sadly, not even the
DTM can ‘manage’ the German auto makers – while
recent ALMS / Le Mans history indicates that getting any two of
the four together and racing against each other is a harder task
than any governing body can control.
(Cayenne-killed) prototype – suppose that had been going up
against Audi’s R8 for the last five years? Or the M3 GTR against
the 911 for several years, not just one?
“Dodge had to go
through several hoops to get back into NASCAR.”
And then there are the
rule changes: perhaps Europe has a lot to learn from the France
“We won Le Mans
with an SR2 Lola in 2000, and then it was 675 and now it’s
LMP2,” remarks John Graham.”
How confusing is that
to the public? And now we have the likelihood of a 675 Lola that
next raced in LMP1 and is now turning itself into an LMP2.
Good luck with
that Dodge in ’05 John, and we hope to see yourself and your
son at least spectating at Le Mans next June.