John Graham – NASCAR BUSCH Man
dailysportscar.comThe 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…. Why?

But what happened at Phoenix, John’s first Busch race?

“In two 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.

"Then I 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.”

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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.

dailysportscar.com“Driving 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.

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“Now I’m 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 dollar bonus.

“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 NASCAR.

dailysportscar.com“I had to look at it and ask myself in which series could I generate the dollars, and the answer was NASCAR.

“However, look 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.”

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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.

Porsche’s dormant (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 family.

“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.

 

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