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Seizing the Opportunity, Part Deux

One of the great things about ‘our guys’ at DSC is that they don’t always agree about everything – In fact the photographers seldom agree about ANYTHING!

It was no surprise then that when the GA/ ALMS merger was announced it was greeted very differently by some of our regulars – Gary Horrocks’ recent commentary provoked a reaction from our long-standing pitlane reporter Russell Wittenberg who has some questions for the incoming management team for the 2014 united series – it won’t make comfortable reading for some, but the reality is that Russell and thousands of others are the fanbase that they need to convince – We hope they can do just that.

What are we, the fans, going to get out of this ‘so-called’ merger between the ALMS and Grand-Am? That’s the question that every true sportscar fan wants to know the answer to. As my colleague Gary Horrocks wrote in his commentary, at this time there is much conjecture about the outcome, but very little fact. The unknown has always been a source of worry. It’s just human nature. We’re creatures of habit, we like what we know and we know what we like; and all the sportscar fans that I know and have talked too, like the ALMS. I know there are some Grand-Am fans out there, but their numbers are few. I’ve attended, and reported on enough Grand-Am races to know this to be true. The GA brass that attended the Petit Le Mans were impressed, and they should be. It is a great event that garners interest and recognition worldwide; something they want the Rolex 24 at Daytona to do again.

“Imagine what this could be with the support and backing of NASCAR”, is a statement that I heard at the PLM, and again in Horrocks’ preceding commentary. Think about that statement for a moment. What more could that event be? Aside from a few more P1 entries, I don’t know what else it was really missing. One could argue for a better TV package, but no major network would ever give up eight hours of airtime to broadcast this race live. Would the NASCAR-type backing increase the car count in the prototype classes? The answer is more than likely yes. But what price do you think it will cost us, the fans, to get NASCAR backing at the PLM, Sebring and other ALMS events? When you make a deal with the Devil, it usually costs you your soul.

“The support and backing of NASCAR”; where has that gotten Grand-Am thus far? If that is such a powerful thing, something that is so desirable, then why hasn’t it propelled GA into national prominence? I believe it’s simply because the racing product they’re trying to sell us is inferior. It’s not the GA staff. I’ve worked with many of them throughout the years and all have been sharp, personable and dedicated to their brand. It’s certainly not the teams or drivers. Many of the teams are accomplished in other forms of motorsports and have also competed in the ALMS. The same can be said about the driver lineup. Many are solid professionals with championship and Le Mans credentials. The GT class, while not aligned with the GTs of the ACO/ALMS, still has all the major marques including Porsche, Ferrari, Audi and Chevrolet. The flaw is the Daytona Prototypes. The DP concept was to build a car class that would be reasonably affordable, and structured so that a single manufacturer couldn’t come in and out-spend everyone else to win. They were trying to prevent the manufacturer driven warfare that drove the mighty IMSA GTP to its unfortunate demise. The concept was noble, and I believe made with good intention. The result however was a class of unattractive, underpowered, technology starved, and uninspiring race cars; the polar opposite of what powers the spirit of a sportscar fan. All-virtually-equal cars that produce wheel-to-wheel racing is a perfect formula for oval track racing, but not for sportscars. Ill-handling underpowered cars of equal capabilities put on a natural road course will not produce exciting wheel-to-wheel racing. What you get is a long train of follow the leader until someone makes a mistake, or attempts the banzai pass, and then you have a pileup followed by a caution period. Again, that is not sportscar racing, or even good racing for that matter.

I’ve heard from several sources since the merger announcement was made public that existing DP teams were guaranteed by GA brass that their class would remain the top class. I’ve also been told from current GA executives that one of their main goals is to restore the Rolex 24 at Daytona to the international stature it once held, and that the intention is for the race to again feature “the best sportscars from around the world”. These two statements I believe are in complete contradiction of one another. The DP is the polarizing factor in the decline of the once great 24 hour race. I understand the Rolex 24 is still on the ‘bucket list’ of almost every race car driver, but it’s more of a one off anomaly for drivers only, than the international event for race teams around the world that it once was.

So how do they integrate the DPs along with the P1 & P2 class prototypes to form the new lead class? In 2012, the quickest ALMS prototypes were roughly 11% faster than the best DP at circuits they both visited. That’s a huge difference. With such a difference, at Sebring the DP would lose roughly 15 seconds per lap to the P1 competition, plus the DP would have its hands full just trying to stay ahead of the ACO GT class cars. That obviously will not work for the new merged top class. So what’s the answer? Do we castrate the current P1 & P2 cars in such a way that they limp around at DP pace? If so, then you must also issue the same cruel fate to the current GT cars. They all can’t be circulating at the same pace and the GT must be slowed significantly, just as in current Grand-Am rules to keep the DPs well in front. What will the fans think of this? We’re not stupid. If the regulations concerning all the current ACO classed cars are butchered in such a way to make them fit the current DP standard, how does that fit with the rest of the world who will be racing to completely different standard? We’re back to the same problem the Rolex 24 has now – racing cars that don’t fit anywhere else. How can you promote that event as truly international if no international cars are eligible to race?

We were asked to imagine the Petit Le Mans with the support of NASCAR. How about imagining the Rolex 24 without the current influence of NASCAR? Imagine the lineup of cars that Sebring has starred over the past decade. Imagine the Audi R8s, Panoz Roadsters, BMW LMR12s, MG Lolas, Bentleys, Porsche Spyders and Peugeots hammering around the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. Not to mention all the GTs from Corvette, Aston Martin and Ferrari just to name a few that were not allowed to race at Daytona. That’s an exciting, but yet depressing thought – oh what could have been. More than a decade span of sportscar racing history gone, lost; one that Daytona could have been a significant part of, but instead they chose to exclude themselves. Imagine if back in 1998 the Rolex 24 would have joined the ALMS, and formed the triumvirate of sportscar racing along with the 12 hours of Sebring and the newly-born Petit Le Mans. Combine these three events with the ACO’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and I believe we would not even be having this merger conversation today.

We’ve heard the comments from both sides, that this is truly a ‘merger’ and that they will be taking the best of both series. ‘Best’ is the key word here. Best for me is not always best for you. Best is very subjective to one’s point of view. What the organizers think is ‘best’ is not always in line with what the team owners drivers or, more importantly, the fans think. Let’s hope the first thing they retain from the ALMS is the mantra, “for the fans”.

So, will they ‘seize the opportunity’? It is wide open, but there are key decisions to be made. Who knows what’s going on behind the closed doors? I’m sure they are getting pulled in a multitude of directions with all of the parties – teams, manufacturers and sponsors – trying to influence the outcome. Let’s hope somewhere in there the fans don’t get forgotten.

North America can again be the leader in sportscar racing. This merger with the backing of NASCAR could do great things. Do they want to be a true ‘world’ leader in sportscar racing, or remain a national series in the shadows of NASCAR and what is left of the IRL?

Seize the opportunity? Announce that the new merged series will begin at the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona, which may also be the racing debut of the long-awaited Porsche LMP and the North American debut of the Audi R18 Hybrid and Toyota TS030. Begin the world’s 2014 racing season at Daytona. Seize this opportunity and seize the future of sportscar racing.

Russell Wittenberg