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Sports Cars in North America Part 1: A Point in Time Print
Written by Tom Kjos   
Jul 31, 2011 at 01:35 PM

Where is North American sports car racing as of the 24th of July, 2011 when the American Le Mans Series was racing at Mosport in Canada, and Grand Am was racing New Jersey Motorsports Park (nee Thunderbolt)?

This is a look at a racing day in this season for the two series. It intentionally is not a discussion of history (with the necessary exception of the “Events” section), and importantly says nothing about the trends and decisions that will determine what sports car endurance racing looks like in 2012 and beyond.

Prototypes

Grand Am put ten Daytona Prototypes on the track in New Jersey. They were nearly all on the pace, and they were mostly there at the finish, too. Score one for close racing, mitigated a bit by the fact that most fans hate these cars. It’s also somewhat questionable whether all those entries – perhaps even the series itself – would exist at all without the life-support of the France family. No need, even, to go to the rumors. Three entries are wholly owned or supported – or nearly so – by Jim France; the two of Action Express and the one of Spirit of Daytona. A fourth entry, Wayne Taylor’s Sun Trust Racing, is sponsored by NASCAR’s “house bank.” That’s 40% of the field, even if all rumors of financial support to other DP entries are ignored.

Two DP’s, Starworks’ No. 2 and No. 7 shared two of three drivers, Matos and Potolicchi; one finished fifth, one last, reminding us of the Nonamakers in this series, and Mr. Tucker last season in that other one. In other words, not both were “full and serious” entries. Nine entries, then, of which five finished on the lead lap – that part’s good.

Drivers are a mix of pros and the amateurs who pay the bills in about half the field, and full-on pros in the rest, including Ganassi Racing, GAINSCO, Action Express (except for supernumerary J.C. France, who in our opinion does his best driving in flight from the Daytona Beach Police Department), and Sun Trust. The pros, regardless of the frequent on-air references to the World’s Greatest Sports Car Driver, are mostly on the downhill side of their careers, even within the sports car racing fraternity, itself a bit of a retirement home. There are exceptions, of course, like the pair at GAINSCO, and young Ricky Taylor.

This “second generation” of the Daytona Prototype – DP2 they’ve taken to calling it on International Speedway Boulevard – isn’t enough different from the first to have attracted many fans, can certainly none of the passion that has normally attached to the cars over more than half a century of sports car endurance racing. In other words, these are not 917’s or even 333sp’s.

In the American Le Mans Series, there were ten prototypes at Mosport. Six of them are very much “second class,” literally and figuratively, the Challenge cars being the equivalent of Grand Am’s DP’s, except for the fact the Oreca’s look very much like modern prototypes. Which, to their credit, they are, neutered, and tightly specification-limited to reduce their cost of purchase and operation. As a result, the ACO and ALMS has a prototype that directly competes with Grand Am on total cost. With the rule requiring an amateur driver in every entry, there’s no doubt the ALMS has successfully encroached on Grand Am territory.

Ahead of those six were four LMP1’s, two Lola Mazdas, a Lola Aston Martin, and a Lola AER. Two were battling for the win at Mosport, as they have at previous stops, and will at subsequent events. The Arab car is a nice back-up (the Irishman makes it so) ensuring Dyson Racing the tire, team, and engine trophies. Autocon? Well, it’s still Autocon.

Unlike Grand Am, there’s no “house money” here, not even in purses. (Our friend Murphy is documenting that in his Andy Lally Challenge.)

The pros in ALMS prototypes, we think are the equal of the pros in Grand Am, but we’ll admit to a disagreement. We like Guy, Gunnar, Wolf, and the new guy, Steven Kane. To be honest, we’re not excited about either group.

Close racing? It has its moments, especially in the “second class.” It might be a bit closer between those two at the front – Dyson’s No. 16 and the Muscle Milk Aston – if Dyson didn’t have such a big championship lead that Chris and Guy feel constrained to drive with extra care.

Prototype Summary

The American Le Mans Series matches Grand Am’s prototype field in numbers, and hugely outguns it in sophistication and pure sex appeal. The competition Grand Am is much closer and includes far more of the field. Slight edge to the ALMS.

Grand Touring

The American Le Mans Series splits its GT field, a class for mostly manufacturers battling for bragging rights for their aspirational (a politically correct word for expensive) performance cars, and a class for Porsche club racers. The latter is hardly worth our ink. It draws no one to a track or broadcast, and though it’s “racing,” even the dumbest fan doesn’t confuse it with sports entertainment. There’s simply no reason to pay attention, and no one does. It does allow the ALMS to pretend it has over 30 entries, perhaps keeping its tracks from revolting against its (relatively) exorbitant sanction fee.

In what we used to call GT2 (now just GT) there’s nothing to apologize for. We just wish they knew that in Braselburg and gave the class the recognition it deserves. Scott Atherton on Wall Street a few days before Lime Rock blathering about prototypes to the exclusion of this exceptional GT field comes to mind.

Anyway, if you go to the race, or even if you watch on the web or television, you can’t help but know this is classic sports car endurance racing, a credit not only to the sport, but to the history of the sport. Ferrari, Porsche, Ford, BMW, Corvette, Jaguar, and now that funny-looking  Abruzzi thingy, this is (in the words of a younger set) MEGA.

 Pro teams, pro drivers, many at the top of their game, sometimes rubbing that would make NASCAR blush. Race control doesn’t seem to know what to do about that, but why would they, populated as they are by ChampCar (open wheel) refugees? Dunlop, Michelin, Falken, in a race of their own, bring the best they can engineer to each round.

Over in Grand Am, you have budget – some say faux – sports cars like the battling Mazda’s RX8’s and Camaros that make up nine of a fourteen-car field, the rest consisting of a pair of BMW’s, two Porsches  and a token Corvette. This field wouldn’t get the most dedicated rail-bird out of the beer garden to trackside at an SCCA regional.

Drivers are mixed bag, with full time pros (Robin Liddell), part time pros from other series (Ollie Gavin), journeyman pros, (Joe Foster) talented youngsters (Jordan Taylor), and lots of bill-paying amateurs (John Potter, Patrick Dempsey). Beyond the part-timers loaned by factory teams like Corvette from the ALMS, only a handful of this field could hold their own in the ALMS GT field.

Are these cars slower than the ACO’s GT class? Yes, they are, but this writer doesn’t much care. Prototypes are slower than IndyCars, Sprint Cup cars are slower than even ALMS GT on a road course. If they’re not racing each other, does it really make a difference? The ACO has been slowing down the prototypes at Le Mans. Does that make it less of a show? Not really. The whole “who’s faster” debate is like “mine’s bigger” – the consensus of the “experts,” (recipients?) in that seems to be “it’s what you do with it.”

Grand Touring Summary

The American Le Mans Series wins this one by a mile. The ill-considered GT Challenge class doesn’t even enter in – it’s not necessary, and it’s largely unnoticed anyway. The larger ALMS GT field has closer racing among cooler cars and better drivers.

As much as Grand Am’s Daytona Prototypes are derided, on this weekend in July 2011, the biggest difference between the two North American series is in Grand Touring.

Venues

Grand Am was at bankrupt New Jersey Motorsports Park, a dusty, open, built-for-club-racing track in the Garden State. It’s a mediocre lay-out at best, though we suppose some will say “a track is a track.” We differ. On the same day the American Le Mans Series was racing at Canada’s Mosport, an hour or so from Toronto. Mosport is among the fastest road race circuits in North America – a distinction traded in recent years between itself, Road America, and Road Atlanta – and deserves its listing among the continent’s historic classic layouts. It’s exceptionally challenging for drivers, and it’s green, forested park-like setting is the kind of environment much favored by road racing fans.

Mosport is typical of the tracks on which the American Le Mans Series races. Others include the already-mentioned Road America, Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, Lime Rock, and Sebring. All are “classic (North) American tracks. Long Beach is an event, but a lousy track. Who knows about Baltimore; it’s a street course and that’s not good, in our opinion.

Grand Am races at Watkins Glen, easily the match of those others, Daytona’s road course (not anyone’s – driver or fan – favorite, but with an important and historic history), and Infineon Raceway (many think the former Sear’s Point no longer ranks among the best, having been denuded, graded, and terraced for the Sprint Cup crowd. The two series have in common Laguna Seca, Mid-Ohio, Lime Rock, and Road America. Curcuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal is a very good track on an island in the St. Lawrence River in the embrace of the city of Montreal. It’s a venue we always wished the American Le Mans Series could acquire. Virginia International Raceway is a picturesque track that contributes to the enjoyment of this kind of racing. Barber Motorsports Park, like Lime Rock is marginal for the racing, but good for fans. Homestead would be better if it were let go back to seabed.

Venues Summary

This is a stand-off. Where Grand Am has its Barber and Homestead, the ALMS has a pair of street courses with little to recommend them but “event” and that’s a separate category. Grand Am has Daytona and ALMS Sebring. History, party. Grand Am has Watkins Glen, the ALMS has Road America. Each needs to “reach” beyond the best tracks to fill out its schedule. Too bad.

Events

Racing series – most sports, in fact – are built around “special” events, some championships, some not. Soccer has its World Cup, golf the Masters and other “majors,” NASCAR the Daytona 500, F1 Monaco, you get the idea.

These are competitions transcended by the event itself; they have history and a loyal following amongst fans of the sport.

For Grand Am, there are two: the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the Six Hours of the Glen at Watkins Glen. Attendance has suffered at both but they remain iconic names to sports car racing fans.

The Six Hours of the Glen was first run  in 1968, survived into the early eighties, then for a period was run – by IMSA – in various 500 mile and 500 kilometer formats. This checkered history in the hands of multiple series forced it from the national consciousness by 2000, when it was resurrected, finally, to its iconic full 6 Hours and mulit-class format by Grand Am. It’s been a tough slog since then to reestablish the race’s importance amongst sports car endurance racing fans.

Daytona, which will mark its 50th Anniversary in January 2012 is far more important, traditionally marking the beginning of the sports car racing season – the season for all racing, actually – not just in the United States, but worldwide. This author and his friends made the annual trek for a decade and a half in the eighties and nineties, and I have returned a handful of years since, including this year. The party has subsided, and as full as the track seems, much that was once occupied by fans in a rush-from- the-gates free-for-all is now taken for other purposes

Regardless of its decline, the 24 is the only 24-hour race at a level of professionalism that can command a ticket-buying audience and television exposure.

The American Le Mans Series similarly has two of these iconic events. The 12 Hours of Sebring preceded the 24 at Daytona by a decade – 2012 will be sixty years – and was once paired with the Daytona race in a 1-2 season opener unique in the history of motorsport – perhaps any sport. That link was broken when the two races fell into the hands of competing series with exclusionary rules, and Sebring has faired much the better. Put another way, the great season-opening party large migrated from the Atlantic coast to central Florida.

Don Panoz launched a new “classic” at Road Atlanta in 1998 with the first running of the Petit Le Mans, a 1000-mile or ten-hour event that preceded the launch the following year of the ALMS. Since then, its attachment to Le Mans have created stellar fields year-in and out, and current status as a race of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (soon to be designated as the World Endurance Championship) has maintained that status.
 
Events Summary

The American Le Mans Series wins the events category by a significant margin. Grand Am gets credit for re-establishing the Six Hours of the Glen, but has gotten mediocre results in its stewardship of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It’s fed its Sprint Cup stars into the field, and reasonably promoted the race, but its security policies, site landscaping, and fields limited to the restrictive and largely unpopular Grand Am rules have left it a shell of the draw it once was.

Sebring, after the mercifully short time it and IMSA were in the hands of Andy Evans, has recaptured the allure of its best years. Some decry its “Spring Break Party” nature, but most would agree that only reinforces its historic endurance racing event credentials. In that its not different from that other race in France, which attracts partiers – admittedly a more geriatric group – from across the Channel.

Attendance

There's no doubt that the vote that counts - or is at least an indication of the remainder - is the vote of fans with their feet and wallets. And there's equally no doubt that the American Le Mans Series attracts more fans. That's "top loaded" with the two "Events" we discussed above attracting nearly a quarter-million daily admissions over the first and last weekends of the season. But "fans are fans" wherever you get them.

Looking at the remainder of the two schedules, Grand Am trails at every stand-alone venue, with striking differences at stand-alone events at venues they both visit during the season - Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, and Mid-Ohio. We're not considering at all here the attendance at race weekends shared with another "headliner," Road America and Montreal for Grand Am, Long Beach for ALMS, for instance.

Attendance Summary

Far more fans attend American Le Mans Series races than Grand Am races. That's the "spot" (2011 season) data, so it's an area in which the ALMS can claim better "health." That shouldn't come as a surprise, given the one area of greater stability for the Braselton series lately has been its "core" schedule - Sebring, Lime Rock, Mosport, Mid-Ohio, Road America, Road Atlanta. The above categories - the GT and Prototype fields, and "Events" tell you why fans turn out.

Of course, as in the remainder of this snapshot, we're not dealing with trends, with season-to-season changes. Those will certainly prove troublesome - but that's an issue for "Part 2." 

Media

Grand Am leverages its association with NASCAR. It has maintained flag-to-flag live television coverage throughout much of its schedule. That’s finally paying dividends with better viewership and race attendance.

The American Le Mans Series has suffered through a long decline in its viewership, leading (along with other revenue losses) to truncated race coverage supplemented by live on-line video streaming of its races.

On July 24, 2011, the traditional Speed TV coverage of Grand Am’s New Jersey race provided better value to participants, sponsors, and fans than the streaming from Mosport followed the next day with a truncated ESPN program.

Media Summary

Grand Am comes out ahead in media coverage.

Overall

To the extent that Scott Atherton’s pronouncements are fixed in the present, he’s correct. On July 24, and on the other race dates of the 2011 season the American Le Mans Series is apparently doing very well, at least relative to the NASCAR-sponsored series against which it competes for fans and entries.

This article purposely  ignored trends, outside forces, and plans and decisions by the managements of the respective series that will determine their health and that of the sport in North America in 2012 and beyond.

That will be Part 2.

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