What have we got here? Bill Oursler has been covering motorsport since
1968. Starting with Trans-Am during its glory years, on through the Can-Am,
Porsches in IMSA and even the Audi Quattro rallye program. Aside from his
columns in Speedsport news and various other publications, Bill always has
a book in the works.
- Kerry Morse
The Case for Grand Amů - Bill Oursler
Laissez faire. It's an attitude that for far too long has been part of the soul of
sports car racing. Clearly the French masters of the sport whether of the ACO or
the FIA, dote on bureaucracy. Convoluted rules enforced to the letter are their
forte. Agendas are their guiding principles for the future. Yet, when it comes to
truly charting a course for the long term, the powers that be more often than not
take a vacation, preferring to avoid the need to make those pesky, hard
decisions for which responsibility can lead to criticism and blame.
Rules? What Rules?
Better to let nature take its course than to become enmeshed in something like
that. After all, for the blue blazer set, the consumption of wine and cheese are a
far greater priority than worrying about succeeding at the task of bringing sports
car racing back to the center stage spotlight. No wonder that things are in such
a state. It is now November, and for those who might want to race in either the
American or European Le Mans Series next year, never mind at the Sarthe's
annual 24-Hour classic itself, there are no published regulations - this with
about four months to the drop of the green flag at the ALMS' 12-Hour season
The presumption is that the scriptures will generally follow what has been
discussed among the regulators, manufacturers and teams. But, no one knows
for sure. And, that's not a good thing when money is on the line.
Bentley Buoys $$$$$$$$
Indeed, the investments necessary by the team manufacturers and race
organizers is huge these days, Bentley's one-time Le Mans victory last June
being said to have cost upwards of $50 million US That's a great deal of dough
no matter how you look at. Widgets are expensive, and who wants to gamble on
a new widget if it is to be outlawed at the last minute?
Winter for Ford and Chaparrals
Still, there is more than enough historical precedent for this to go around.
Consider for example the FIA's decision in June of 1967 to summarily ban the
unlimited North American pushrod V-8 prototypes such as the Fords and
Chaparrals that come to dominate the Sarthe over their European rivals, and
replace them six months later on the first of January with a new three-liter
prototype formula. So well thought out was that one, that the FIA was forced to
admit five-liter "production" sports car such as the GT40 and the Lola T70 to
ensure there were enough cars on the grid.
And, where did that lead, to a decision in March 1968 to reduce from 40 to 25 the
numbers of units built to qualify one's vehicle as "production," a move which led
directly to the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 era, which the FIA brought to a quick
end after 1972, replacing it with a renewed focus on the three-liter cars no one
wanted to watch.
Some say that was the beginning of the end for sports car racing. However, in
truth the state the sports currently finds itself in, is the result of many more such
stupid decisions, all made without real thought, whose less than favorable
consequences are chalked up to the "fates," rather than the failures of those in
charge to govern properly.
Today, international sports car racing again finds itself sliding downhill, with
smaller and smaller crowds paying their way to see events in person, and ever
shrinking numbers of home viewers will to switch sports car event on their
televisions. Perhaps the most watched is the ALMS, whose TV ratings in the US
outclass CART and the IRL, never mind the few hundred thousand who watch
Formula One at such earthly hours of the morning as to make their neighbors
think they've lost "a few screws upstairs."
Hannibal ad portas!
Whether or not ALMS boss Don Panoz ought to have tied his fortunes so closely
to Le Mans is a matter for debate by others. Certainly, IMSA founder John Bishop
gave himself "wiggle room" by writing regulations that while allowing Le Mans
type cars to run with him were not a mirror image of those used at the Sarthe.
Yet while that debate goes on, the Visigoths are heading towards the gate.
The "Goths" in this instance are Jim France, the man behind the Rolex-
sponsored Grand American sports car series and his friends. Two years ago
the Grand Am announced it would eschew the international community and
write its own, "low tech" prototype regulations, emphasizing cost effectiveness
and safety over performance.
Ugly, slow and low
When the Daytona Prototype coupes arrived at the Grand Am's 2003 24 Hour
Daytona opener, they were ugly, and more importantly they were so slow that the
overall victory went to a GT category Porsche 911, the lowest of the low on the
totem pole. The view of most experts was that France and his buddies needed
to be placed in padded cells if the believed the Daytona Prototype concept would
work. "It is," they said, "an idea not to be taken seriously." In their considered
opinion, the Daytona Prototypes and the Grand Am would fade into obscurity
sooner rather than alter, with a "good riddance epitaph attached.
But, the Daytona Prototypes and the Grand Am haven't gone away. Instead, the
Grand Am and the Daytona Prototypes have gotten stronger, and continue to do
so as new DP coupes are built and sold. While the total number of prototypes
racing in the ALMS during 2004 may well be under ten, by season's end the
Grand Am could have as many as 20 of their portly sports racers, enough to run
them all in their own event.
Turn on, tune in and cop out
Ask today's youth about road racing, and they say it's too confusing, too many
classes, and too many winners. The result? They tune out, and the sport loses.
France is aiming for simplicity with the Grand Am. Prototypes in one race,
production cars in the other with the two only getting together for the truly long
distance events such as the Rolex-backed 24-Hour winter affair.
Back to the future
Jim France has taken a reasoned, considered stance, and he's sticking to it.
Commitment is evident in every move he and his people have made and
continue to make. Love them or hate them, the Daytona Prototypes are here to
stay. More importantly, for those who worship high technology sports car racing
of the kind that stretches back into the mists of history, unless the rest of the
sports car universe gets its act together, the Daytona Prototypes may well be
their future too. The time for laissez faire is past. Unless one wants to be run
over by the speeding train that is the Grand Am much the same way CART has
been devoured by the IRL, then the blue blazer set had better start recognizing
that the sport of sports car racing isn't a play toy but a business that most be
nurtured in a rational fashion in a world were the entertainment dollar is king.