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25 or 6 to 4

David Soares on Sears Point: Broken Records and Bizarre Reactions

  Those who live in the northerly climes of California as I do, have always been
huge fans of sportscar racing.  They will generally turn out if they’ve got a good
show to watch, as they did for the Can-Am’s and USRRC races of old, the Camel
GT, and the FIA-GT/PSC double-headers.  I was disappointed by the non-existent
turn-out for the Grand Am’s first visit to Laguna Seca this past May and wondered
if it was just attributable to the series’ focus.  Sears Point (I can’t choke down
Infineon Raceway any better than I can say Mazda Raceway) hosted the ALMS
along with three of four Le Mans class winners this past weekend.  I went up as is
my custom to see the cars but this year I was curious to see whether the faithful
would show in any kind of numbers.

This little piggy went to market…
  There wasn’t much of a crowd at Sears, although it wasn’t the complete pass
that I saw at Laguna for the Grand Am debut. There are a number of factors in
play, not the least the fratricide being generated by all the racing series but also
poor marketing by the ALMS and its supporters Audi, Michelin, Chevrolet, and
Porsche.  Americans know about the 24 Hours of Le Mans – everybody in my little
world has heard of it.  The problem is that when I told them that I was going to Le
Mans they weren’t sure if it was the Grand Prix, or whether the Champ Car World
Series is the Grand Prix, or whether Indianapolis is like Le Mans, or whether
Corvettes run in NASCAR.

  Morse and Terry Burkhart decided to go sample the cuisine at Vanessa's so I
decided to find out why people don’t show up for fabulous racing by hugely
talented drivers in a varied field of exotic cars. I grabbed myself a cardboard boat
‘o tri-tip and sauce from one of the fine vendors and a 24 oz. Sierra Nevada and
climbed into the only patch of shade in a five-mile radius high up in Sears Point’s
gargantuan monolith of a grandstand dedicated to NASCAR.

  The few hundred folks in the upper reaches of the stands for the Speed World
Challenge race were clearly in the mood for some motorsport.  They represented
a diverse slice of the American pie, not just a bunch of white-bread tea-baggers
whose dads used to drive MG’s and bathtub Porsches.  There were women, kids,
Hispanics, Islanders, Blacks, and Asians, old and young.  Not hard-core
sportscar people, just people out for a good time on a sunny afternoon.  Pretty
much any demographic you might want to reach.

  At the off everyone around me was chattering and pointing and generally getting
fired-up about the race – mis-identifying the cars and drivers but excited to be
there.  And you could see them trying to figure out what was going on – and finally
giving up.  By lap 9 even the pudgy droopy-ass midriff 100-dollar jeans sunburned
kids had given up and were drifting away.  What was up with that?

Just check these features….
  On the positive, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. have turned Sears Point into a
crackerjack spectator facility.  There are clean restrooms everywhere.  There is
wonderful spectator access and the viewing terraces make you wonder why so
may wankers cue up for a photo vest. A blue vest and a credit card digital do not
make for extraordinary coverage.

  But other than a trylon with the top five and a few little ALMS boards there wasn’t
diddlysquat to tell the masses what the hell was going on.  You couldn’t hear the
cheerleading on the P.A. and I never saw a single sign telling people where to
tune in their FM radios to listen to the Geordies on the ALMS Radio Web.  Nobody
at the track or in the paddock seemed to be renting out i-cards to catch the data-

  This is really a shame, because sportscar racing and the ALMS in particular
have a fabulous presence on the World Wide Web.  You can watch live timing and
listen live to Hindhaugh Company.  People at the track who have no idea what’s
going on are being insulted.  I’m almost as hard-core a fan of this kind of racing
as anyone and I just spent thousands of my own money to attend Le Mans this
year even though I have a feature that's due out in a major rag. I’m going to show
up.  But you can’t expect people to understand and enjoy this kind of racing if they
don’t have the kind of information and commentary that they have come to expect
from cable and satellite television coverage and the Internet.

The horse in the gray flannel suit
  There’s a real need to reach out to the spectator and to give him or her the type of
information you can get over the ALMS Radio Web and on the Internet.  The ALMS
seems to have dropped the ball on this.

  It certainly isn’t the show.  Qualifying on Saturday afternoon saw the P1 lap
record hammered by the Dyson Lolas of Andy Wallace and Butch Leitzinger and
the Audi R8 of JJ Lehto.  The Trickster made his presence known at the post-
qualifying press conference when he noticed the gray crew cut of Rob Dyson in
the audience.  “So Rob, do you derive any pleasure from running a private team
who took it to a factory team today?”  Dyson clearly wasn’t expecting this to be HIS
press conference and kind of fumbled a bit, talking about the fact that he’s been
taking on the factories from his first campaign when he took on Al Holbert’s
Porsche-supported 962 a quarter-century ago.

  The conference meandered on, and then right in the middle of some
meaningless Q and A with Timo Bernhard about pitstop strategy, Rob Dyson
turned around and faced the gathering like a light had switched on inside his
head and that everybody had better listen to something important that he had to
say.  He grabbed the mike and said: "Hey, I just want to add to my earlier
comments.  I guess that the guy who asked the question about competing
against the factories took a powder, but it IS kind of nice to beat these guys, we
really LIKE doin' that."  Laughter all around.  This guy's no pussy who wants a
“level playing field.”  He kicked their ass but it is the checkered flag on Sunday that
really drives him to keep his effort alive.

Wreck on the highway…
  Sadly, reliability felled his giant-killers in the race, although the Andy
Wallace/Chris Dyson salvaged second place when Sears Point’s disaster of a pit-
out caused a disastrous accident for the Le Mans-winning Audi of Marco Werner.
I had remarked to all who would listen on Saturday that the pit-out smack at the
apex of Turn 1 with a tall barrier blocking the sightline of anyone trying for a quick
lap was making the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.  When disaster
struck, it took out the race leader.  Luckily nobody was hurt although a couple of
nice cars were pretty messed up.

  Alex Figge in the Pacific Motorsports Corvette C5 was hammering down the main
stretch and dove for the apex of turn 1, which is directly in the path of the pit exit.  It
was impossible for Figge to see Marco Werner in what had been the lead
Champion Audi finishing a stop for fuel.  The stop had dropped Werner to second
and he was clearly determined to regain his position.  The Champion pit was the
last before the pit-out and it’s an issue to get up to speed before re-joining the
track itself.  Werner certainly didn’t have a run down the pit lane to pick up a flag
marshal and was probably focused on keeping a 600 horsepower prototype
pointed in the right direction as he accelerated onto the track.  Just as Figge
couldn’t see him over the wall, Werner had no line-of-sight onto the track.  A
coming-together during a race was as inevitable as the meeting between the
Titanic and the iceberg.

  That it should effect the outcome of the race was outrageous, but I was just
thankful that no one was hurt.  In the post-race quotes it was clear that neither
driver saw it coming.  It was fortunate that the collision was between sportscars
as safe and strong as the Audi R8 and the Corvette C5.  When the open-wheel
Indy-cars of the IRL hit Sears Point in August this kind of collision could send an
open-wheeler into the bridge abutment on track-out.  Shivers, a disaster waiting to
happen.  There isn’t an easy fix, as the whole pit exit was moved to the last
possible place when the course was re-configured as a NASCAR pit-stop

The World Bank
  While the series has invested heavily over the past few years, I really have to
wonder why Audi North America, General Motors’ Chevrolet Division, and Michelin
haven’t done more to capitalize on their success at Le Mans and to generate
some return on their own investment in the series.  The Audi and Chevrolet
brands desperately need to position themselves as “sporty” in the American
market and their racing teams have done a fabulous job of putting them in a
position to do this, but they seem to have forgotten to tell their advertising
agencies.  Michelin spends millions to animate Monsieur Bibendum but does
nothing in their commercials or in print to capitalize on their Sebring and Le Mans

Underexposed and underdeveloped…
  Even more pathetic is the fact that the series positioned them at Lime Rock near
the New York media right after Le Mans and then at Sears Point in the California
wine country within three weeks of their victory in the 24 Hours.  Media moguls
David Letterman and Jay Leno are certified car nuts and Today Show host Matt
Lauer is known to hang around the NASCAR crowd; how hard could it have been
to get a little heat on their shows?  I can’t imagine more intelligent and articulate
spokespersons than Le Mans winner JJ Lehto, Champion technical director Brad
Kettler, or aw-shucks charming Corvette man Ron Fellows.  Holly Job would be a
better choice than Alex and certainly over Leo. Then JJ and Frank Biela did a
coast-to-coast bike ride tailor made for television, but nothing.  VAG seems to
have abandoned the North American market to the Koreans while trying to relive
the “Drang nach Osten” of the Teutonic Knights.  Morse showed up at Sears in a
VW Phaeton, an all-wheel drive limo that seems positioned as the next Zil --
perfect for tooling around Red Square or Siberia but totally out of place among the
E Classes and Lexus's in Sonoma. But then what else would you expect from him

                                                                                    David Soares
                                                                      July 2005

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