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David Soares on Hanging a Name

Laguna Seca Raceway is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year by honoring five Legends of Laguna Seca in a ďWalk of FameĒ at the top of the Corkscrew.  The first of the Legends is Dan Gurney, who was inducted during Grand Am weekend this May, also known as the U.S. Sportscar Invitational delivered by Luggage Express.  It is remarkable to me that while weíre honoring 50 years at Laguna, and over a century of American road racing dating back to the first Vanderbilt Cup races on Long Island and the Santa Monica Road Races in Southern California, five races into the 2007 Grand Am and ALMS seasons weíre still having arguments about what the show ought to look like.

The American Le Mans Series is finally benefiting from a diverse field of strong factory-backed teams from major manufacturers, realizing the longtime dreams of its supporters and promoters.  However, as we take the mandatory break after the Utah Grand Prix for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, weíre experiencing more hard feelings than ever as the series stewards use performance balancing to create some competition for the fans and the participants.  The putatively slower Porsche P2 cars have now beaten the P1 Audi R10ís in three straight races.  If that isnít enough cause for consternation, GT1 has been nothing but a testing exercise for Corvette Racing, who only got someone to race against at Sebring.

I suspect that Iím in the minority, but the competitiveness of the Porsche and Acura prototypes against the previously dominant Audis doesnít bother me in the least. The 24 Hours of Le Mans can draw 45 or 50 cars every June from all over the world, but the ACOís four class structure just hasnít been making sense in North America.  The P2 class seems to exist so that some of the local garagistes can have their own race in June without getting stomped by the big teams from Germany that show up every year.  The technology and sophistication of the GT categories has further muddied the waters for carmakers who want to compete Ė do you position your $45K Corvette in GT1 while the $100K Porsche, $175K Ferrari, and $200K Spyker are in GT2?  Who should be beating who?

East of Eden
The problem is that in America youíre not going to draw anybody to watch a vorsprung durch technik demonstration run, no matter how amazing the technology of the R10 (and believe me, itís amazing).  People want to see a race, they want some drama.  They want to see Alan McNish driving flat-out as only he can to try and reel in a Penske pit-and-fuel game and finish less than 10 seconds behind after nearly three hours of racing.  They want to see Jorg Bergmeister in a Porsche and Jaime Melo in a Ferrari fender-to-fender in the last turn after 12 hours at Sebring.  Itís exciting.  The use of restrictors, fuel volume, and weight within the ACO class structure has allowed the series to create a highly-competitive show at the sharp end of the field.

This year excitement has been more accessible to the public as well, with races on the street circuits that the open-wheel crowd have become so enamored with over the past quarter century.  The ALMS has been trying to position itself as the ne plus ultra marketing platform for motor manufacturers with sporting intentions and as that plan has started to pay off the series has needed a presence in the major media markets.  While logical from the series standpoint, I am less enamored with the move to these Mickey Mouse concrete chutes.  Street circuits have been less of a safety issue for carbon carrots designed to glance off of speedway walls, but sportscars were never meant to crash that way.  Tomas Engeís shattered elbow in St. Petersburg was a lesson in what can happen to an arm flailing about inside the cockpit of a production-based GT with a bunch of tubes bent to fit inside when it meets a concrete barrier placed at the edge of the racing surface.  Whatís more, the aero on Sarthe streamliners just doesnít work in these warrens of hairpins and chicanes.  The pathetic performance of the Audis at Long Beach was a prime example of what happens to a car designed for high speed on a street course.  The tail-heavy cars, weighed-down with their massive diesel V-12ís and torque-cruncher gearboxes, couldnít get enough air over the nose to balance out the inherent understeer of the long-wheelbase package; the defending and undefeated ALMS and Le Mans champions were having trouble dicing with even the GT2 cars in the corners.  A better solution close to major markets would be a revival of airport circuits, like Sebring or Cleveland, a la the SAC races Curtis LeMay organized in the fifties.  There are a number of lightly-used or decommissioned airbases in or near major urban markets.  Remember the promised ďPeace DividendĒ following the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Partisans stirring in the forestÖ
I find myself in this mid-season reverie about ďperformance balancingĒ because Iíve just gotten home from the visit to my local race track of the series dedicated to the triumph of egalite over liberte, the Grand American Road Racing Championship.  Iím an unabashed fan of the Grand Am, although its partisans have never cared for the fact that my love of the series is tempered by my view that it is an ideal venue for the gentleman racer which compliments the high-tech ALMS in the racing universe.  This year at Laguna the series took its performance balancing formula a bridge too far, clogging up the weekend ticket with individual races for each of the categories, Rolex DP in a Sunday main, Rolex GT in a Saturday main, and the Koni Challenge classes divided into their own races as well.  The poor promoters could only add the Sirius MX-5 Cup to the bill, and the loss of title sponsor Road & Track magazine meant that drivers probably outnumbered spectators for the weekend, not even counting crew and hangers- on.

Just like the ALMS controversy over street circuits and P2 cars in the P1 henhouse, the Laguna Grand Am weekend had some controversies of its own over how the series stewards are controlling the competition in the name of the show.  At the press conference after the DP race the discussion focused on the extensive use of the full-course caution, with seven safety car parades totaling 30 laps of a 91 lap race and a single-file finish under yellow, and the absence of GT cars from the main event.  Scott Pruett proved himself to be a great ambassador for the series as well as the perfect blend of pro and gentleman, inviting fans of the series to weigh in on the controversial finish to the DP race.

Last yearís similar plethora of full-course cautions at Grand Amís Laguna round was the source of much derision and likely prompted this yearís banishment of the GT field to Saturday.  Only 19 DPís took the green flag on Sunday afternoon, but this much reduced field didnít turn out to be the answer to last yearís Paris- Dakar off-road festival.  If anything, people were pushing that much harder without the GT cars to set up passes, and excursions to the FIM sand traps continued unabated.  Things werenít looking good when thirteen of the first thirty laps of the race were under FCC, but as I moved about the circuit I noticed that the single- class field had a tendency to string-out under green like Bernie-Karts.

Letís play Twister, letís play RiskÖ.
At the end of the day, I thought that the use of the FCC and six restarts contributed immeasurably to the entertainment value of the race, allowing strategy to play a significant factor in how these closely-matched racers stacked up at the finish. Strategy made the difference in the much-needed win by the Alex Job Racing/Ruby Tuesday Porsche Crawford, and even more in the excellent performance of fifty- something gentleman-racer Mark Patterson and early-90ís British F-3 ace Oswaldo Negri, Jr. in the Michael Shank Racing Lexus Riley.  Patterson and Negriís terrific showing ahead of young guns like Alex Gurney and Colin Braun is really what this series is all about.

Pit strategy has become something thatís almost too critical in the evolution of Grand Amís balance of performance.  As Scott Pruett pointed out after the race, when the top five cars have qualified within a tenth of a second it becomes almost impossible to pass.  This tendency has been exacerbated by the lemming-like switch to Riley DPís.  The field featured only a single Doran, a single Fabcar, and a single Crawford in a sea of Rileys.  This has provided a significant economy of scale in shared development for the Riley teams, but itís bunched the best teams up.  Interestingly, while Alex Job is having to fund the development of the Crawford DP, running a unique chassis may give him a small edge over the other spec racers.  Last year he got schooled by the series when his car wound up carrying 125 pounds in penalty weight against the field over where he had started the season.  Weíll see what happens this year, as Job has brought a popular sponsor aboard the series in Ruby Tuesday Restaurants.  His car is also the prettiest of the turtle-tops.

Prudent Pruett
Winners Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister agreed with Pruett at the post-race press conference that the absence of the GT cars hurt the show and didnít have much effect on the yellows.  Pruett thinks that the fans enjoy having action on every lap and Jorg explained that he likes using the GT cars to set up passes in the closely-matched DP class.  I came to Laguna with the idea that the field had been split to keep cars out of the sand traps, but Pat Long alluded that TV coverage has been an issue for the GT teams, who would like more coverage.  Follow-the- leader television coverage has always been a serious issue in multi-class racing and even a dedicated network like Speed canít seem to find producers and directors who can put together a broadcast featuring the race-within-a-race action the cognoscenti turn out to see and that brings sponsors to the lesser class.

Aeon Flux
Things are still in flux in both the ALMS and Grand Am, but I think that the series are asking the right questions.  A century after those Santa Monica Road Races we may be finally gelling the look of American road racing.  One prototype class makes more sense to me than two, both from the standpoint of the show and from the standpoint of attracting a critical mass of competitors.  It also clearly makes sense to continue with multi-class racing, especially when series are using performance balancing throughout the season to keep everyone competitive in class.  Standing in the Alex Job Racing pit during the final laps of the Laguna Grand Am with Editor Morse, I also decided to stop whining and to embrace the full-course caution.  We realized that we had just seen an entertaining race that had been interesting both for the fan in the stands and the crew under the pit awning. Pairs like Sascha Maassen and Ryan Briscoe or Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister are terrific drivers, but just like Penske in Utah it was strategy in the pits that let Alex Job proclaim at the end, ďWeíre back, baby, weíre back

                   David Soares

               Memorial Day, 2007
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