|David Soares with Kevin Buckler on Daytona and Beyond|
Houses of the Holy
On February 5 the sportscar season will get under way, as it has for many of us
for nearly 40 years, when the green flag drops on the Rolex 24 at Daytona. But in
a sport where the holiest of holiest remains the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the field of
29 Daytona Prototypes and 34 GTís represents at best a schism within the faith.
Ask anyone (even the people who run them) and youíll hear that the design
parameters laid down for the Daytona Prototype did not translate well from two
dimensions to three. There is no question that these cars are pretty ugly and the
euphemisms used to describe them range from the reptilian to the scatological.
Even a blunt instrument like the Riley & Scott Mk. III had a certain proportion and
stance that looked good in photographs and on the television screen. Rolex
Series supremo Roger Edmundson now tells us not to worry about the cars and
to focus on the drivers, but thatís never been a part of the sportscar faith.
With their power plants dumbed-down to a GT3 benchmark, the DPís are also
disappointingly slow. They have been slow enough that the GT class had to be
limited in horsepower, fuel capacity, weight, and footprint so that the cars are little
faster (and in some cases slower) than the street cars they resemble. Whatís
more, the cars that will sweep past the letters DAYTONA USA arenít part of any
international championship formula. Some people are even suggesting that the
cars have turned the Rolex Series into little more than glorified club racing.
A mile wide and an inch deepÖ.
Many of the sportscar faithful are crying heresy and calling for a infatada against
the infidels who dare to race these scaled-down prototypes and eunuch GTís.
Those who subscribe to the belief system that raises sportscar racing to the level
of religion believe that jihad must be made against the unbelievers. Is sportscar
racing worthy of such religious fervor? Are certain of us starting to sound like the
residents of Third World countries who canít figure out why all the happy, rich, and
successful cultures in the world donít subscribe to their version of the afterlife?
There are sixty-three cars entered for this yearís Rolex 24. There are a grand
total of ten entered so far for the ALMS Sebring test with four more (Dyson and
Corvette) scheduled to test privately the week after. Fourteen true believers.
Meanwhile, the sixty-three car Daytona entry has several Le Mans winners and
podium regulars in its ranks, including Derek Bell, Hurley Haywood, Guy Smith,
Jan Lammers, Andy Wallace, Stefan Johansson, Jorg Bergmeister, Kevin Buckler,
Jan Magnussen, and Oliver Gavin. Blasphemers? As the Chief Lama of this
monastery put so aptly in his January sermon: itís time to get off the fence.
Before the faithful start planning ways to sneak box-cutters onto fully-fueled
heavies taking off from Miami and diverting them to Daytona Beach for a
rendezvous with paradise and six virgins, Iím going to suggest that everyone take
a step back and get in touch with why their $7,000 entry check didnít go out to the
ACO again this year. All racing cars cost money. Lots and lots of money. People
with lots and lots of money need to map out why theyíre spending their money and
how much of it they want to spend. Many of them will want value for their money.
They may all want to emulate Steve McQueen sauntering past the old pits and
strapping himself into his 240 mph sportscar, but the reality is that there arenít
that many guaranteed Le Mans entries on this side of the pond. There are even
fewer when the same teams may win at Sebring, Petit Le Mans, and the ALMS
banquet in Monterey.
Most people in racing are different from my late friend Bob Soltau, who was
happy to spend a million of his own dollars a year to qualify at the back of the
CART grid. They want to make the Big Show and they want a shot at winning.
When I looked at the staggering number of entries that showed up for the Daytona
Test Days in January I decided to take a fresh look at the religion of sportscar
racing and wondered if it isnít a religion at all. If in fact it isnít a business. With
this goal in mind I decided to pay a visit to the Great Satan himself, Kevin Buckler,
founder and proprietor of the Racers Group in Sonoma, California.
Get FuzzyÖ. Bucky bags the big ones
Kevin Buckler has one of those swell first-in-class trophies with the number ď24Ē
on top that they give out at Le Mans in June. He was the darling of the faithful
when he showed up at the Rolex 24 in 2003, the first year the DPís ran, and
cleaned house in a little Porsche GT3 RS as overall winner (after winning GT the
year before and staging a three-car Racers Group DAYTONA USA photo-op).
Heís been in the Porsche-prep business for a dozen years and has fielded two-
and three-car teams in both the ALMS and the Grand Am, racing in IMSA before
that. This guy has been walking the walk and talking the talk for years.
The day before Halloween Buckler delivered a trick-or-treat message: the
longtime Porsche stalwart would be fielding a two-car Daytona Prototype effort in
2005. Then he rubbed everyoneís face in it by teaming up with Tracy Krohn, Bill
Riley, and Pontiac power and showing up at the test days with two DPís and six
GTís. The team took a brand-new chassis and posted second fastest overall out
of the box plus fourth fastest in GT ahead of the 2004 series-champion PTG BMW
Fruit of the vineÖ.
For a guy who is at the top of a management pyramid responsible for 12.5% of
this yearís Rolex field, Buckler was in a surprisingly relaxed and expansive mood
when I met with him (other than the fact that he was in his race shop on a
Saturday that was also his wife and business partner Debraís birthday). We
began our meeting with Kevin pointing to a faded photo in a frame on his wall.
ďThat was the first professional race I won, an IMSA race here at Sears point in
í95. Of the 22 teams in that race only two are racing today.Ē He made it clear that
he didnít build his business to lose money and that through the combination of
giving sponsors a friendly high-value package, funded drivers, and a thriving
Porsche club-racing business he has managed to stay in the black every year.
I want to show you just what my politics areÖ
Buckler also made it clear from the outset that his expanded GARRA program is
not about a conflict with IMSA or the ALMS. He is trying to put an ALMS program
together for 2005 and hopes to enter Sebring with at least one of the RSRís
prominently displayed in his showroom. He has also sent in the hefty Le Mans
entry fee in hopes of securing a fourth consecutive invitation to la Sarthe for The
Racers Group. He waxes poetic about getting off a Trans-Atlantic flight in 2002
and driving straight to the track so that he could stand in front of the main
grandstand like Steve McQueen. Le Mans is in this manís blood. The biggest
problem he faces is finding drivers and sponsors who donít mind going up
against two factory-supported teams in the ALMS GT2 class.
The jump to DP and four GT entries was a logical evolution of the business
model he and his wife have developed over the past decade and Buckler defends
his decision strictly from a business perspective. Kevin Buckler started out like
many of us, having some fun at track days. Then he wanted to go a little faster
and worked out a coil-over set-up for his Porsche. People started asking how
come he wasnít lifting his inside front wheel in Laguna Secaís turn eleven and all
of a sudden he and wife Debra were in the coil-over conversion business. With
money coming in one thing lead to another and in 2002 he won the GT class at
both Daytona and Le Mans and the Porsche Cup.
Bucklerís organization, The Racers Group, is a conscious and logical
development of these club racing roots. Some knock TRG for being the worldís
largest arrive-and-drive outfit, but the results speak for themselves. The eight
(plus support of the Aussie Assault) Rolex 24 entries carry no primary sponsor
livery other than that of The Racers Group. When a funded driver joins forces with
Buckler he or she can be assured of first-class equipment and a first-class
experience. Kevin Buckler has made a conscious effort to keep a ďclub raceĒ feel
in his paddock.
A Fistful of DriversÖ.
Buckler points out that sportscars have always appealed to the wealthy hobbyist.
His business model is to provide drivers and sponsors with a complete package
for the weekend from car and crew graphics to catering and Kevin and Debraís
Adobe Road wines. Buckler also has consciously tried to take advantage of
economies of scale: once a catering kitchen is in service the incremental cost of
more food is insignificant. If youíre going to feed 25 you might as well feed 250.
Heís also not been afraid to contract out when it makes sense. A few years ago
he shuttered his engine shop when it became clear that PMNA motors were more
cost-effective. The loss of control over engine building didnít pencil-out compared
with the overhead.
Buckler credits his devotion to this ďtotal packageĒ to his success. When the
France organization approached him to inquire whether he might be interested in
making the jump to the Daytona Prototype ranks they made it clear that The
Racers Group promotes the ďfeelĒ that they want for their series. For better or
worse, sportscar racing cannot support full fields of professional drivers in
sponsored cars. Historically Daytona has featured large numbers of privately-
entered and funded cars driven by people who managed to scrape together the
money on their own. Why should they have to squat on dirty lawn chairs eating
canned chili and Pringles? Shared resources promote a more enjoyable
experience for drivers and sponsors. When Tracy Krohn called to congratulate
Buckler on his move to DP, the conversation likewise turned to how much Krohn
would like his own operation to feel like TRG. Kevin Bucklerís response was to
propose that Krohnís operation be TRG! ďI felt like I was at a similar precipice as
when I decided to run three cars at Daytona in 2002. I made the jump and things
just started falling into place.Ē
The Legitimate Theater
The decision to devote more resources to the Grand Am series wasnít made
because of looks Ė it was made because it was a sound business decision.
Series participant SunTrust Bank offers teams up to 100% financing of their new
cars. The Racers Groupís number 66 on a Riley-Pontiac is as jarring at first
glance as Al Holbertís number 14 on a DeKon Monza, but things worked out for
Porsche-man Holbert. Kevin Bucklerís eyes fill with fire when he says, ďMy
ultimate goal is to legitimize sportscar racing.Ē
There are twenty-nine Daytona Prototypes entered in the Rolex 24. Nearly all of
them are manned by name professional drivers, mostly legitimate road racers
and not ringers from NASCAR brought in to appeal to the ISC crowd. This field is
backed up by thirty-four GT entries, mostly Porsche GT3 Cups. PMNA actually ran
out of engines at the Test Days. Why have so many chosen to turn their backs on
the ACO rules?
Walker Percy goes southÖ.
Despite election year hype, the world economy and in particular the United
States economy is in poor shape. While corporate profits are up, corporate
investment and employment are down. Yanqui Dollars donít buy much in the way
of European hardware or European racing. But, as Kevin Phillips pointed out in
his 2001 tome Wealth and Democracy, in bad times the wealthy tend to stay
wealthy while investment tends to go down. During the Great Depression and the
Second World War Americaís wealthiest families chose lower-profile and lower-
risk ways to enjoy their wealth. Today wealthy individuals have a greater impact
on sportscar racing than corporate and particularly manufacturer investment.
A rules package designed to cater to high-tech machines developed by well-
financed manufacturers gives the most exciting cars. Unfortunately it depends on
the will of manufacturers to fund programs. Without these programs, racing
organizations must cater to individuals. The debate on whether a Riley-Pontiac or
an Audi R8 is the better sportscar is a non-starter, but if your goal is the
legitimization of sportscar racing is that even a question to be asking?
There are just three of the neo-turbopanzers slated to race worldwide in 2005. In
the six seasons since the R8 first appeared at and won the 12 Hours of Sebring
in 2000 nobody has built a legitimate competitor. Only VAGís Bentley brand beat
the R8 in one of the true endurance events. Fighting amongst the family. The
Panoz LMP had a few good showings as has the Lola-AER/MG, but neither car
mounted a serious challenge in the big events; neither was fielded by a major
automobile manufacturer, only the Lola still races. The Brits are all worked up
about the near stillborn Reynard/Zytec/DBA but both cars that ran in 2004 looked
to have the usual Colonel Blimp fast-but-fragile air about them. How many R10ís
will Audi build in 2006, and who will be able to afford them? Will Audiís
endurance dynasty survive Ferdinand Piech?
Where are the Pros from Dover ?
In the other sportscar classes, Corvette has been the only legitimate contender
over the years. Dave Richardsí Prodrive has built competitive and furiously fast
cars but canít find people with the budget to run them. GT has been a Porsche
parade on both sides of the Atlantic. BMW built a bridge too far and Ferrari has
never been serious about anything but Karting-with-Bernie. Grand Amís Porsche
parade may be about to come to an end with the introduction of ďPrep 2Ē cars
during the coming season, a formula that has more in common with JGTC cars
than the current FIA GT and ACO GT1 classes (isnít Stephane Ratel in talks with
the JGTC people?).
If racing teams are to survive in the current economic environment, they need to
find a rules package that lets them tap into the money. Wealthy individuals still
want to go racing. Their goal isnít to showcase technology as a marketing
exercise. They just want to go out and stomp on the accelerator and show their
friends a good time. Everybody wants to see an international championship
culminating in the big race in France every June, but that takes the kind of money
(Flying Lizards are rumored to have spent two million dollars last year to earn their
invitation this June) thatís particularly hard for individuals to float in these times.
If it is legitimacy that the faithful are seeking, then numbers have to mean
something. When Le Mans runners like Kevin Buckler and Jim Matthews join the
heretics we have to wonder if a reformation isnít in order. Are DPís the way?
When I ask Kevin Buckler he just smiles and says that heís always been a GT
racer at heart. But when you look at the hired guns that arenít in Audis all you see
are Corvettes, Aston Martins, and Maseratis. Until more of these programs are
under way, can we fault those in the business of racing if they want to tap in to a
program that keeps the lights on and the wrenches employed?
In 1930 the AAA Contest Board realized that Herbert Hoover was full of it and
acknowledged the Great Depression by dumping the Millers and Deusenbergs
that nobody could afford. They instituted a ďjunk formulaĒ that assured the survival
of American championship racing. The cars were often built up from Studebakers
and Hudsons and sported riding mechanics and speeds much slower than the
pure racing cars of the Roaring Twenties, but they assured full fields and the
continuity of racing during some very lean years. The ďjunk formulaĒlasted until
1938, but it kept the business of racing alive through the world economic
We need to park our car bombs and give credit to the reformation. Itís ugly, itís
slow, itís not fan-oriented (many of the races repeat the same ISC venues two and
three times) but it has to be acknowledged that there are a dozen DPís and a
dozen GTís that have a shot at class and overall wins at Daytona. Who can blame
people for wanting a shot at the podium? Isnít sportscar racing a religion of