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Long and short of it

David Soares on cult racing and the carbon fiber railroad earth of Laguna Seca

  As a lifetime adherent of the cult of sportscar racing I was more than happy to
make a pilgrimage this past May Day to my personal Lourdes, Mazda Raceway at
Laguna Seca, for the arrival of the latest sportscar reformation, the Grand
American Road Racing  Rolex Sports Car Series Road and Track 250.  GARRA
hadn’t made the trek to my part of the world yet and I haven’t been in a position to
travel to theirs.  There’s been a lot of controversy among the bench-racing crowd
about this series and I wanted to be able to make my own heretical judgments
about the Daytona Prototypes and their supporting classes.

Drivin' and pilotin' the following fer ya are…
  Many of the greatest names in sportscar racing would be pedaling DP’s around
the May Pole, including Le Mans stalwarts Hurley Haywood, Guy Smith, Stefan
Johansson, Andy Wallace, David Murry, and Butch Leitzinger.  Solid new-wave
sportscar men Jorg Bergmeister, Cort Wagner, Ralf Kelleners, Matteo Bobbi, and
Fabrizio Gollin joined  oldtimers like Elliot Forbes-Robinson and Wayne Taylor.
Young hot shoes Memo Gidley, Luis Diaz, Stephan Gregoire, and Alex Gurney
(accompanied by dashing dad Daniel Sexton) were there plus “Mad Max” Papis,
Terry Borcheller, Max Angelleli, and Shane Lewis. What’s not to like?

The Quiet Earth
  The first sign that this was going to be a different kind of sportscar experience
was on the highway coming down from my home monastery in Beserkeley-by-the-
Beach.  The familiar “Race Traffic” signs were nowhere to be seen along Highway
1.  Where were the “Welcome Race Fans” banners on the fruit stands and bars?
Maybe I got the date wrong.

  It got even weirder at the track.  By Sunday morning the Grand Am Cup teams
had pulled up stakes to head back East and the paddock was three-quarters
empty.  The Vendor Village had only five tents up.  One of the regular model-and-
book dealers told me that he was supposed to share his tent but the other guy
had pulled out.  The “Marque Madness” car club promotion that had seemed like
a great way to fill the seats failed to draw more than a few dozen cars (possibly
because it had priced itself out of contention).  Even the Golden Gate BMWCCA
chapter could only muster a couple of dozen cars to watch the Prototype
Technology Group M3’s in the GT class.  Everybody walking around the track
seemed to have a team credential. So where were the fans?

  It certainly wasn’t a problem with the racing.  Spec chassis and spec motors
make for close competition.  Fifty-three cars lined up on separate grids for the DP
and GT classes in the Rolex Series main.  When it was over the top ten had
finished on the same lap.  The inability of Daytona Prototype front clips to stay
attached after contact caused an unfortunate finish under yellow, but the gap
would have been a half second even without the safety car.

Beat Farmers
  While one sportscar series touts itself as being “For the Fans” the GARRA
fashions itself under the banner “A Driving Passion: It’s What Moves Us.”  It
makes a lot of sense to me as a model for a race series, sort of like the SCCA
Runoffs but with a professional feel, faster cars, and a simpler class structure.
When 54 entries show up for the Rolex main and another 70 for the Grand Am
Cup support series with crews, wives, girlfriends and hangers-on in tow you start
wondering if you even want fans to show up and compete for hotel rooms and
tables at the local watering holes.  Unlike the folks who think that the only reason
that GARRA came into being was to siphon manufacturer and team investment
away from the American Le Mans Series and into NASCAR’s coffers, I think that
the Rolex Series can and should serve a very useful purpose in the smorgasbord
of American racing.

  There has always been a need for an outlet for the “gentleman racer,” or to put it
more crassly, the rich guy who can afford big toys.  By the time they get to the point
that they have amassed a sufficient fortune to live out their racing fantasies their
reflexes and stamina aren’t what they once may have been.  These guys are often
pretty decent drivers, but in a top-rank series they’re at best moving chicanes and
at worst a serious accident waiting to happen.  Still, they want to get out there and
feel like they’re racing drivers.

  Many of these “gentleman racers” have participated in sportscar racing over the
years.  When the ALMS began to attract factory teams and international drivers, a
lot of these guys have been turning to what we euphemistically refer to as “historic
racing.”  It seems like a good way to go racing in sexy cars just like their heroes
drove.  Some of the sanctioning bodies encourage “racing series” for historic cars
and wealthy sportsmen.  This has been a dangerous trend that has caused a
small but alarming number of deaths in the past few years, most notably that of
Bob Akin.  Those old cars were  to be taken seriously when they were new and a
quarter century hasn’t done anything but attenuate that tendency.  Historic “racing”
should be nothing more than a rolling museum.  The inventor of the American
branch of historic racing, Monterey Historics founder Steve Earle, didn’t have the
slightest hesitation banning Sir Stirling Moss when he started “racing” in a
priceless Aston Martin DBR1 and pranged it up against a Lister at his race.
People who want to “race” in that manner have no business there.

No waiting in the waiting room…
  The Daytona Prototype was made for the wealthy entrepreneur who wants to go
racing.  The cars are giant cages of chrome-moly steel and carbon-fiber centered
around a crash cell an insurance actuary could love.  The cars don’t just look like
tanks, they’re built like tanks; despite some pretty heavy contact among the 51
starters at Laguna there was only one DP DNF.  Their performance was bench-
marked to the Porsche 911 GT3 RS, fast but a hefty seven seconds a lap slower
than ALMS prototypes around a circuit like Laguna.  The series only allows a
limited number of approved chassis and engines and tests the motors regularly
to make sure that no one has a performance advantage.  Their chassis designs
are fixed, so the initial investment is good for an indefinite future except for wear
and tear.  Next year you can but a bigger luxury bus or a fancier pit setup.  I’ve
always thought that this was the natural niche for Grand Am and I welcomed the
DP concept when it was introduced.  No more being humiliated by some factory
hot-shoe from Monaco.

  Because sportscar racing has traditionally divided into Prototype and GT ranks,
and because for the first couple of seasons there weren’t going to be enough DP
chassis completed to fill the grids, Grand Am has supported an active GT class.
There has been adjustment, especially after Kevin Buckler won Daytona in a
Porsche GT3 RS in 2003.  The benchmark car for the class is now the Porsche
GT3 Cup.  Some questioned this “dumbing down” of the class but in the context of
giving the wealthy hobbyist an opportunity to step-up to a professional series it
made good sense.  The GT3 Cup is a known quantity with a reasonable
acquisition cost, good parts support, plenty of wrenching support, and while it’s a
turnkey racer it’s tunable in the right hands.  Twenty of the twenty-nine GT entries
for the Road and Track 250 at Laguna Seca were GT3 Cups.

White salmon or pink ?
  Unfortunately there’s an old saying that goes, “If things sound too good to be
true, they probably are.”  There’s a serpent in this gentleman racer’s paradise:
those big name drivers I mentioned earlier and the professional teams who
employ them.  When the series started it wasn’t uncommon for a team principal to
split driving chores with a hired shoe.  Not a bad idea and still sporting in the
scheme of things, it’s been done in sportscar racing since the Fifties.  Then last
season Chip Ganassi Racing showed up with fully professional driver pairings,
Toyota power, and Mexican telecom backing.  The championship went down to
the last race but it was never really in doubt that Ganassi’s team would take home
all the marbles and so they did.

  I haven’t had the chance to sit down with Roger Edmundson or John Bishop and
their staff, but I have to wonder whether they fell into the old car count panic
endemic to race series in this country.  In the 21st Century nobody is anybody if
they’re not on TV and even a series aimed at wealthy sportsmen needs a TV
package so that they can be somebody.  Such a package is a whole lot cheaper if
you can convince the network that they can sell a few commercials or that you’ve
pre-sold a few yourself.  GARRA needed a flash pro team to pick the series up
from its Amateur Hour image.  It’s never been acknowledged, but my surmise is
that Toyota came into the picture as one of the pre-conditions for their future
participation in NASCAR.  Their Lexus brand isn’t exactly a natural marketing tie-in
with sportscar racing.  I have yet to see a Lexus corral at Laguna.

  The car counts are way up this year, but it’s unclear if that is due to the exposure
brought by the Ganassi/Toyota tie-in or whether the chassis builders just caught
up with demand.  Most of the cars have brightly-colored sponsor graphics but the
name on the graphics is more often than not stitched on the overalls of the owner-

Lutz O' Luck
  Now that the Toyota snake is in the garden General Motors has stepped up the
participation of their Pontiac brand in the series.  GM’s marketing in the past few
years has been driven by Bob Lutz.  Lutz is best known for Chrysler’s marketing-
led turnaround in the Nineties, but before that he cut his teeth with Ford Europe
and BMW.  Back in the Seventies Lutz had “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” drilled
into his head by the turnarounds of those two companies.  In a few short years
“BMW sports-sedan” was transformed from a contradiction in terms into an
oxymoron.  Lutz wants to take his brands road racing. However, recent events
regarding his position at GM may put a hold on any further expenditure.

  While Cosworth-Ford on the cam covers was common in Formula 1 throughout
the Seventies, the real market bounce came from cars with recognizable trade-
dress like CSL’s and Capris. Lutz and company want to sprinkle GM’s brands
with road racing fairy dust.  Chevrolet is in the ALMS and Cadillac has moved
down-market into Speed World Challenge after a mis-cue at Le Mans and so they
don’t want to make the mistake of eating their own.  With Toyota in Grand Am it
probably made perfect sense to throw a few million dollars of Pontiac’s marketing
budget into the series.

Rewrite, remake, buy the title rights…
  Manufacturer/distributor money may have an even bigger impact on the Rolex GT
class.  BMW North America realized that their customer base doesn’t care about
the Williams Walrus and wants to see BMW’s in GT racing.  Their Prototype
Technology Group partners tested the waters in SWC in 2003 but realized that the
same kind of funny-cars that got them spanked out of the ALMS were going to be
dominating that series.  They’ve come to Grand Am where the M3’s that were
barely competitive against the Alex Job RSR’s can clean-up on Cups.  They
finished a dominant 1-2-3 at Laguna this year and would have had fourth as well if
not for writing a car off in practice.  The Porsche brigade has dealt with BMW
sedans before, but there are even darker clouds on the horizon.

  Now the sanctioning body has decided for whatever reason that 29 GT entrants
and close racing weren’t good enough and scrapped the GT rules for the
umpteenth time, announcing a new “Prep-2” GT category of tube-frame NASCAR-
style stockers.  So far the only serious car developed for the new class is a
Pontiac GTO, and GM’s marketing effort is about as subtle as the message Harry
Truman sent to the Emperor of Japan in the bomb-bay of the Enola Gay.  The car
was developed by Pratt and Miller of Le Mans class-winning Corvette fame.  The
lead drivers are Jan Magnussen and American F3 phenom Paul Edwards.  GM
liked the way Kevin Buckler runs his operation so they dangled big money and
took him over lock, stock, and barrel to run their operation.

  Becoming a factory squad was never Buckler’s plan when he changed over to
Grand Am. Buckler made the move to Grand Am because his customers were
tired of being schooled by the factory teams and the young shoes who file
Monegasque tax returns.  If you recall, he originally announced Crawford chassis
and Infiniti power.  It was only after he announced that he would be focusing on
the series – where his customers would be more willing to spend money on rides
that felt more competitive – that GM and Bob Lutz’ desperation move to Win on
Sunday and Sell on Monday sought him out.

Do goats eat tin cans ?
  Buckler can’t be faulted for not turning away millions, but the arrival of the GTO is
really going to be a crying shame. It’s also hard to fault the series for not turning
away the factory money.  The original plan for Grand Am was to attire the DP’s in
manufacturer trade dress.  The idea never took off and Porsche even sent their
lawyers over to slap tape over the Brumos Fabcar’s headlights.  There was a
good reason that the manufacturers were initially cold to the Daytona Prototype
concept.  While they appeal to people who want to go racing on less than an
international budget, the cars lack fan appeal, and without fan appeal they make
no sense from a marketing standpoint. You don’t get a lot of heat out of having
your name on a carbon-fiber carrot, as my biggest critic and editor Kerry Morse
pointed out when I misidentified a Jim Bamber statuette wearing Honda/Marlboro
coveralls as Ayrton Senna.  How was I supposed to remember that Penske was
running Honda power when Gil de Ferran won Indy? Cosworth, Offy, Mercedes,
Honda, Toyota, who-knows-what next year?  And I actually follow this stuff!

  The appearance of General Motors’ Pontiac brand on the scene with their Pratt
and Miller funny car can do the series no good.  The Daytona Prototypes will never
be a self-supporting championship.  The series only makes sense to a promoter
when a big field shows up with a lot of entry fees and dumps a bunch of money
into the local economy to make up for non-existent ticket sales.  The supporting
GT class, and especially its 20-odd supporting Porsches are a big deal to this

International series of mystery
  While the rules promise that “The GT class for 2005 will be comprised of two
distinct preparation methods, all designed to have cars at a similar competition
level for GT class racing,” I’m having a hard time believing that the Prep 2 GTO
isn’t going to walk over everybody.  BMW is going to pull up their tent stakes again
– they’ve got the 6-series homologated for international GT1 competition and a V-
10 engine for it in production and a V-8 M3 in the pipeline that will allow them to be
competitive again in GT2.  Porsche has signaled that they intend to support the
ALMS with their partnership with Roger Penske in P2 as well as by co-sponsoring
a GT3 Cup ALMS support series with tire giant Michelin.  The loss of the Porsches
and BMW’s can only hurt GT car counts and the viability of the series at non-ISC

  The huge fields we saw at Laguna are indicative that Grand Am has got
something right.  This is not a series that’s going to draw huge crowds of
spectators.  It doesn’t need to be.  It’s about giving people who want to go racing a
show where they don’t have to get their clocks cleaned by big-money factory
teams. While the Ganassi, Howard-Boss and SunTrust cars are always at the top
of the order at the end of the weekend, there’s always a new guy like Oswaldo
Negri Jr. on the pole in the Michael Shank Racing Riley Lexus and Alex Gurney in
the Blackhawk Racing Riley Pontiac to tell a story about during practice and
qualifying.   Around the paddock it was clear that even if a “level playing field” is a
fantasy there are a lot of guys (and gals) who buy into it.

The Red Desert
  I sincerely wish that people would just set aside their egos and let GARRA be
GARRA.  The event at Laguna wasn’t about the crowds, it was about racing for
racers.  The promoter didn’t lose money and the car club tie-in can be refined to
fill more seats next year.  This series ought to be club-racing at its best, but only if
the sanctioning body forgets about being dazzled by Detroit’s lame attempt to flog
lumpy pushrod front-drive Pontiacs. The enormous entry Grand Am is
experiencing, even away from their East Coast base, is clear evidence of the
demand for a low-key venue a few steps above amateur racing but below the
expense and drama of a full-blown international championship.  It’s why it was no
big deal that nobody (and I mean nobody) showed up to watch at Laguna.  But if I
owned one of the 20 Porsches that showed up for the GT race or the 20 Porsches
in the Grand Am Cup race, I’d be taking a hard look at the IMSA Porsche Cup
presented by Michelin instead of trying to rub fenders with Jan Magnussen next

                                                                                                               David Soares
                                                                                                                  May 2005

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