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Champion Past

Overnight Sensations on The Long Road to Success

  The trouble with overnight successes is they are hardly ever overnight. Such is
the obvious case with South Floridaís Champion Racing, winners of the 2004
American Le Mans Series Championship, also winners of the 2005 Sebring
ALMS opener, and the odds on favorites to win Le Mans in June.

The Price of Glory
  As Champion vice-present Don Skuta says, "Weíve made every mistake in the
book getting here. When we started we tried to re-invent the wheel by taking a
street car and modifying it ourselves into a racer, which didnít work. Then we got
involved in trying to win our class, and finally we concentrated on being a top
contender, making all the usual errors in the process".

  "Today weíve reached the point where we expect to win, and are disappointed if
we donít. Itís a hard sport, and it takes a tremendous amount of work to go from
knowing nothing, to being successful." It also takes money. According to Skuta
and Champion owner Dave Maraj, the team will take no less than 50 people to Le
Mans in two months, along with its two Audi R8s and the spares to support them.
In short, as the man notes, if you want to make a small fortune in the sport, bring
wheelbarrows full of cash.

Over to you Chris
  Chris Economaki, the dean of American Motorsports' reporters who has been
involved in racing since before the Second World War, decries the situation,
contending that the industry can not make it financially on its own, but must
depend on outside resources, such as sponsors, manufacturers, and the wealthy
to survive. Even though the involvement of car makers and the rich, if not always
famous, has been a part of Motorsport since its earliest days, Economaki has a
valid point.

  Consider for a moment that the budgets in Formula One are in the hundreds of
millions of dollars, and that even the "one-off" Bentley Le Mans effort cost its
parent Volkswagen AG in the area of $60 million Ėthis in spite of the fact that cars
were largely re-done Audi R8s in theory with roofs on them, one can begin to see
what the 84-year-old is talking about.

And so it goes
  So why is this relevant to those interested in the ALMS? The answer is simple;
the championship needs new prototypes if itís going to expand its fan base to the
point where it can assure itself of a future. Those in charge of the ALMS have been
working hard to assure themselves of a new supply of the headlining 2004-spec
(all the current LMP1 entries are 2003 legal vehicles with their life spans extended
by fiat to the end of this season) necessary to conduct business next year. So far,
there have been indications from the smaller manufacturers like Lola, that they
will produce such cars. However, the mainstream manufacturers such as
Porsche and Audi have maintained an official silence concerning their intentions.

Diesel and Dust
  In the past several weeks, there have been hints that VW subsidiary Audi will be
back with a V-10 twin turbo diesel to replace the R8, a fact, which if true, will bring
smiles to the faces of not only ALMS founder Don Panoz, but his management
team as well; not to mention the folks at Le Mans from whom the ALMS leases its
technical regulations. Still, there are suggestions that Audi will only build its new
R10 if there is someone else to race against.

  And, who might be an acceptable opponent? Why, Porsche of course.

  The problem is that for as speciality firm like Porsche, the price of developing
such a rival is so huge that it only makes sense if the companyís management
can be assured that it will be a winner. And, since Audi expects to be in that
position, and since thereís not room for two at the top, the question becomes why
should the Zuffenhausen-based firm take a chance on what definitely is not a
"sure bet." In fact, Porscheís current management has said in the past that such
exercises are like putting money "down a black hole."

My friends all drive Porsches
  In fact, since the companyís overall triumph at Le Mans in 1998, Porsche has
focused on developing and building lower GT class 911 GT3 Cup and RSRs,
variants of the cars used in Zuffenhausen's own Cup title chases. In total, the
factory annually sells between 150 and 200 GT3s of all shapes and sizes, which
at an average price of around $ 120,000 for a Cup car and close to $ 300,000 for
an RSR, creates a sizable profit center.

  Now, there are suggestions that Porsche will produce and sell a smaller LMP2
customer spyder before the end of the current season. Reportedly the engineers
were told the could move into the prototype arena as long as they could assure
management of success, something easily achieved in LMP2 where survival
almost guarantees victory, but clearly not necessarily an accomplished fact in
LMP1, especially if Porsche finds itself squaring off against Audi.

  There is little doubt that road racing needs Porsche, with its proven capability of
supplying competitive cars to a wide number of hungry customers. Yet, the folks at
the ALMS, nor their counterparts at Le Mans and elsewhere canít promise that
what Zuffenhausen comes up with will be an automatic winner, the one crucial
criteria for Porsche to launch any such program on the first place.

Being There
  Many enthusiasts have decried the conservative approach taken by Porsche and
others such as Ferrari (at least in terms of the sports car scene) in terms of
involving themselves at the highest levels of the sport without assurances of
climbing to the top of the podium. Yet when one is spending in the tens, or
hundreds of millions "to be there," no one wants to explain to the bean counters
why one hasnít exactly achieved the objectives that were the basis for the decision
to proceed initially.

  The Grand American series has solved all these issues by simply limiting
technology to an affordable level for its Daytona Prototype category, this resulting
in not only ever increasing numbers of these cars, bur close, even entertaining
competition among them as well. Even so, for the traditionalists Grand Amís
approach is not necessarily appealing. This is the group that the ALMS is working
so hard to please and to expand. Still, the ALMS and its fellows are going to have
to find a way to make the financial commitment for the car makers low enough for
them to take a chance on losing, as opposed to winning, a difficult task requiring
the wisdom of Solomon.

Bill Oursler
April 2005

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