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Riley Good

Bill Oursler on testing the Pulse of the test days at Daytona

  If the early season pre-race Rolex Grand American Sports Car Series test
session showed anything, it was that picking an overall winner next month will be
harder than winning at the crap tables in Las Vegas. In all, less than two seconds
covered the first Daytona Prototypes on the speed charts, with the Wayne Taylor-
led Sun Trust Pontiac Riley team barely leading the similar Kevin Buckler owned
car with Max Papis aboard, Papis and his former Chip Ganassi partner Scott
Pruett having narrowly beaten Taylor and Max Angelelli for the 2004 Grand Am
crown last fall in the California Speedway series finale.

Stars not cars…
  Speaking of Pruett, he and his crew, including former IRL champ Scott Dixon led
the two-car Lexus-Riley Ganassi squad to the fourth and fifth quickest record
times during the three-day session, starting on the first Friday of the New Year.
Sandwiched in between was one the “house” Pontiac Crawfords, this one with
former Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona winner Andy Wallace and NASCAR’s  Tony
Stewart at the wheel. In fact, the test session was not only awash in Daytona
Prototypes, of which 31 were on the grounds, but awash in name drivers. In all,
there were no less than nine Nextel Cup regulars including ex-titlists, Stewart and
the Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby on hand, but such open wheel luminaries,
as Dixon and Paul Tracy, king of the Champ Car set in 2003. Even Emerson
Fittipaldi came out of retirement to try out the Jim Bell Motorsport Rolex winning
Doran Pontiac from last year, although there were no firm indications that Emmo
might run it in the race itself.

Hoop Dreams
  Clearly, the Grand Am folks have decided to make, what we call in basketball “a
full court press,” at the Rolex Grand Am 24-Hour season opener. The question is
whether or not the effort will provide the Grand Am and its very different, and highly
restricted prototypes with the kind of legitimacy to be recognized as a major force
in the road racing universe/ There is no question that the Grand Am’s unique
approach to prototype competition has produced some of the closest, best and
most entertaining sports car racing in recent memory. There is also little question,
at least up to now, that few, other than the competitors themselves, have been
beating the doors down to watch.

  From a monetary viewpoint that is not as important to the Grand Am as one
might think since the business structure for the series is largely based on “back
gate” revenues. To put it another way, the Grand Am’s solvency is mainly founded
on the fees paid by the participants, this coupled with lower than usual operating
costs (much of the series is run at International Speedway owned tracks like
Daytona, Homestead, California and Watkins Glen) has made the championship
profitable for its investors, which number among them members of the France
family. On the other had, from a pride prospective, the lack of public acceptance
has hurt. Spectators – other than perhaps at Daytona – have been relatively few,
and television ratings on Speed, equally low.

A well traveled resume
  For all of its problems, the American Le Mans Series, with its low car counts, has
been the winner in terms of the attention paid to it. What one saw at the revised (it
has a completely new garage and infield area) Daytona facility in January was the
beginnings of a push to reverse that situation, a push, which, if successful, could
put the ALMS out of business. The irony here is that contained within the Grand
Am’s staff resources are people such as Competition Director Mark Raffauf, and
former Ford engineer, and racer Don Hayward, the man credited with helping to
shape and nurture the Daytona Prototype sandbox, who could make that happen.

  Raffauf spent much of his career working at IMSA, now the ALMS’ captive
sanctioning organization, first for founder John Bishop, and then guiding its racing
fortune’s himself with his partner George Silberman during the highly successful
Camel GT era. As Raffauf puts its “I’ve made all the mistakes, and I’ve learned
from them.” In fact, Raffauf used the old tubeframe All American GT model,
developed by Bishop in the mid 1970’s to stem the conquering Porsche RSR tide,
as  model for the Grand Am’s re-created production car universe. “What we’ve
done is exactly the same thing, letting the large volume cars, to use a tubeframe
structure to equalize their competitiveness with lower volume, more competition
ready vehicles such as the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup entries, as well as the Ferrari
360’s and Maseratis and BMW M3s.”

Here's the stitch…
  Although the Daytona 24-Hour should be dominated by the Porsche crowd, once
the new Pontiacs arrive, along with their mass produced cousins, things could
change drastically. Still, there remains the question of legitimacy; answer to which
is, as of now, undisclosed. Raffauf, who should know, suggests that by leasing
the rules from Le Mans, the ALMS has hemmed itself in. “Listen,” says Raffauf,
“I’m not in the business of telling someone else how to do their’s. However, from
bitter experience I can tell you that the rules for Le Mans are great for their event,
but not necessarily good for anything outside of Le Mans. When we did the Camel
GT, we said we would use cars ‘like those’ race at Le Mans, which kept us in the
loop, but not tied too it. I don’t think that has changed much since.”

De old folks at home…
  Regardless, Raffauf and the rest of the Grand Am, are focused completely on
taking their championship to the next level of maturity. It will be interesting to see if
they succeed.

                                                                                                                       Bill Oursler
                                                                                                                        January 2005

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