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Miami Nice

The Death of Bruce Czaja and other Things

A long time friend of mine died the other day, Bruce Czaja. Not that many people
outside the racing industry knew him. Yet, Czaja was the master of the street race.
When Miami real estate developer Ralph Sanchez went to turn his dream of
holding the Miami Grand Prix in the heart of the downtown section of South
Florida’s largest city into reality, he turned to Czaja for the hands on expertise to
make it happen. During the course of his career with Sanchez and his Miami
Motorsport operation Czaja would travel to many different cities, New Orleans and
San Antonio among them, either to talk to the locals about how to do a temporary
course event, or to actually make the event happen.

For that alone Czaja should be remembered. Yet, the real reason why I and his
other friends mourn him is for his honesty. Unlike today’s public relations driven
motorsports world, Czaja sugarcoated nothing. Nor, did he step away from an
argument, even with his boss, if he thought he was right. And, for the most part
Bruce Czaja was right. I, and many others learned from him lessons, which
remain with us to this day. Bruce had been sick with cancer for far too long, and
now his suffering is done. May he rest in peace. But, I, for one, wish he were still
here, still giving them hell. Thanks Bruce.

Even as I mourned him, I found his soul mate, an F-16 driver named Derrick
Rydholm, another no nonsense hot shit person. Rydholm and active Air Force
Colonel, is the commander of the 92nd Fighter Squadron in Homestead, Florida.
A former Navy F-14 pilot and Top Gun instructor, Rydholm found flying solo in the
F-16 more suited to his taste some years ago, and switched services. Since then,
his career has soared, so to speak, generally at Mach One and higher. Not too
long ago, Rydholm gave another friend of mine, racer and television broadcaster
Bill Adam a ride in the back seat of the squadron’s F-16 two seater, as part of a
story comparing vehicle dynamics between ground bound race cars, and the not
so tied to the earth F-16. Talking to Rydholm and Adam provokes discussions
dealing with such things as focus, concentration and anticipation of one’s next
course of action. In essence, while control a high speed motor vehicle and a high
performance jet have many things in common, where they differ is in the fact that
the former operates in an environment with two axis, while the latter’s universe
contains three. And, while both demand the most serious of approaches, driving
is an exercise in entertainment, while flying the F-16 is a matter of survival and the
Nation’s defense.

Still for Adam, the grin during his debriefing was ample evidence that on this day,
at least, his hour’s flight was a pure joy. Fun, or not, seeing how Rydholm goes
about his business, and how his men do the same, is enough to satisfy me that
should we need them in combat, what we’ve got in the 93rd Fighter Squadron is
the best protection that money can buy, and then some.

In fact, one could say that with Rydholm's little band of merry men, the other side
is hearing, what they call in pro football, “footsteps.” And, hearing footsteps is
something that is happening more and more in the motorsport community
whence Adam and myself come. In an interview the other day, Scott Atherton, the
boss of the Don Panoz owned American Le Mans Series, while never mentioning
the word, made it clear that he recognizes the progress made by the France
Family and its Grand American Road Racing Series.

Noting that he can’t comment with the Grand Am’s ability to draw driver resources
from NASCAR’s ranks, Atherton, nevertheless, was positive about the future of the
ALMS, saying that attendance has grown, and that the continued involvement of
major manufacturers such as General Motors with its Corvettes, Porsche and
Audi, as well as sponsors such as Michelin have created an attractive package
that fans are buying off on. “Fans,” says Atherton, “vote with their feet and their
money. Our attendance and our television ratings, as well as the consistent size
of our fields, I believe, are proof that we’re doing well and will continue to do so in
the future.”

Asked about the state of the current negotiations with the SPEED Channel over a
new contract to replace the one that ends this year, Atherton sounded positive
about the direction they’re taking, “We’ve been with SPEED since the beginning,
and I think we’ve been good for them, and they for us. I am hopeful that we will be
able to continue that relationship, but in any case, I can assure you we will
continue to have a good television package with a mix between the broadcast and
cable networks as we do now.”

Atherton did acknowledge that the relationship between the ALMS and the ACO is
“evolving,” in light of the ALMS’ request and the ACO’s agreement to allow the
American series to delay the enforcement of the 2004 ACO prototype regulations
for this season at least. “They’ve got new people, and we feel comfortable with
them, and I think they do with us as well. The joint decision about the rules, I think
shows that. We’ve gained a bit of freedom which is good. However, we are at the
beginning, and there are obviously other steps to take. I believe that if we had to
deal with the question of the BMW M3 V-8 ‘s eligibility, that the situation would be
different now than it was during the winter of 2001-2002 when the ACO effectively
barred it from their race, and thus from our series. Even so, at this point there is
no way we could do something as radical as creating our own prototype, or any
other class.”

“Footsteps.” Is the ACO, or the ALMS hearing them? My guess is in the affirmative.
At the same time, Atherton and his people appear totally confident that their
philosophical approach that emphasizes technology is the one that will bring
them the most success. Can the ALMS and the Grand Am both survive and
prosper? Well, despite the many nay sayers, and those who might wish it were
not so, the answer appears to be yes, the two reaching for different niches in the
market that don’t necessarily conflict. Whether or not that’s a correct assessment,
only time will tell. As Bruce Czaja would say: “Hell I can’t worry about tomorrow,
I’ve got to survive today first.” Not a bad piece of advice; not bad at all.

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