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Timex or Rolex: A Question of Quality, Confirmation of Quantity?

Ever see those bumper stickers on trucks asking the question: “How am I
doing?” After the Rolex-backed 24-Hour this year, one suspects that the
management of the Grand American Road Racing Association is, indeed,
reviewing where it stands. Hype aside, the reality of the Grand Am was on
public display, and one got the feeling that perhaps the Rolex 24, while highly
entertaining, had a few rough edges that needed smoothing out.

Over the past few months as the ranks of the Daytona Prototype set have grown,
so too has the presence of the Grand Am. With more than twenty of these coupe
sports racers already built, and a good portion taking the green flag other the
2004 Grand Am season opener, there were a number of points for series guru
and Godfather, Jim France to be proud about. However, almost equally clearly
was a certain lack of professionalism, as wheels fell off, electrical systems
waffled in the rain, radiators overheated, and other maladies, such as
suspension problems, all found their way into the race mix.

Chutes (Snakes) and Ladders
One suspects, in fact, that the “traditionalists,” who seem to think that yours truly is
in “the pocket” of the Grand Am folks, are laughing and, in their knowledgeable
way, dismissing the Grand Am as a”bunch" of amateurs, whose level of
competence is only slightly above that of the average SCCAer. Perhaps they are
correct; then again, maybe not.

The fact is that many of the Grand Am’s entrants, prototype and production are,
indeed, moving up from the grassroots or lower ranks of the sport, a fact made
quite clear at Daytona. Yet, shouldn’t they be given time to adapt and mature? After
all, the Grand Am makes no pretense about being a substitute for the higher
reaches, big bucks segment of the sport. What the Grand Am wanted was to
enlarge its competitor base, and to provide close, equalized competition, much
(and, I know you’re shocked) in the manner of NASCAR.

Formula France
And, before we look down our noses at the France family’s empire, consider this:
NASCAR is ranked third in professional sports in North America; not as part of the
racing community, but one its own, with no jell from the other venues found within
the industry. To be that big, not just with the “bubbas” of the South, but throughout
all of the United States, someone as to be doing something right.

If the France family has found the “right” formula, why not try and apply it to road
racing, which, quite frankly owns a little over seven per cent of the North American
motorsport market at this point.

Having said that, it is obvious that despite its growing importance, and excellent
business plan, the Grand Am has some ways to go, if it is to become a
sustainable public attraction. True, and one can’t ever forget this, this year’s
Daytona 24 Hours was good value for the eyeball, some of that coming from the
fact that competitors were forced to deal with flooding rains that causes
numerous yellows and one nearly three-hour red flag. However, it was not elegant
Rather, it was like the National Football League’s Super Bowl which followed it; a
junkyard dog sort of thing that turned out to be memorable.

The Singer, not the Song
There is hope for the Grand Am, and we all should give it time to mature, because
if we are ever to break the “boom or bust cyclical nature of racing, the stability of
the Grand Am and its focus on where it wants to go, could be the way out. I haven’t
changed my mind: the Daytona Prototypes aren’t my personal cup of tea. I come
from the old era where performance and speed were king and technology
abounded. Frankly, the cars of the ALMS appeal to me. But realism must intrude
occasionally, and the realism is that if the Rolex 24 proved anything, it is that the
Grand Am is sticking to a predetermined timetable, and making it work for itself.

My hope, and that, I believe of many others, is that the Grand Am will blend its
ideas with those that prevail elsewhere within the sports car community to
establish a criteria that will appeal to both the old and new fans of the sport. Let’s
face it, the “golden era” of prototype racing as we knew it in the past during the
1960’s and ‘70’s, isn’t coming back. The times when Formula One drivers took
rides outside their discipline are gone.

The Frances were able to bring in some of their better known NASCAR stars to
beef up the Rolex 24, and the hope is they can continue to do it in the future. But,
other than Formula One, and possibly a few of the Indy Car set, only Formula One
drivers have recognition outside of motorsport. As I said perhaps a blending of
ideas and resources is in order. Think about it, there have been worse ideas.

Bill Oursler
February 2004

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