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What is the Right Stuff anyway ? Bill Oursler on the past season…

  Why do we as a civilization strive so hard to build things, only to destroy them and
then lay the blame on what we call “inevitability?” Most likely it has a great deal to
do with agendas and short sightedness, or at least that’s about the most
reasonable explanation I can find. Clearly there has to be some rational, no
matter how off the wall it might be for the often dumb decisions we make during
our lives, other than “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

  The trouble is that when I look back on the course of professional road racing in
North America during the latter part of the 20th century, rationality appears to be
priority number twelve on a list of ten. Moreover, that trend, as far as I can see,
continues to flourish to this day. And, that’s just fine with me. Well, perhaps not
fine, but at least I’ve come to accept it. What I can’t accept, however, is the notion
that those in charge are unable to so anything about their problems.

  To me far too often the motorsport community drills its head, neck and shoulders
into the sand so that it won’t have to review its history, much less try and learn
from it. In short, excuses many times take the place of action. “Just say no”
somehow overcomes, “just do it.” And, frankly that’s a tragedy. As a journalist I
cover both the American Le Mans Series and the Rolex Grand Am. I try, although
I’m accused of failing more times than I care to admit, to be balanced. However,
as a fan of sports car racing, I am biased.

Got any Beeman's ?
  In truth I prefer the ALMS template over that of the Grand Am. I grew up in a time
when people strove for excellence just because they felt it was the right thing to
do. Imagine if you will, someone telling Chuck Yeager it was “too costly” to attempt
to break the sound barrier, that it was far more important to reign in technology
and feed the world’s starving instead. A noble thought no doubt, but one that runs
counter to mankind’s thirst for knowledge.

  Throughout motorsport there has been a constant battle between the
rulesmakers and the community of designers and builders whose creations
were, and are forged by the parameters they set. What gives me unease with the
Grand Am, and why I prefer the ALMS’ philosophical sandbox is the fact that in the
past once those parameters were proscribed, it was up to the engineers to use
their imagination in how to deal with them. The Grand Am’s approach has been to
so tightly construct its regulations that little or no such imagination is needed.
And, while I am sure that many in the Grand Am will disagree, one only needs to
look at the cars racing in the Daytona prototype category to see the results on
enforced “similarity.”

Leads with a left, a right to the body…
  Yet, as been the case with NASCAR, one can’t deny that this restrictive
environment has produced exciting racing where “leaning” on one’s competition
is more the norm than the exception. If the Rolex Grand American folks can solve
their television problems and produce coverage of their events that will clearly
highlight the strengths of what they’re trying to sell, then the future of the sport may
well be found with them. For me, though, this “hot house” approach is not what I
grew up with, and therefore being older, and more set in my ways, I prefer the path
of innovation, the one that the ALMS has supported during its rather brief time on

  However, I wonder sometimes about my friends in the ALMS whom I perceive
occasionally as being a bit too passive in their business approach. When IMSA
founder John Bishop wanted to make changes, whether those were the creation
of the All American GT category, which resulted in an influx of American-bred
muscle sedans to fight the Porsches and BMWs that dominated his Camel GT
during the mid-1970’s, or the development of the GT Prototypes themselves a half
a decade further on, he took the active approach.

Bishop takes pawn…
  Bishop has a way of “encouraging” people to look at things differently. Indeed, in
the late 1960’s, he forced the Sports Car Club of America to go professional with
the United States Road Racing Championship, then created the original Can-Am,
and finally followed that with the Trans-Am, which burst upon the scene as a
haven for factory muscle car competition. One would have thought that this
success would have insured Bishop’s future at the SCCA, but, that proved not to
be the case, as political in-fighting forced him from his executive directors job at
the beginning of 1969, an onto the open market where, with the help of NASCAR’s
Bill France, Sr, he founded the International Motor Sports Association later that

  One can make an excellent argument that the decision by the SCCA, made
largely because of personal agendas and egos, is what eventually cost the club
its position as the leading road racing sanctioning body in North America.
Likewise the tailspin that IMSA found itself in under the controversial Andy Evans
25 years later can be attributed to many of those same flaws. Now people are
asking if road racing in America is strong enough to survive with a divided house;
a question that no one seemingly wants to answer.

  Ask the two sides involved the sport at the moment, and what you get is the
vague response that neither is commenting against the other. In essence, they
say, “We’re just doing our ‘own thing.’”  Of course they are. And, of course they
have every right to do that. Still, the fact is that the Grand Am and the ALMS are
playing to what is essentially the same audience, both in terms of their competitor
bases and those spectators and television viewers who watch them. So is that
base large enough? Only if the sport is willing to struggle on at its current
subsistence levels.

Time Fades Away
  Will that happen any time soon? Most likely not. I know many of the people who
run both organizations, and I can tell you that they are good at what they. In fact, a
number of the key players learned much of what they know from working with
Bishop himself. Yet each group is seemingly entrenched in their positions, much
the same way the Germans and the Allies were during World War One in the
fields of Flanders. Happily, the differences between Grand Am and the ALMS
won’t cost a generation of lives as did WWI. Still, like that costly war, no one is
ready to compromise, and compromise is what is going to be necessary if
professional road racing in America is to break out of its present small universe
and expand to a healthy and prosperous future.

  Clearly, both camps need to give up something in order to achieve that goal. Just
as clearly what we’ve been treated to are the reasons why that can’t happen.
Perhaps it is time for us to stop making excuses and start building. AS unlikely as
that might seem, it would make for one hell of a present to those of us who care.

      Bill Oursler
November, 2004

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