Bill Oursler on The Gathering Storm
Jim France is one smart guy. He and the rest of his family are, to also say
the least, control freaks. When Don Panoz first began in motorsport at the
latter end of the 1990s, it quickly became clear that the man whose company
had invented the anti-smoking patch was someone who was not amenable to
being controlled. Thus, when Panoz established the American Le Mans
Series, he was seen an unwanted interloper into the Frances’ world. And,
how does NASCAR’s ruling clan deal with interlopers? They move to contain
them, if not drive them out of their universe.
The result in this case was the birth of the Grand American Road Racing
Association and its Rolex Sports Car tour, a technically limited championship
aimed directly at the traditional band of gentlemen racers who have always
been the backbone of road racing in North America. What Jim France
understood was that Panoz, through his association with Le Mans, had
placed his bets on manufacturers rather than the millionaire “little guys.”
By leasing the his regulations from the ACO, Panoz was able to bring the
latest and most glamorous of the prototype set from Audi, BMW and Porsche
and the production based offerings of Corvette, Chrysler and Aston Martin to
his playground. It was a heady environment, but a massively expensive one
as well – too expensive for any privately funded team to keep up with the
hundreds of millions lavished by the car makers on their racing programs.
The downside of this was twofold. First, since none of the manufacturers
wanted to lose, they only took part in the playground’s activities when their
potential corporate opposition was off searching for other pursuits. Thus the
ALMS enjoyed the solo spectacles of BMW winning LMP1 in 1999, followed
by Audi doing the same for the next nine years. Only when Porsche entered
LMP2 and was able to beat the Audis at their own game for overall honors
with their RS Spyders was there any relief from this decade of boredom.
And, what happened then? The ACO, with the ALMS following its lead,
changed the rules to keep the second tier prototypes in their place - an effort
that was happily only partially successful. But, then the LMP2 Acuras arrived,
a good thing in the beginning as they took on both the Porsches and the
Audis, winning their fair share of the gold. The result was to be expected with
the ACO and the ALMS clamping down even more; the Penske run factory
Porsches exiting at the end of last year, while Acura moved to LMP1. Despite
the relapse of the fortunes of LMP2, Audi versus Acura would have been just
But, then came the “Big One,” the global economic meltdown of last fall: exit
Audi. Suddenly the ALMS was left with one manufacturer fielding just two
competitive cars in its headlining division, supported by a slightly more
exciting, but rather impotent group of LMP2 entrants not able to compete with
the better performing LMP1 Acuras. It was not the kind of situation favorable
for building fan interest. But, then, it wasn’t unexpected, or shouldn’t haven
been so. After all, GT1, the top production class had melted down to the point
where Corvette was competing against itself, something Corvette solved by
moving to the GT2 sandbox where the privateers were having their party,
running and banging into each other with their Ferraris and Porsches. In fact
there was so much frivolity that not only did Corvette bring its marbles, but so
too did BMW.
Predictably, GT2 became the focus of attention for the ALMS in 2009. The
thing was though, that while there was quality, there wasn’t quantity. In spite
of being the most numerous class, the entries for GT2 were sparse when
compared to the production car field found in the Grand Am. Indeed, the
overall car count for the ALMS, long a series problem, was pathetic averaging
around 20 entries, and sometimes less before the “strictly Porsche,”
American Challenge 911 GT3 competitors were added to the field, in May,
boosting grid sizes to 25 or so.
Amidst all of this, one might pause to inquire about the health of the Rolex
tour. It is a fair question, and one easily answered. Jim France and his Grand
Am offspring have survived rather well: not great mind you, but well
nevertheless. While the ALMS has struggled to build its grids to the mid 20’s,
the Rolex fields have been between the 30 and 35 mark. And why is that?
Again simply answered: most of the rich kid gene pool is firmly ensconced on
the France family farm, not at Don Panoz’ place.
Of course the ALMS folks have long maintained it is indeed quality and not
quantity that counts, something, which to their credit, has a ring of truth to it.
Despite its smallish fields, the ALMS has made a far greater impression on
the public than has its Rolex counterpart, this in spite of the closer, more
exciting racing, and even the often more recognizable names to be found in
the Grand Am tour. Right or wrong, in the face of the world’s shaky economy
the ALMS seems to be abandoning that core argument for 2010.
Reality being reality; the ALMS has announced it will change its rules
structure for next season. Now the two prototype classes will be merged into
a (except for Sebring and Petit Le Mans) single championship using the basic
2008 LMP1 and LMP2 regulations: a move long overdue according to many.
The kicker here, however, is that the prototype arena is going to expand to
include the ACO’s economy minded Prototype Challenge division, introduced
this year in its the European-based Le Mans Series. This category is built
around Courage chassis with long lasting 450 horsepower engines and other
lower tech components intended to reduce costs to an affordable level for the
So much for quality over quantity. Although some might say this is an
attempt at enticing some of the Daytona Prototype teams to abandon their
Rolex home, the more rational among us see the inclusion of the Prototype
Challenge category as a concession to the ACO, and nothing more. Whether
or not Jim France will see it that way is another thing entirely. Still, if the
downgraded sports racers doesn’t raise his ire, the plans announced for the
ALMS’ American Challenge class, most likely will.
Renamed the GT Challenge, the category, while continuing as a Porsche
preserve, will be enlarged to encompass all manner of 911 GT3 Cup cars, this
presumably numbering among them the ones competing in the GT division of
the Rolex title chase. And that, friends and neighbors is nothing less than
“poaching.” This “do unto others as they have done unto you” scenario may
bode well for the ALMS, but it most obviously won’t leave Jim France and the
Grand Am happy campers.
So far, the ALMS and the Grand Am have at least played well together in
public as good children should. Underneath, though, there have been cracks
in the façade. One compendious bone between them has to with scheduling,
ALMS partisans complaining in private that some of the present date conflicts
could be resolved if those involved wanted to; a cure the ALMS partisans
suggest that those in Daytona Beach don’t particularly want to embrace.
In truth, the real answer is, “who knows?” On the record, each side has
refrained from commenting on the other, saying only, “They do what they do,
and we do what we do.” Fine, but if you’re a controlling person, then the
invitation by the ALMS to virtually the entirety of the Porsche GT3 world may
be hard for Jim France to swallow.
Moreover, if he has digestion problems about potential Porsche poaching, he
may have even more in light of Atherton’s refusal to rule out expanding the re-
named GT Challenge to include other makes in 2011. So, what will Jim
France and the Grand Am do? Again, “you pays your money and takes your
Will there be war? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. One thing is for sure,
the ALMS option will give the Rolex Porsche folks some additional leverage
on a playing field that sometimes has appeared to be tilted towards its
opposition. Overall, don’t look for the armies of the Rolex and the ALMS to
fight each other openly. Rather, expect something more in the order of an
underground “cold war.” Still, a war is a war, the crucial question here is how
one of any stripe might affect the delicate industry that sportscar racing is in
Bill Oursler, August 2009