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Postcards from the edge



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 fine.

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 privateers.

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 chances.”

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 North America.

Bill Oursler, August 2009

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