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Postcards from the edge



Bill Oursler looks at Too Much Of Nothing

If my grandmother was still alive she’d be shocked. Born in the late 19th century, she lived to see man walk on the moon. Progress? Of course, and stunningly so. Yet, the computers used in those moon flights don’t come close to matching the capabilities of today’s average laptop. In truth, mankind’s inventiveness has brought the technological level of society to unheard of heights. The Saturday futuristic television cartoon series, “The Jetsons” isn’t futuristic any more. In fact it’s passé. So advanced have we’ve become that a discussion of the ethics of life and death is not a moral exercise, but rather a necessary exploration of the practical.

 By now, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with a website dedicated to the world of sportscar racing. The answer is “plenty.” Indeed, the issue of how much progress is too much, has been critical not just to the sportscar scene, but all of motorsport. To use thoroughly corporate language, it all has to do with the “cost-benefit-ratio.” In short, can we afford to pay for progress we’re enjoying?

His boy, Elroy !

The ALMS’ Scott Atherton thinks so; or does he? An advocate of using motorsport as a Petri dish for the technology the automotive industry will need to survive and prosper in the future, he now seems to have hedged his bets. While still maintaining that the ALMS ought to be a “green” oriented automotive laboratory, Atherton recently announced two new more practical, and dare we say it, less expensive categories for his ALMS’ roster in 2010.

And why? Well because the ALMS needs to survive. And while the exotic, far out prototypes do bring a certain credibility to the Don Panoz’ championship, that alone isn’t enough for its long term survival. To insure prosperity one has to have cars, and cars are the one the thing the ALMS has traditionally lacked. Indeed, at Mosport, the most recent ALMS event there were just 19 of them, and that isn’t the only time in 2009 when the ALMS grid has sunk to that number.

The Cookie Monster buys a race series….. C is for Customer

All this puts the discussion back to the issue of costs. As recently as the Group C era one could purchase a Porsche 956 or 962 and race against the factory on equal terms with a relatively small crew. Now fast forward to 2006 when the Porsche RS Spyder first appeared for what was billed as a “customer” program, but what turned out to be a Penske factory supported effort complete with onsite factory engineers and barrels full of assorted factory parts.

The only so-called “Porsche customer” was Rob Dyson, and even though he had full factory support, he still couldn’t beat the Penske operation. If Dyson had paid the entire bill, and there is a great deal of evidence that he didn’t, the budget would have been completely out of sight. How completely? Who really knows, but some measure can be found in the suggestions that the annual budget for any current factory prototype program can be measured in the hundreds of millions Euros, and even more in dollars..

Those are large enough figures to scare away even the wealthiest of the
gentleman driver set. Yet, without spending at those levels one can’t compete
much less win against the manufacturer teams. So what’s an individual to do?
The answer is “stay away,” or go run in the Grand Am, whose Rolex series is by
definition, “manufacturer free.”

The problem here is that while the gentleman sportsman can win in the Grand Am on occasion, few, if any, care about the outcome. The reason for this is simple: the lack of performance and sophistication that is the hallmark of the series. In short, while the ALMS has almost priced itself almost out of business, the Grand Am’s lid on costs has made it irrelevant to road racing’s current fan base. If the situation is obvious, the solution, or solutions are far less so. Yet, there may be an answer; one rooted in a more than 40 year old past.

I don’t want to spoil your party…

What if the present day descendents of the big block, Detroit push rod V-8s that were the heart of the original Can-Am in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, came back to race against the high tech powerplants around which Le Mans has built its current rules? These engines, which can be found in large numbers in off shore racing, pump out mountains of torque and horsepower that fit perfectly the needs of those looking for success on the tight, bump tracks of North America that host the majority of races in both the Rolex and ALMS tours.

Moreover, while they may not be chic, and while they certainly are not cheap, they are reliable, and carry price tags that can be afforded by all. And, with the lightweight materials used in their construction, they won’t unduly unbalance the current crop of prototype chassis. If you think I’m suggesting at least a partial revival of the old Can-Am, you’re right, and I make no apologies for it.

Today’s racing is too full of regulation, and too involved in sending messages. As Chris Economaki, the dean of American Motorsport journalism once said, “Racing is all about speed.” We seem to have forgotten that in our quest to be up-to-date and politically correct. The automotive industry in the United States has done well marketing “retro” cars like the Mustang, Camaro and Challenger, why shouldn’t racing look at going “retro” as well?

Somebody get me a cheeseburger….

What could be better than have the outcome determined by the fastest guy getting to the checkered flag first, and doing so without being hampered by a set of rules so complicated that one needs a lawyer in the pits to interpret them. Be complex if you want: be in the advance guard of motorsport, but for heaven’s sake lets go back to the days when the privateers had a way of beating the manufacturers, and doing so without the kind of artificial restrictions that make success meaningless.

                                                                   Bill Oursler
                                                               September 2009

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