Ever Decreasing Circles
Is it only five years ago that we sportscar folk were sampling the delights of
racing at Super Speedways or Rovals, as they became known? Seems like
The ALMS visited these temples of NASCAR/CART (remember them?) Korporate
Racing some five times over the 1999-2001 seasons. This odd direction for a
pure road racing series was part pragmatism, part opportunism; pragmatic in that
some of the traditional arenas for endurance racing in North America (Road
America, Watkins Glen, Lime Rock and Mid Ohio) were signed up for the
successor to the defunct USRRC Championship, Grand-Am. Opportunism came
from two rich and powerful barons of motorsport, Don Panoz and Bruton Smith;
Don needed venues to give the ALMS credibility with the manufacturers that had
embraced his series, back in 99 they already comprised BMW, Chrysler, Porsche
with plans for others such as Audi, General Motors and Mercedes to tap into the
wallets of the North American sportscar fan base. The ovals with their vast
capacities and demographic friendly locations seemed to be a ready made
answer. For Smith it was a potential revenue goldmine getting into the wine and
cheese crowd at no risk (Don no doubt underwrote the affair).
Wheel of Fortune
This sequence of races kicked off with the final round of the 1999 ALMS season
when we headed for the Nevada desert and the city of fear and loathing, Las
Vegas. At the time some of us expressed the hope that when aliens finally land on
this planet that do not commence their exploration by starting at the
Strip……..others felt that the aliens were here already and that is how Vegas came
into being but I digress.
The race was won by the BMW of JJ Lehto and Steve Soper from their teammates
Bill Auberlen and Jo Winkelhock………..the main story was the Driver’s Title going
to the veteran Elliot Forbes-Robinson after favourites David Brabham and Eric
Bernard retired their Panoz late in the race with engine failure. The track was better
than anticipated but the tiny crowd lured from the flashing lights of the slots meant
that the event was on balance a failure.
The lack of interest shown by the punters in the ALMS was illustrated by the
finding of noted chassis plate fondler and author of Time And Two Seats, Janos
Wimpffen, who sitting with the few spectators that did show up to the facility on the
day discovered that most of them were patiently waiting for the sportscars to finish
so that they could enjoy a ride on the Richard Petty Experience……..they would
have done better with the Steve Soper Experience…………
Missing in Action
For the 2000 season three more visits to Oval Land were planned…….Charlotte
and Texas would join Vegas on the ALMS trail. Charlotte in the heartland of
NASCAR territory would be a tough event to sell to the Good ‘Ole Boys but the
circuit itself was pretty good, quick infield section with elevation changes, up to
Daytona standards other than the section taking the infield track back onto the
banking at turn one and a silly chicane on the back straight.
Charlotte marked the last appearance of the Audi R8R in the ALMS and this
handicap to Joest Racing opened up the real battle for the win to the Panoz and
BMW teams, once again Charly Lamm’s boys out fumbled the Panoz guys in the
pits and took top step on the podium. The crowd numbered in the thousands
rather than Nevada’s hundreds but in the confines of the huge auditorium
designed to take the huddled masses of NASCAR fans this looked pathetic, a
problem at all of the Ovals visited. Signs warning “NO THROWING, You will be
Removed” stencilled onto the wall were not necessary………apparently it is a
local sport to lob Kentucky Fried Debris and the like at passing cops,
photographers etc. during quiet periods on the track……..a sort of Agincourt
Experience with wings ‘n BBQ sauce rather than arrows……..
If Charlotte had been pleasant enough then the furnace conditions at Texas
Motor Speedway were not. Whoever signed up the circus to perform in this part of
the world at the beginning of September kept a low profile during the weekend, if
discovered he would have been lynched. Those of us compelled to work outside
in temperatures of 110C looked like extras from Lawrence of Arabia and as for the
poor sods driving front engined closed cockpit crucibles such as the Viper and
Corvette, words fail to describe the heroics required just to last the race. Armed
now with the R8 the Audi squad won at a canter with Panoz seeing off the BMWs
and Corvette triumphed over Viper for the first time in GTS.
In recognition of the insanity of trying to run in the noon sunshine the race was
timed to start at dusk…….about 2 degrees cooler………naturally not all Texans
are mad despite what you may read and they stayed away in droves…….the rest of
us were not so fortunate.
A return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway continued the lacklustre pattern of holding
ALMS events at this kind of venue………..as usual on track stuff OK but little or no
interest locally and few in the way of spectators to be seen. Actually some off track
action WAS exciting as nearby Nellis Air Force Base played host to all kinds of
foreign exotic warplanes and the pilots being gearheads generally would circle
low over the stadium on their final approach to the base, giving us something new
to argue about. Those who had been to Vegas before had scant enthusiasm for
the place, a little of that town goes a long way.
On the tarmac Audi continued the dominance that would become commonplace
in the following years, ORECA’s Vipers finished 1-2, oh, and a Porsche won in GT.
Plus ca change………but this race marked the end of the career of the BMW V12
LMR………two seasons, victory at Le Mans and six ALMS wins, including
Sebring……..Quality……….regrettably it also brought down the curtain on the
sonorous BMW V12 which aurally entertained those track-side since 1995.
None but the Brave
The last visit to the land of NoRight was for the first ALMS round of 2001. The
conditions during March in Texas were more Donington than Dallas, damp, cold
and grey. The series had lost the Vipers of ORECA; Schnitzer now had M3s to fight
with the Porsches in the GT class……….plus Champion had acquired an R8 to
give Joest a run for their money and most importantly there was a new Panoz.
Most cars start slowly and develop but the LMP07 went the other way………Texas
was the only time that it looked like a winner (only a late race stop for fuel denied
Brabs and Mags) thereafter it was a dog. As usual the crowds stayed away
missing another good battle and a tight finish. Plans to run again at Charlotte late
in 2001 were quietly dropped and that was the end of the Roval experiment.
And in the End……………..
What went wrong?
Simply that sportscar races held on these hybrid tracks were artificial, driven by
TV and marketing demographics, planned by those who had little feel for what they
were doing. We would all show up with the “Hey another day at the office attitude”
and none of the anticipation that the mention of Laguna, Monza or Mosport brings.
Sportscar fans are usually amongst the sharper knives in the block and even the
dumber ones could sense that this was ersatz racing, endurance lite and avoided
it like the plague. If the real fans did not care why should casual spectators spend
their time and money?
This failure and the failure of street events such as Miami and Washington (for
different reasons) pose a question. Is there a future for sportscars given the need
to increase attendances to get greater coverage, to get more sponsorship $$$, to
get greater coverage…….or should we just give up and admit that F1 and
NASCAR have sucked the life out of the sport below their Augean stables.
Perhaps the answer lies with a different question. Instead of chasing new markets
should we not just consolidate our existing strengths and concentrate on
improving the show……….sort of “Build it and they will come” philosophy?
Well the numbers that attend Le Mans and the other classics attest to the
popularity of the endurance form of racing……sometimes. There are many who
would no more stop breathing than fail to turn up at their favourite event be it La
Sarthe, Sebring, Spa or Nurburgring; these folks would no more go to a Grand Prix
or Daytona 500 than fly to the moon. Some of the more extreme cases plot their
trips throughout the year and there are many websites run by the fans for the fans.
Even the absence of a historical lineage is no obstacle to success as the instant
classic status of Petit Le Mans proves.
Maybe that is it, in this age of hundreds of cable channels, the internet and all day
drinking hours, for us to get off our backsides and go to a race meeting without the
incentive of making a buck, requires that the venue/event has a sense of occasion,
a promise of a place in history……….most of us Sartheophiles reference our
personal index of the years by the who-what-why of 24 hours between 4.00 pm on
two days in June. I suspect the same is true of the guys on Sebring’s Turn 10,
even for the most part, like the 60’s, if you can remember it you weren’t there.
Our fables are not of dragons and wizards but of Ickx in 1969 or 1975 or Andretti
in 1970 or of Pedro and Seppi just about all the time. In an age when almost
everything is pyrite to find the genuine article is exciting and precious, so seeing a
McNish, a Magnussen or a Kristensen on a charge in an R8 is the real deal but
only given the right setting.
It would seem that the best hope for the healthy future is to learn from the past,
successes as well as failures and go for fewer “classic” events at the remaining
few real tracks. Quality over quantity……..F1 and NASCAR are on the opposite
course, so that’s enough proof for me.
LMES…….this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.