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David Soares on Tales of the Rum Runners

The Grand American Rolex Series came to play in my local sandbox at Laguna Seca once again last month and Editor Morse and I joined in for all- American racing, barbeque, and Pabst Blue-Ribbon beer.  Oil prices are currently on a rocket ride and the greenback is in freefall but Grand Am showed up with an enormous forty-one car field featuring some of the biggest names in road racing pedaling all those Daytona Prototypes and GT’s.

Grand Am was originally slated to share the weekend race card with ChampCar, but not long after the Sportscar Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula finalized their season schedule open-wheelers had joined the sub-prime lending industry on the pennies-on-the-dollar bankruptcy sale block.  I thought to myself, who cares?  With a field this deep the racing is as close as it gets and virtually anyone can win, seemingly the polar opposite of post-Bear Stearns America.  Many of the entrants were able to field more than one car and one of the newest GT teams was rumored to have invested a cool two million this season before even turning a wheel.  I’d like to think that American enthusiasm for road racing has made it immune from the ups and downs of our supercharged global economy, but as I wandered the track, paddock, and pits I came to a very different conclusion. In fact, Grand Am is every bit as all-American as a Collateral Debt Obligation – and may in fact be one.

The Grand American Rolex series is flush with cars and talent.  The field is made up of people who have raced competitively at Indianapolis, in Formula One, and at Le Mans like David Donohue, Jimmy Vasser, Christiano da Matta, Marc Goosens, Eric Van de Poele, Scott Pruett, Kelly Collins, and Ricardo Zonta; hotshots like Alex Gurney, Dirk Werner, Pierre Kaffer, Robin Liddell, and Ryan Dalziel.  Real professionals who I admire.  Owner-drivers who have time and again put their money where their mouths are like Jim Matthews and Tracy Krohn.  Solid team owners like Chip Ganassi, Alex Job, and Wayne Taylor.  Factories like Lexus, Pontiac, and Mazda.  Truly impressive, but what does it all mean if a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there to hear it... ?

After Saturday’s action-packed two-hour and forty-five minute Grand Am Rolex Series Rum Bum 250 I headed for my usual perch at the post-podium press conference.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it.  It seems that based on the sparse number of requests for media passes, Laguna Seca’s press officer had decided to move the P.C. from the usual large classroom to a more intimate setting, hoping that the dearth of coverage wouldn’t be quite so apparent to the participants.  When I poked my head into the small office on the ground floor of the media center where the six overall winners stared down ten empty folding chairs, their looks of frustration were palpable as they were queried by the Series’ PR person while their own handlers stood along the back wall. Morse’s take was that of indifference and he went looking for Cara de Vlaming.

These guys had all driven a terrific, strategic, close-fought race.  Ryan Dalziel and Henri Zogaib had given their SAMAX Riley’s BMW powerplant its first victory of the season, by a margain of 1.054 seconds.  Runner-up Jim Matthews is one of the most stalwart privateers in sportscar racing and his long-time co-driver Marc Goosens has been fast and consistent in major races for many years.  Today he traded paint in the Corkscrew and defended his position better than Bryan Herta had years ago against “The Pass” from Alex Zanardi.  Scott Pruett remains a class-act along with Memo Rojas and the Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates organization on the third step of the podium.  But nobody seems to have showed.  I was too embarrassed for those six people, who I greatly respect, to take one of the empty chairs and go one-on-six about Pirellis and restarts.

If the racing media are staying home, where do all these cars and transporters and pit set-ups and paid hot-shoes come from?  I’ve known the answer for a couple of years but like anyone with a 401k or a pension plan in play, I just appreciated that there was a goose laying golden eggs.  Back then I was having a friendly silly-season sit-down with the principal of a professional outfit who was about to field a two-car Daytona Prototype effort. I knew this person to be a “regular guy” in the racing world who had to hustle to pay his bills.  When he described his big plans for the coming season I had to ask him: how on earth was he going to raise the money?  He didn’t have any sponsorships or drivers lined up but the cars were being built.

The answer was simplicity itself.  SunTrust Bank was putting up 100% financing for the whole operation, two brand new DP chassis, a brace of engines, the spares, and incidentals.  The whole shebang.  Then it was a simple matter of signing up a couple of millionaire gentleman drivers to pay the rent, preferably with captive sponsorships, and a couple of shoes to put the cars in contention.  Easy monthly payments.  No money down.

Now I’m not saying that based on that team’s experience the whole series is mortgaged.  I also know individuals who put up their own earnest money, put together sponsorship deals based on a proven track record, have pay-as-you- go motors, and don’t rent out their seats.  But what I am saying is that I have a sneaking suspicion that Bear Stearns wasn’t the only financial outfit fat with foreign investment and retirement savings looking to rent money to the leisure class.  When I learned about the series participants’ access to easy credit my reaction was not, “I’m shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on in here!”  No, it was a high-five that my acquaintance had access to financing for his racing team on such favorable terms.

The Grand Am provides a lot of great people work.  It’s a shame, really.  The series is still deep with driving and organizational talent, but the DP’s are still ugly and the GT’s are beginning to lack legitimacy (even a casual fan knows that a Pontiac G5 is neither rear-wheel drive nor a V-8).  The close balancing of performance that gives half the field a legitimate shot at a podium finish makes passing under green almost impossible and creates a demolition derby on restarts as drivers take their only shot at a legitimate on-track pass. This safety car induced door-banging is why Grand Am is the series with the most complaints about dirt on the racing surface at Laguna.  By the late laps the Corkscrew wound up looking like a stadium supercross and all the sand on the track decided the GT finishing order.

It’s a not such a shame that Grand Am seems to be turning into the world’s most expensive club racing series.  Look at all the good years of Trans Am. But it’s not quite that simple.  People in this business have egos.  They hate to spend their money (and risk their necks) and only read captive P.R. about it.   I have my doubts whether Grand Am will come back to Laguna.  By the Monday after the race the lead story on the series’ official website was a screed by Bill Lester about how “small” and “dirty” Laguna is.  I believe that the series needs a West Coast swing if it’s going to claim legitimacy as a national series and the stunning lack of media attention has got to hurt. They still have Infineon/Sears Point with the IRL and I’m sure that a few of the scribblers in attendance will stick around after Danica’s qualifying session to watch the turtle-tops.  Infineon doesn’t have the FIM-mandated safety features that Laguna has but then again, Infineon doesn’t have much in the way of safety features at all.  Other racing series like ALMS, Speed World Challenge, or Michelin Porsche Cup don’t seem to have the same issues about spilling the kitty litter at Laguna.

                                                                    David Soares
                                                                      June 2008

sportscarpros Soares Says

David Soares