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.