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David Soares on the Festivities of Speed: Grand Am at Laguna Seca

When the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series visited Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last year Editor Morse and I left with the impression that the series was Hell-bent on delivering “Club Racing Without the Crowds” to a public who couldn’t afford to waste a hundred dollar fill-up to spend a day at the races anyway.  Then the world changed over the past winter.  The nation exchanged an unpopular president for a rock-star law professor, Wall Street completed the draining of our savings and tapped directly into the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the decade’s top factory sportscar teams announced that they were striking their tents and decamping from the American Le Mans Series, and the denizens of Daytona Beach decided to officially take over promotion of their step-child Grand Am Series.  This May Morse delivered the only TDI to play at the Utah tabernacle, while I stayed close to home to see a significantly larger field take the green flag at the Verizon Festival of Speed presented by Speedcom at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

If Grand Am delivers a close-fought race in the oak forest and nobody’s there to hear it, is it a race?  Mid-May in Upper California has been a road racing fixture for me since the L&M Continental 5000 Championship of the early seventies.  The weather is nearly always perfect for professional racing, and people want to get outside and enjoy it.  However, if you’re going to draw against the naked joggers at the Bay-to-Breakers, the Marilyn impersonators at the Castroville Artichoke Festival, or the table candle display at the Santa Cruz River Arts Festival, you’re going to have to do a little drum-beating. Rumor in the Mazda Raceway press room had it that Grand Am’s new masters had pulled the West Coast PR budget, and a golden opportunity to recruit new blood into the fold may have slipped by.

It wasn’t the fault of the show.  Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney won the Rolex Series main race in classic fashion.  Fogarty’s pass of Grand Am’s Perfect Master, Scott Pruett, at the entry to Laguna’s storied Corkscrew, smack dab in front of hundreds of shade-seekers at the top of the hill, couldn’t have been staged any better if it was a Bernie Madoff annual statement.  The finish was under green and uncontrived because Mazda Raceway track management has finally obliged those of us who tired of drifting FIM sandtraps by adding a couple of critical paved runoffs and raising apex curbs sufficiently to limit safety car periods to a reasonable number.  Four safety cars in a 2 hour and 45 minute race keeps things interesting without dampening anyone’s advantage.  The surface stayed clean and the leaders could run up the hill three-abreast without skating into the Empty Quarter.  This in and of itself contributed to a tremendous improvement in the perceived quality of the race.

In talking with some of the combatants I have come to believe that the difference this season is down to series stewards who have gotten serious about balancing performance between the various chassis and power-train combinations rather than simply penalizing certain competitors’ success as seemed to be the case in the past.  Aside from questioning the way performance issues have been handled in the past, I have been involved in years of passionate debate with my fellow enthusiasts about the looks of the prototypes and the fact that ersatz GT’s are allowed to compete in the series.

Every racing formula these days is down to horses for courses, be it Indy or La Sarthe.  The DP was designed to survive a high-side on the tri-oval at Daytona and is built around a safety cell better suited to a NASCAR taxicab than the traditional profile of a sports prototype.  The cars will always be turtle-tops and there’s no two ways around it.  Be that as it may, last year’s updated package has added a little grace to the mutant ninjas and this time around they gave the impression of pukka race cars.  In addition, the entire field seems to be a little less Junkwaffel this year with teams like Penske Racing, Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates, and GAINSCO/Bob Stallings raising the bar for car preparation and team appearance to a level appropriate to a national-level series.  I saw the original Can-Am and I can assure you that the quality wasn’t Team McLaren or Captain Nice beyond about the third row.  The Daytona Prototype order at the end was Pontiac-Lexus-Ford and but for a stop-and-go a Porsche would have been right in there as well. This year’s Grand Am field looks and sounds fully professional, and while the lap times were GT1-level the cars were entertaining to watch.

The GT class likewise ended with a diverse Mazda-Pontiac-Porsche freight train that could have switched-up the order if things had gone a lap or two more.  Beautiful, close, entertaining racing.  Grand Am GT is a somewhat different animal from just about any other championship on the planet but this class also seems to be settling into something that works.  While one Porsche stalwart complained bitterly about the Mazda Rx-8 during J.J. O’Malley’s pre-race conference call, Farnbacher-Loles hot-shoe Leh Keen put a 997 on the front row and with partner Dirk Werner took a well-contested podium.  After the race GT winner Nick Ham of Speedsource Mazda reflected that in his view the GT cars performance is now very well balanced, the difference being that one car might be better-suited to one circuit than another, like the lighter RX-8 at Mazda Raceway (how about that?) or the stable high-horsepower Porsche at Daytona.

If Grand Am is so well-suited to post-Toxic Asset America, why does it still have such a second-fiddle chip on its shoulder?  I have no idea why the series settles for a crowd at Laguna less than half the size of the rival ALMS race in October.  With such a solid and diverse field the lack of promotion is inexcusable.  I can only hope that this is down to new management getting their feet wet in an unfamiliar market and that next year Grand Am’s west coast swing draws the crowds the competitors deserve.  Otherwise, we’ll still have to classify the series as “Club Racing Without the Crowds.”

                                                                      David Soares
                                                                        May 2009

sportscarpros Soares Says

David Soares