The American Way
Sustainability. Over and over, that word cropped up in conversations with drivers, team owners, and series personnel at the Grand-Am races at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama. The word wasn't bandied around in a warm and fuzzy kind of way but as an antidote to the short-term thinking that has plagued top-line road-racing series in the United States over the past forty years.
Road racing nowadays is very much a minority sport compared with oval racing, like soccer is to football. Since its heyday in the late 1950s and the '60s, road racing has been undermined by bad management from the likes of IMSA, CART, and the SCCA, aided and abetted by automakers who have blitzed the opposition and then walked away. Just look at Can-Am in the 1960s and '70s, when McLaren and Porsche both frightened off the competition. Or IMSA GTP, where Nissan and Toyota threw huge money against a bunch of private teams: Nissan departed once its mission was accomplished, and Toyota effectively killed the series. In the interim, NASCAR grew from a Southern-based minority sport of its own to become the juggernaut that dominates the American motorsport landscape.
Funnily enough, the savior of big-time sports car racing on road courses in America could turn out to be those same good ol' boys. In 2000, NASCAR initiated the Grand-Am series, its vision of sustainable sports car racing, and it's still going strong. In many ways, Grand-Am's premier division, the Rolex Sports Car Series, and its secondary division, the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, fit the NASCAR mold perfectly: the cars are run to tightly controlled specifications, and the rules are closely policed to ensure parity among cars.
"We are a motorsports entertainment company," says Mark Raffauf, Grand-Am's managing director of competition. "We have no problem with manufacturers coming into the series, but they have to come in on our terms. Privateer teams have kept this series accessible even in tough economic times."
"As a driver, I like how competitive the series is," adds Sylvain Tremblay, owner of the SpeedSource team that won the Rolex GT title in 2010. "And as a team owner, I also dislike how competitive it is! There are more than a handful of cars that can win. In that respect, it's a bit like the NASCAR Sprint Cup in that the last ten laps, you never know what is going to happen."
To the uninitiated, the Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series seem to have a lot in common. Both field prototypes alongside cars that look like street machines -- BMW M3s, Porsche 911s, and Chevrolet Corvettes -- but they have very different philosophies. The ALMS wants to attract manufacturers who spend a ton of money on high-tech prototypes and GTs that feature advanced traction control systems and lots of aerodynamic downforce.
Grand-Am, by contrast, is basically a spec formula. The Daytona Prototype class cars bear some resemblance to an ALMS P1 car, but the DP has a tube-frame chassis with carbon-fiber bodywork and a modified production engine making about 500 hp, instead of a full carbon-fiber chassis and a bespoke racing engine. Five manufacturers produce chassis within rigid Grand-Am dimensional rules at a price of about $400,000 apiece. Traction control isn't allowed. These 195-mph cars are apparently a lot of fun to drive. Hurley Haywood, three-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, says, "They bring the driver back into the equation, as there aren't a lot of electronics to get in the way." "I like these cars a lot," adds Scott Pruett, who drives the Telmex-sponsored Riley-BMW for Chip Ganassi's team and who has raced 1000-hp GTP sports cars and CART single-seaters. "You have to maximize the car, and I find that more exciting and challenging than relying on technology."
The GT class in the Rolex series is very different from the equivalent in the ALMS because many of the cars don't use production body shells; instead, they're tube-frame chassis with carbon-fiber bodies that have to fit the templates of the cars they represent, whether that's a BMW M3, a Chevy Camaro, or a Mazda RX-8. The Porsche 911s and Corvettes are based on the street machines, however. To equalize the cars, which produce between 390 and 450 hp and can run up to 180 mph, Grand-Am uses tire size, fuel-tank capacity, engine-rev restrictions, weight, air restrictors, and ride height. "Balancing the different cars is where Grand-Am does a great job," Tremblay says. There's a little bit of trepidation that Grand-Am is proposing opening up the series to GT3 versions of the Ferrari 458 Italia, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, and the Audi R8, which could raise the cost of entry, but Grand-Am is determined to maintain a level playing field.
The Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge acts as a feeder series, much like Camping World Trucks and the Nationwide series do in NASCAR. The Grand Sport (GS) class caters to lightly modified V-8 sport coupes like the Camaro, the M3, and the Ford Mustang, while the Street Tuner (ST) class is for four- and six-cylinder-engined cars that run the gamut from BMW 3-Series to Mini Coopers, with Volkswagen GTIs, Honda Civic Sis, and even a factory Kia Forte Koup team in between. Each car has specific modifications that can be made. Both drivers and teams can move up the ladder into the Rolex series.
Turner Motorsport provides a perfect example of how this can operate. Will Turner's eponymous company sells (and makes) tuner parts for BMWs and started racing touring cars in the SCCA World Challenge in 1998. The team won the series in 2003 and 2004 and embarked on a move into Grand-Am's Koni Challenge, the precursor to the Continental Tire series, in 2004. In 2006, the team won both the GS and ST divisions and backed it up with another ST victory in 2007. Turner moved to the Rolex GT series in 2010 with a BMW M6, achieving moderate success. In 2011, however, the team's BMW M3 is a front-runner in GT, winning two of the first three races, including Barber.
According to Turner, the move was made to show the abilities of the team. "We have won championships with production-based cars -- and that reflects on my core business. But we decided to go the Rolex GT route to showcase the team, to show that we are right up there with the best. We're here because I knew I could afford to build a car that can win. I couldn't even look at the ALMS."
NASCAR's marketing clout gives Grand-Am a decided advantage over most road-racing series. Whereas the ALMS has gone to a weird TV deal -- live races on ESPN3.com and abbreviated race reviews usually the day after on ESPN2 or ABC -- Grand-Am has a full television contract with Speed for all twelve races in 2011. It does well, racking up ratings that are second on Speed behind the Camping World Truck Series and ahead of Formula 1. Good TV coverage makes the series appealing to sponsors, as does the sensible rules package that keeps costs down. No one will say for sure, but we've heard that a Grand-Am DP program costs between $1 and $2 million a year, or less than half an ALMS GT budget. A Rolex GT budget is about $1 million. That's a lot of money, but it's low for a series that attracts as many as 20,000 spectators at its headlining events and runs with premier series such as NASCAR's Nationwide Series and IndyCar.
So, that's the theory: What's the practice?
I've always enjoyed watching Grand-Am on TV, so I brought my thirteen-year-old son, Cameron, to Barber Motorsports Park with me. Cameron is a racing junkie who wakes me up in the middle of the night to watch F1 races, but he can't stand NASCAR. I figured that if he liked the racing here, it would be a good indicator of whether Grand-Am works.
His only complaint was about the looks of the front-running Daytona Prototypes. They've been called homely, but they simply aren't sexy in the way that a Peugeot 908 or an Audi R18 are. That should no longer be the case in 2012, because Grand-Am is changing the shape to make the cars look more like serious racers than something someone drew on the back of an envelope.
Otherwise, Cameron enjoyed the racing, particularly in the Continental GS series. Despite being a die-hard fan of F1, where the cars always look as if they're magnetically attracted to the ground, he likes watching cars sliding around -- and probably spends too much time sideways in his own go-kart for optimal results. In Grand-Am, all four classes slide. You can hear the drivers manipulating the cars though turns on the throttle rather than matting it like they do in F1, IndyCar, and even the American Le Mans Series.
The other appealing thing about Grand-Am is that actual racing happens, and no one seems too worried if bits of carbon fiber are occasionally shed or if sheetmetal gets bent out of shape. Bill Auberlen, who races for Turner Motorsport in the Continental Tire GS class and in Rolex GTs, but is also a contracted driver for the factory BMW team in the ALMS, is diplomatic about the differences between the two, but says: "Some of the best races I have ever had have been in the GS class. The racing is very close -- and that's fun. It's a dogfight." Memo Rojas, who shares the Ganassi DP with Pruett, comments: "Racing is passing cars. You need competition and low cost to sustain a series."
Grand-Am cars aren't the sexiest on the planet nor are they the fastest. But the racing is close and exciting and a lot of fun to watch, in the same way that NASCAR is. In the Continental GS race, for instance, Scott Maxwell in a Mustang Boss 302 passed Auberlen's BMW M3 for the lead with four laps to go, and Billy Johnson took third on the last lap. With the exception of the DP class, fans can relate to the cars. Ultimately, it's very satisfying to watch a race where the winner is decided by driving skill and a team's ability to make the right calls on pit road, rather than by a driver who's in a dominant car where the most vital factor is the size of the team's budget. Perhaps Grand-Am is on to something, after all. AM
The Rolls-Royce of Racing Circuits
Kevin Hindson, Grand-Am's vice president of marketing, sums up Barber Motorsports Park best: "It's like racing on a golf course here."
Set in 740 acres of rolling parkland near Birmingham, Alabama, the 2.4-mile road course was opened in 2003 and is as pretty as it gets. Barber is very spectator friendly, with large terraced grass viewing areas and shuttles that take you from one viewpoint to another. The track itself has lots of elevation changes, but it's not the easiest place for drivers to overtake.
As well as hosting races and track days, the park is home to the Porsche Sport Driving School and to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. Dairy and real-estate mogul George Barber raced Porsches in the 1960s but has since turned his focus to motorcycles. The museum houses more than 1200 road and race bikes from 1904 to the current era, as well as a fine collection of sports and race cars that include a number of historically significant Lotuses -- there are a four-wheel-drive Type 63 F1 car and a Type 64 Indy car on display, for instance -- and the Ferrari 158 F1 car that one of Barber's heroes, John Surtees, used to win the 1964 driver's title.
Two complaints from this otherwise happy camper: it's a long walk from the campsite to the paddock to take a shower; and the rules on riding bicycles in the paddock and on the grounds are confused and confusing. -- MG
The Pro's View
Scott Pruett has raced in every major American topline racing series, from NASCAR to IMSA GTP to CART. The three-time Grand-Am DP title winner has some trenchant views on the series.
What's the appeal of Grand-Am to you?
Because I've been around so long, I've seen what happens when automakers have spent a lot of money and wrecked series. If Audi or Peugeot pulled out of the Le Mans Series, it would crush it. Here, if a maker or a team pulls out, it's just a little bump in the road. Now that I'm coming to the end of my career, I think, "What do we need in order to have sustainability in road racing?" I want to see people like Memo [Rojas] have a career. And I think the France family [NASCAR's owners] have seen the need for sustainability in road racing by keeping a handle on the rules to keep costs down.
Do you see new fans coming in?
There's a core group of people who love road racing, but the sport has never moved beyond them. You've got to make the product simple to understand and entertaining. I've got friends who aren't rabid fans, but they come to the races and love the action.
What do you say to critics of Ganassi dominating the DP class last season?
Well, there's a specific way to race these cars, and you have to stick to it. Some big names like Childress and Penske have come in and struggled here. We're still using one car that we ran back in 2004, for instance. -- MG
The Amateur's View
Patrick Dempsey is co-owner of Dempsey Racing, which fields a pair of Mazda RX-8s in the Grand-Am Rolex GT series. The actor, best known for his starring role in TV's Grey's Anatomy, feels that Grand-Am is an ideal place for him and his team.
Do you consider yourself a pro or an amateur?
I count myself as a gentleman driver because of my professional commitments. I look forward to the time I can devote myself full-time to racing, but I guess I need a couple of hit movies to do that!
What's the appeal of Grand-Am to you as a driver and team owner?
I started out in the Koni [now Continental] Challenge, and it was a great way to develop as a driver. I think if you can be competitive here, you can be competitive anywhere. This series is much easier to finance than any other comparable road-racing series -- ALMS is just so much more expensive. We run on a really tight budget and put all the money back into the team, so we don't have a shiny new truck, that kind of thing.
Is this the savior of U.S. road racing?
I think there's much work needed in promoting the series, because people have to identify with the teams and drivers for it to develop. But we are starting to see people come back. I'd like to see us start getting some real personalities involved, perhaps by getting some Nationwide drivers racing when we have a doubleheader with the, as that builds excitement. And I think we also have to think in a green way, like the ALMS. -- MG
Spotters' Guide to Grand-Am Classes
Daytona Prototype (DP)
Chassis: Tube frame, carbon-fiber body panels
Engines: Production-based, up to 5.0-liter V-8, 500 hp
Transmissions: 5- or 6-speed sequential manual
Weight: 2275-2325 lb
Top speed: 195 mph
Grand Touring (GT)
Chassis: Tube frame or unitary, carbon-fiber body panels permitted
Engines: Production-based, defined by Grand-Am, 390-450 hp
Transmissions: 5- or 6-speed sequential manual
Weight: 2260-2860 lb
Top speed: 180 mph
Grand Sport (GS)
Chassis: Unitary, production body panels
Engines: Modified production, 350-405 hp
Transmissions: Production, manual
Weight: 2700-3300 lb
Top speed: 160 mph +
Street Tuner (ST)
Chassis: Unitary, production body panels
Engines: Modified production 4- and 6-cylinder, 250-300 hp
Transmissions: Production, manual
Weight: 2350-3100 lb
Top speed: 130 mph +