Tuesday
Jan292013

The Way Things Were.

View Gallery Daytona Beach. For those of us who live, eat, and breathe sports car racing (or for those who just follow it on a casual basis), 2013 is the last year of The Way Things Were. Over the past 14 years, the split between the Grand Am Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series has forced divisions between teams, manufacturers, sponsors, circuits, media, and fans. Every one of those variables means millions of dollars.

This went on much the same way that the Indy Racing League and Champ Car steadfastly remained in their own walled gardens, until. Until it was too late. Until nobody else cared anymore. Until the rest of the racing world – and even the IRL’s media darling, Danica Patrick – had moved on.

So, while the two sets of racing series spent years with each pretending the other didn’t exist, NASCAR kept cashing all the checks. More than five years later, the unified IndyCar series is still struggling to rebuild.

The split in sports car racing has followed a similar trajectory – a cold war of sanctioning bodies, each hoping the other would eventually either run out of money, or just give up. Last year, the two sides reached a détente of sorts: NASCAR (which owns Grand Am) agreed to buy out the American Le Mans Series and pretty much everything that came with it. The rest of the deal will some day be history – except that history is being written on tarmac right now.

Last weekend was the final running of the 24 Hours of Daytona under the Grand Am Rolex banner, as 2014 will see the first full season of the two series running as a combined unit, so it was a great time to sneak a peek at what might be around the corner for fans of sports car racing in North America.

If the facilities are any indication, some good things could be on the horizon. The War of Upgrades between ISC (which owns nearly half of NASCAR’s circuits) and SMI (which owns most of the other half) has yielded more than just additional grandstands. The infield “FanZone,” with a “FanDeck” elevated above the garages for fans to get a better view, is brilliant. Is it gimmicky? Maybe yes, maybe no – but who cares, it’s a terrific layout. Daytona’s proximity to Orlando may have a little to do with the feel of how the speedway has evolved over the last few decades – the infield, garage area, and FanZone all have a bit of a Disney entertainment feel in the air.

What does this mean for the fans? It’s clean. It’s nicely designed and easy to get around. And, in a radical departure from most sports car venues, has the air of being shiny and new. Been to an ALMS race in the last few years? Then you can name a few tracks in need of some fan-friendly rehab.

The beginnings of the unification of the two series are already underway. We saw the ALMS hauler in the infield, and all manner of personnel who had traveled from Braselton to survey the action and get a feel from the ground level. Expect to see the same presence from Grand Am higher-ups at Sebring in March, and throughout the season.

OK, but what about the racing? That’s where we get to the devil-in-the-details of it. It’s still Grand Am for now, which means those ugly DP cars, a class of GT cars that can’t yet touch ALMS’ finest (although the Audi team served notice with its R8 GT teams that they’re for real), and a new GX class doesn’t yet thrill but shows some promise.

The dreaded “Balance of Performance” already means that in DP, Fords and Chevys are given or giving up a couple hundred RPM, while the Chip Ganassi BMWs run away with the win. When the ALMS P2 class joins the DPs next year, expect “#BoP” to be one of the most commonly used hash tags as drivers tweet their frustrations. Come to think of it, expect that for GT drivers as well.

That’s it for now – I’ll see you at Sebring.

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