Ford. Chevrolet. Dodge. America's original "big three" automakers now all have cars competing in the LM GT2 category in the American Le Mans Series. But it's not the big brass in Detroit that's putting up the bucks for these American icons to go racing. Instead, its independent teams funding and developing the programs on their own.
"I frankly think it's sad," owner/driver David Robertson said. "I think if you're a manufacturer, you better be doing things that excite the hell out of 16-year-old boys. And they better have your poster on their wall if you want to be selling them a car when they're 40."
Robertson, who recently took delivery of a Doran-built Ford GT Mk. VII, is disappointed by the lack of manufacturer support for cars like his Ford GT, and others like the Dodge Viper Competition Coupe and the Riley Technologies-built Corvette C6. He thinks American manufacturers should market towards the younger generation, to build that long-term connection that grows through the ages.
"When I was a 16-year-old, I had the Ferrari poster on my wall," Robertson said. "I couldn't afford to buy one until I was 40, but I bought it. I think the American manufacturers are not exciting younger people. They know what I need to buy, but they don't know what my step kid wants to buy."
One manufacturer targeting the younger generation, Robertson says, is Mazda. B-K Motorsports campaigns a Mazda-powered LM P2 in the series and SpeedSource has established a successful program in the Grand-Am with its RX-8s. Mazda also plays a large role in the Star Mazda and Atlantics open-wheel series. They also target the young audience through the grassroots and drifting scenes.
"They need to be here, they need to be promoting it, they need to be exciting the hell out of young people," Robertson said. "There needs to more young people walking around in here and fewer gray-hairs. American manufacturers do not have the handle on that."
Robertson Racing is nonetheless independently campaigning a Ford GT for the full season. More Doran-built GT Mk. VIIs are expected to roll out over the course of the season. As many as five cars could be built, with the first three already accounted for.
"I love the heritage of that car," Robertson said of his Ford GT. "I was so happy when Ford brought it back and I wish somebody had got it into the series about three years ago when it new and still being built. But we're going to do it anyway."
A Ford Racing Technology spokesperson stated that it has provided "hard asset" support to Doran. Roush/Yates engines, which are Ford supported, are used in the Ford GT.
Joel Feinberg's Primetime Race Group debuted its Dodge Viper Competition Coupe last season at Detroit. The GT3 spec machine struggled to find speed in the remaining races of the season, but Feinberg is far from giving up hope with the power hungry, but overweight V10 beast.
Last year, Dodge Motorsports announced intentions to support the Viper program in helping homologize it for the GT2 category. Because of financial reasons, Dodge backed out of supporting the effort. This has effectively kept the car in the GT2S sub-category for 2008.
"Since the end of last season, we've gone forward with this program with or without Dodge," Feinberg said. "And here we are without Dodge and doing it."
Feinberg has since gone on his own, developing the car with his independent team and on his own dollar. It's been a colossal task for the privateer, especially given the stiff competition he's up against.
"It's like turning a tractor and making it into a race car," Feinberg said of converting a GT3-spec Viper into GT2. "Unfortunately with the way the ALMS [rules] are, you have to start with a street car. And if you look at the cars in the series, the Porsche and Ferraris are the front running cars because on the street, they're the better street cars. If you're not a top-notch street car, you're not going to be a top-notch racecar."
The team spent the off-season making developments to the car, including installing a sequential gearbox. They also worked on a new brakes package, as well as making further developments to the suspension. A second Viper has been built, originally intended for a customer. However, that client has since backed out.
"Nobody's going to come out here and try and engineer and build the car into a GT2 car without some direction," Feinberg said. "I've spent the last six months and a lot of money doing it on my own, engineering it ourselves, working with IMSA and the ALMS to figure out the car."
Off-season rumors suggested as many as five Vipers making the GT2 grid in 2008, but Feinberg's car is flying the flag by itself right now. The Viper's ALMS hopes could all lie on Feinberg and how successful his efforts will be this season.
"I also think that some of the World Challenge guys that have Vipers and Viper Racing League guys have been hesitant because of the lack of support from Dodge," Feinberg said. "Knowing the car, they probably are hesitant to put it into the GT2 field. I think a lot of teams are sitting and waiting to see what we do before they make the judgment call to go or not. I think you might see a couple more, but probably not because of Dodge's lack of support."
A Dodge Motorsports spokesperson said that that while they support independent Viper teams in World Challenge, they don't provide any "formal corporate support" in the ALMS. However, they do offer services such as software support on an individual basis.
Feinberg said he's committed to the Viper program for two years, and will then look at then taking his team into the prototype ranks, part of his long-term commitment to the series.
"We're behind the eight ball," Feinberg said of the Viper program. "We're the underdogs, but I rather be the underdog than just go out and say 'Oh I bought a Ferrari and I'm here to race and lets go to the front.' I rather start at the back and work my way up."
Lou Gigliotti faces a similar situation over in his camp. The longtime SCCA World Challenge and Trans-Am owner/driver has moved his team, LG Motorsports, to the series for 2008. Like Robertson and Feinberg, Gigliotti receives no factory support from GM for his Corvette C6.
"We're disappointed because [GT2] looks to be the battleground," Gigliotti said. "What are we going to do? We can't twist their arm. Even some minor support would be great but they have to make that decision. It's up to them."
Gigliotti has linked up with longtime constructor Riley Technologies, which built the car and is providing technical support. Bill and Bob Riley are on-site at Sebring this weekend, largely supporting the effort for the first two races. Riley, which is a major constructor in Grand-Am, also fields a Daytona Prototype team. They are one of GM's key partners in the Rolex Sports Car Series, running with Pontiac branded engines.
"We're fortunate because we got Riley," Gigliotti said. "If a factory wanted to develop a car, they'd get it from a guy like Riley. That's why we chose Riley because it would give us a head start."
But Gigliotti's privateer team still faces the challenge of competing against well-funded and long-established GT2 efforts.
"It's unfortunate because the Ferrari and Porsches are complete factory efforts, just happened to be entered by private teams," Gigliotti said. "There is a difference when you have a factory effort where you have budgets where you can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on testing and new parts come quickly."
Steve Wesoloski, GM road racing group manager said the main stumbling block to supporting Gigliotti's efforts is funding.
"I can't get extra budget, so I would have to take away from something we're doing here," he said. "Whether its parts or technical resources, it costs money inside of GM. I just don't have the money to do that."
Wesoloski did say that GM provided minor support to Riley in getting the car homologated. This included documents such as drawings, dimensions and production data. Wesoloski said GM is committed to GT1 for the next two seasons.
"Not to take away from GT2, we look at GT1 as being able to develop future technology," Wesoloski said. "GT2, we look at more as a validation of what's on the street now. We wanted to continue developing the future. The carbon fiber, the exotic materials, the bigger engines, more horsepower.
"They're actually running less horsepower than what you can run on the street. Why detune a production engine to go racing? From our standpoint, that's not a learning exercise. For the amount we had available to invest, we wanted to be able to work on future technology. Whether that goes into the next Corvette or something else GM builds, we're developing technology on this side."
American Le Mans Series President and CEO Scott Atherton welcomes all three teams with their independent efforts. He said the series strives on a mix of privateers and factory-supported teams, especially in the diverse GT2 category.
"When we announced these three efforts coming into the series, I actually took it as a very positive thing," Atherton said. "We have ironically been accused of being all about manufacturers, all the time lately. It's Acura, it's Porsche, it's Audi. We were accused of leaving behind the private independent effort competing in the series. Here you got three fantastic new programs coming all at the same time that fit exactly that profile."
Racing Chevrolets since 1998, Gigliotti has enjoyed success with the American brand in both Trans-Am and World Challenge. But in 1996, he claimed championship in World Challenge in T1, driving a Ford Mustang.
"That was the only year we did have some minor factory support," Gigliotti recalled. "The Ford rep came to us and gave us a bunch of Mustangs for free. I was like a kid in a candy store. We won the championship with them. That was really good."
Since then though, Gigliotti has been making his own wave as an independent. The three-time World Challenge champion collected 22 victories since his debut in 1991. He hopes GM someday will support his ALMS effort, but in the meantime he'll keep moving forward.
"You'd think you'd earn it. You'd think there be some kind of reward," Gigliotti said. "We're not going to roll up the cords and go home if we don't get any help. This is America. I'm all for people being responsible for their own destiny.
"I posted somewhere and said, 'good things don't come easy and this is going to be good.'"