Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Sports Car Survival There was a time when it was standard procedure to leave the track for dinner during endurance races, even for journalists. These days, the intensity of major endurance races calls for an ...
Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Sports Car Survival
There was a time when it was standard procedure to leave the track for dinner during endurance races, even for journalists. These days, the intensity of major endurance races calls for an equally intense viewing by writers. Besides, how else to keep the TV commentators honest?
The intensity appears to have gone up a notch or two this year after successive years of improvement. And now that I'm out of the first paragraph, it's OK to mention the economy without sounding depressed. Especially since it does not appear to have hampered the starting fields at Sebring and Le Mans. If the foreshadowing at the Daytona 24-hour is any kind of evidence, Florida's 12-hour and France's 24-hour should measure up to their very stout entries.
One might suggest that since the new Acura LMP1 entries will be at Sebring, where the new Audi R15 TDI will also make its race debut, the Florida enduro could trump this year's Le Mans race for interest, if not excitement. Yet, there will be no less than four Peugeot 908s at Le Mans, including the surprise entry by privateer Henri Pescarolo, and there's a new Aston-Martin prototype, or Lola if you prefer the chassis manufacturer's version of that story.
In a severely depressed economy, it seems strange to be commenting on which of endurance racing's original three major events might turn out to be among the best of all time. Usually, these events might be considered a defensive play. As long as the major enduros are healthy, goes this line, then sports car racing will survive. But instead of marking time until the economy looks up, there are some racing bonanzas on our hands.
The entry for the latter-day fourth major enduro at the Petit Le Mans this fall has yet to be determined. Perhaps that will tell a different story, maybe one more consistent with the budget cycle. On the other hand, we could see a repeat of Sebring.
Interestingly, this is also the year the Asian Le Mans Series is scheduled to make its return, after getting highjacked by the Australian authorities. They backed out of a deal to continue racing in the streets of Adelaide after the "Race of Two Thousand Years," and a move of the event to Sepang was later scuttled by Sept. 11, 2001.
It appears endurance racing has gone up a notch in the eyes of the corporate automotive world. The key idea seems to be not just having a racing niche if you have a performance car, but also to dominate it. So Audi forgoes Formula One while focusing on Le Mans. Ditto Peugeot. Next in line, or at least watching with great interest, are Acura and Porsche.
But hasn't this always been the case? Hence the treatment of sports car racing as if it's a some sort of jezebel which is always available without any need for longterm commitment from the factories? Don't the manufacturers always arrive and depart like sailors on shore leave? Is that why Prodrive is jumping in with such a small budget that it can't afford the homologation necessary to call its Lola an Aston Martin? To pick up the marbles when the lads with the big corporate budgets skip town?
I would suggest a couple of things have changed compared to economic downturns of the past. First, there's stability at all the major events. And management is stable at all the major series surrounding them. You have only to go back a few years to find the erratic, megalomaniacal Andy Evans in charge in the U.S. with the SCCA trying to get its foot into the door. In Europe at that time, a garage owner was organizing events for prototypes and the FIA was busy setting itself up for a lawsuit while meddling in GT racing. Le Mans, meanwhile, stood in its usual and historical splendid isolation in the French countryside.
The rules may vary and there have been some surprises, but generally the FIA, the Le Mans organizers, the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am have held to a consistent rules philosophy for the past decade in addition to being relatively stable. They all now have better technical tools for equating different types of cars or engines, too.
Sure, there are those who could argue they've been had by the rulebook one way or another, especially in the Grand-Am. But the Grand-Am philosophy has been kick the winners in the teeth from the beginning and it now seems suitable that the Rolex Series is owned by NASCAR. (It is, of course, the leverage of NASCAR that sustains participation by Ford, GM and Toyota in the Grand-Am.)
Above all, there's competition between organizers, so they have to pay attention to not only participants but fans as well.
It sounds counter-intuitive to say the type of sports car racing that is based on endurance events is succeeding because there are more races -- in North America as well as in Europe, soon in Japan and China. But sports car racing is not alone in this respect. Entry level, intermediate and top drawer single seater series have suddenly appeared like so many mushrooms all over the globe in the last decade. Because of the European Union, the law is now on the side of organizers when it comes to the disruptive, monopolistic practices of the past in Europe. That likely has been a cautionary tale in the U.S., too.
If the France family, for example, had thrown out Evans in 1998 from the Daytona 24-hour and gone straight to its own series instead of giving the sanction to the SCCA, the legal problems might have been very serious. In the meantime, that left the door open for the creation by Don Panoz of the American Le Mans Series, which has had the biggest stabilizing effect on sports car racing in the last decade because of its connection to both North America and Europe and its success.
But can sports car racing, which has always depended on wealthy individuals to gather full fields, weather the current economic storm? Will full-blown professional teams be able to sustain themselves with sponsors and manufacturers in the next leaner, meaner budget cycle? Will sports car racing, like Formula One, have to turn to the Middle East for a life-saving injection of cash?
Obviously, this is not a suggestion about choosing sides, whether its single seaters versus sports cars, or one brand of endurance racing versus another, or even prototypes versus GT's. Nor would I encourage people to party like it's Nero's birthday at this year's big endurance events, on the premise that we may never see anything like this in the near future.
Still, the thought of an inevitable retrenchment tends to linger, if only because this economic downturn is like none other.
Unlike NASCAR, there are not a lot of name drivers on the sidelines in sports cars capable of bringing in sponsorship and new team owners, nor are there decent, fast, bespoke cars to be had for a reasonable price scattered in garages within a day's drive from their origin (i.e. Charlotte and Mooresville, N.C.) Nor is there a fat TV contract to help ends meet.
What sports car racing now has are entry level series for stock-based vehicles that continue to draw solid entries. It is these participants who can be expected to move up in search of opportunity when the times get tough and the entry numbers begin to dwindle, as participants begin to sell cars and head for the exits.
Will it be enough? Throw in some grandfathering of chassis and engines, plus the surge into GT2, now including BMW's factory-backed team and soon to include Corvette's factory team, and the new GT3 category, where Ferrari, Audi and Aston Martin are competing, and it should be enough to salvage grids even in the worst of times.
To my mind, we've already passed the worst of times, which concerned the mismanagement of sports car racing in the early 1990's in both Europe and the U.S. Monopolistic mentalities plus corporate hubris prevailed and nimrods of all manner ran the shows, which led to convicted felons like Evans getting involved. Don't even get me started... .
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at email@example.com.