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FIA GT Racing: What's Not to Like?

FIA GT Racing: What's Not to Like? by David Green SEBRING, Fla. (Oct. 18, 1997) -- There are only a handful of raingear-clad diehard fans in the wooden grandstand across the way. There are probably many more throughout the grounds of Sebring ...

FIA GT Racing: What's Not to Like? by David Green

SEBRING, Fla. (Oct. 18, 1997) -- There are only a handful of raingear-clad diehard fans in the wooden grandstand across the way. There are probably many more throughout the grounds of Sebring International Raceway, watching from underneath dripping umbrellas or tarps or tents, through fogged-up car windshields or motorhome windows.

All of us, I suggest, are getting our money's worth. This is a heck of a show we're watching, rainy weather notwithstanding.

The "international" in this historic old race track's name ought to be underlined for the running of this weekend9s NAPA Auto Parts Sebring Octoberfest. Just about whenever they hold a race here, there are plenty of competitors whose homes (or, at least, their places of birth) are outside the U.S. But today, Sebring is hosting a truly international racing series - the FIA Grand Touring Championship.

And these are automobiles anyone can get excited about. Words like "exotic" and "advanced" don't do them justice. Ed Nicholls, public relations director for Professional SportsCar Racing, probably said it best when he described the GT cars as "Formula One with fenders."

These are sexy race cars - full-bodied models built by Mercedes-Benz, McLaren (BMW-powered), Lotus and Porsche. And the Dodge Viper, the Ford-powered Panoz, the Lister Storm, the Marcos LM 600, two Saleen Mustangs and something called a Morgan +8 GTR, which looks a lot like the long-nosed, fendered roadster Cruella de Vil drove in "101 Dalmations" (the animated version).

They look so different from each other. I haven't learned yet how to recognize all of them, but there is distinction. I can tell I'm looking at a different shape, even if I haven't learned to call it by name yet. Sometimes, racers seem to adapt a "monkey see, monkey do" approach. These guys blaze new trails.

And they are real, honest-to-goodness passenger cars, not specially built racing vehicles - just like NASCAR stocks once were. Unlike Bill France's 1949 Strictly Stock cars, they cost as much as a million dollars apiece, but you can actually buy one for yourself and drive it on the highway, if you want to.

The drivers are a delightful bunch, overall. They can talk about the old Sebring track, built on a former air base9s runways and taxiways and connecting roads, and describe how rough it is, and how different it is from many European courses, without giving the impression that they are dissatisfied with the conditions under which they are being asked to race.

Many have raced in America before, but some have not. German driver Marcel Tieman of the factory Mercedes team laughingly told of his first taste of southern hospitality. He was charmed when a waitress in a local restaurant asked him, "What can I get for you, honey?"

It's appropriate that Marcel was treated nicely, because, as much as any group of competitors I've ever seen, these guys seem to have a real camaraderie - with each other and with the fans who gather around their hospitality tents. They poke fun at each other; one unplugs the microphone when another is speaking during a press briefing. They are an interesting bunch - the young, quiet, focused Alexander Wurz, the smiling blond J.J. Lehto, the veterans such as Hans Stuck, Klaus Ludwig, Bob Wollek and Bernd Schneider.

They seem to genuinely enjoy the interplay with fans - "Because," says Tieman, "we are making our living from them. If it were not for them, we could not do this."

A portion of the debate in the current struggle between SportsCar and the new USRRC is concerned with the vision of road racing in the United States. SportsCar9s Andy Evans says he wants to establish uniform rules that would enable European and American competitors to race against each other. It was Evans who brought the FIA GT Championship to America, for this weekend's race and for another Oct. 24-26 at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif.

"There's debate going on here and in Europe on what's going to happen," Robert Carlson, general manager of public relations for Porsche Cars North America Inc., told me. "The key as a manufacturer is to have one set of rules for all sports car racing, so you can build one car and race it everywhere. Whatever happens down the line, we hope that will continue. It will behoove everybody to have the FIA and whoever the governing body is in North America to have the same set of regulations for the cars. It's our feeling that that's how sports car racing will be successful."

Uniformity of rules is a Rubik's Cube of a dilemma for any racing organization, from the local dirt-track promoter on up. Witness the CART-IRL dispute, NASCAR9s quest for a "level playing field" and so forth. There are so many underlying motivations and political, economic and practical considerations. It may never happen. But I hope it does.

Someway, somehow, I'd like to see these cars and drivers back in the U.S. next year.

David Green is editor of iRACE.

Copyright 1997, InterZine Productions Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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