CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Germany’s Jurgen Barth is someone who knows about the rules when it comes to international sports car racing.
Long head of Porsche’s very profitable customer motorsport department, Barth is the “B” in the BPR Global Challenge tour of the 1990’s; the series which kept the sport alive after the Federation International de l’Automobile summarily dump it at the end of 1992 in favor of Formula One.
Today, he again has harsh words for those in charge of the international sports car scene. “What I see is a governing body that is weak,” he says. “It allows too many to make their own rules, rather than trying to lead them all in one direction. By doing that, the costs become prohibitive, which is why we have fewer and fewer younger drivers getting into the sport. And that is not a good situation.”
One may argue Barth’s point of view, suggesting that “local” conditions require “local” regulatory modifications to meet the unique challenges those conditions create. What can not be argued, however, is his position about costs driving away potential newcomers, particularly those of a more youthful age who ought to be the bedrock for its future.
At time when the younger set seemingly has lost interest in cars to the point where more and more are waiting to get their first driving licenses, motorsport in general, and sports car racing in particular appear to have lost their way in how to meet and overcome the challenges presented to them. This weekend is the 60th anniversary of the first Sebring 12-hour classic, and while the technology is far removed six decades on, the structure of the race looks very much as it did back when the Korean War was front-page news.
The American Le Mans Series is virtually devoid of manufacturer entries; the strongest car maker interest not being found in the headlining prototype arena, but rather in the production lasses where GM is up to its hips in the Corvette effort, with BMW similarly pouring money into the Rahal-Letterman M-3 squad, while Porsche is supporting its customers with up-to-date GT3RSRs and topflight factory drivers. After that things get a bit slim.
In fact, this weekend at Sebring may be the only chance an American audience will have to see a state-of-the art prototype, that coming because of the factory Audi R18 team, which will be on hand for the inaugural round of the FIA sanctioned World Endurance Championship, which is to be run for the FIA by the Le Mans organizers and thereby is part and parcel of the Sebring event.
When the Audis go home next week most likely they will not be back anytime this year; leaving the ALMS with just three current spec, lesser performing privately entered prototype coupes to carry the burden at the front of the field for the rest of 2012.
Given that the Audis provide the “glitz and glamour” that so long has been the basis for the fan’s interest in the sport, and given that although the GT battle in the U.S. championship has been fierce, but certainly not glamorous, one has to wonder how the ALMS redresses the balance and redirects the focus of its series.
Over on the other side of the sports car house the Rolex folks have tried to solve the problem by restricting technology and thereby costs. The result has been more prototypes and more closely fought competition at the pointy end of the field. The trouble is that too many potential fans have eschewed the Rolex exactly for putting those restrictions in place.
“To be; or not to be,” that truly is the question. Right now. There are solutions, but they seem to go against the grain with officialdom; the Rolex camp wanting to keep the performance levels where they are, with the ALMS wanting to build their structure on “green” friendly technology that likewise has failed to significantly, at least so far, increase interest among its audience base.
Just like George HW Bush and our pets, if they don’t like the food, they don’t eat it. And, no amount of proclaiming how good it might be for them, neither our former president, nor our pets have appeared to want to change their minds. The best solution then seems to be to change the food.
It is a thought that those in charge of motorsport might want to think about when they contemplate the future.BREAKING NEWS: SPEED SPORT is back in print with a new monthly format! Subscribe for just $24.95. Special offer for former subscribers.