OURSLER: The Rambling Road


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The arrival of the Corvette Daytona Prototypes was heralded as the dawn of a new era for the NASCAR’s Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series last fall.

And, while it was a Ford-Riley that claimed the season opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, in the time since the season has largely belonged to the newcomers.

Again this past weekend it was a Corvette DP, this time the Spirit of Daytona example of Richard Westbrook and Michael Valiante which headed the field at the finish at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course after two and three quarter hours of tough on track warfare that saw many of the contenders fail to reach the end.

Surviving the carnage to second was the Telmex Chip Ganassi BMW-Riley of Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett, the blue and white machine sandwiched between the Westbrook-Valiante entry and the Action Express Corvette DP of David Donohue and Terry Borcheller.

The thing is that of unlike their rivals, the Corvette DPs aren’t united when it comes to the chassis makers, the West-Brook-Valiante winner being a Coyote, while the third place Action Express example having Riley constructed underpinnings, as does the Gainsco “Red Dragon” of Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney. And the variety doesn’t stop there with the SunTrust Corvette of Ricky Taylor and Max Angelelli using a Dallara-constructed tubeframe unit.

So why is the variety important? Namely for two reasons: the equality built into the rules and the ability to manipulate those scriptures to tilt the balance of competition in one direction or another. The good news is that on balance the Grand-Am folks have done a good job keeping the playing field level.

The bad, however, can be found in the details with some pointing to the fact that one side or another can find an advantage in such minor things as trim taps used to increase downforce just enough to give an edge in handling.

Such matters are strictly regulated by the authorities, as are weights, the reduction of which prior to Mid Ohio no doubt helped the Turner Motorsport BMW M3 of Bill Auberlen and Paul Dalla Lana score its first victory of 2012. Manipulation of the rules has become commonplace in motorsport Unfortunately it is a double edged sword, providing a better show for the fans, but diminishing the true unfettered competition on which the sport was built.

Put another way, it would be like forcing the New York Yankees to field eight instead of nine players when they face a less well funded team such as the Kansas City Royals whose roster isn’t as well stocked with talent as the boys from the “Big Apple.”

Clearly doing that increases excitement, but is it the right solution? The answer is ambiguous in that it depends on the circumstances. In NASCAR’s stock car world it works. In the road racing Universe where the Rolex folks play it is a far less viable path to take; and that is perhaps the biggest problem the Grand-Am has faced since the introduction of the technology restricted Daytona Prototypes in 2003.

Put simply, sports car racing historically, and even today, has been built on innovation: those making the regulations giving the designers a challenge, and then letting them figure a way to meet that challenge, even if in doing so, the competition is lessened.

Unlike NASCAR, the road course world is not necessarily built around door-to-door warfare, but rather on dreams, the same kind of dreams that put an American on the Moon.

Those contesting that, have only to look back to the 1973 Can-Am when Mark Donohue’s 1,100 horsepower, 240 mile-an-hour turbocharged Porsche utterly dominated the season. That year saw the highest attendance ever for the series. The next, when there were no such cars, it died because of a lack of interest before completing its schedule.

When the Grand-Am took the plunge into the DP era it said it was seeking to attract a “new breed” of road course fan. The trouble since has been that those hoped for newcomers have been few and far between, while the traditionalists have, in large measure, stayed away as well.

Ironically, the Rolex the series puts on a great show: the competition is almost always too close to call and the simplicity of having just two classes, prototypes and their production-based counterparts makes it easy to comprehend for even the rankest novice.

Still, like a great food recipe without salt, it needs seasoning to be memorable.

When one can stick the same bodywork on three different chassis and not notice the difference between the cars, it might be a time for a re-think that promotes differing approaches to a single challenge.

If the Grand-Am can find a way to do that, then its future could be unlimited.