CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hype.
It is a fundamental marketing tool; the lifeblood as it were of success for everything from entertainment to selling dishwashers and automobiles. This past Friday the Grand-Am’s Rolex Sports Car Series made its long-awaited and much-anticipated Indianapolis Motor Speedway debut as part of NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 weekend.
In truth, although the race for any number of reasons — not the least of which was the weather — didn’t live up to its ballyhooed billing, it was a significant moment for not just the series, but for North American sports car racing in general because it marked the first ever appearance any major fendered championship at the historic track.
Yet, it was a party, which, for the most part, remained invisible, both in terms of its lack of spectators and the paucity of its television audience.
Put another way it was a publicity stunt — pure and simple.
So should we criticize the Grand-Am? Absolutely not. For all of its good points, the Rolex is not taken seriously by the road course community, being seen as a place where gentlemen drivers, helped by the “Pros from Dover,” can indulge their passions for motorsport without having to blow the family fortune competing against the manufacturer fielded teams in a contest they could never hope to win.
That has been the Rolex championship’s primary mission, which it has done well. Yet that mission it has caused it to be dismissed as being a “second-tier” show; something akin to “road racing lite.” But, should it be consigned to the sport’s minor league dustbin so readily? Perhaps not.
Consider this for a moment — John Bishop, who founded the Int’l Motor Sports Ass’n, built one of the most memorable road racing championships, the long-running Camel GT tour, around privateer gentlemen drivers and their full-time pro driving companions. Indeed, about the closest things to a professional factory team in its early days was the Brumos Porsche operation of Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood, which received the blessings of Porsche’s North American representatives.
Still, even after the likes of Al Holbert became involved, “amateurs,” such as Michael Keyser, not only held their own but were fully capable of challenging and beating the professionals. (One of the most extreme example of this came on a boiling hot afternoon at Sears Point when Rob Dyson, whose cool suit had failed, kept his Porsche 962 in front of ex-Formula One driver John Watson and his BMW March for the better part of an hour to claim the victory.)
With that as background, why then can’t the Rolex, which has the same kind of exciting racing, not get the respect it craves, and most likely deserves?
Again it comes down to hype. When the Grand Am introduced its present Daytona Prototype formula in 2003, it stressed the financial economy side of the equation, not the glitz and glamor that is the heart of road course motorsport.
Unfortunately that derogatory “cost effective” impression has stuck, and seemingly not even the championship’s new Indy alliance is going to be enough to change it. The Rolex race at the Brickyard was hard fought with the Starworks Ford-Riley of Sebastien Boudais and Alex Popow holding off Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett in Chip Ganassi’s Telmex BMW-Riley to claim the first place honors in a battle that went down to the event’s final moments.
Likewise the GT victory posted by the Magnus Racing Porsche 911GT3 of John Potter and Andy Lally remained in question almost to the finish before the Daytona Rolex 24 winners stood on the podium’s top step for the second time in 2012.
But, as we said the exciting racing, which was hampered by the rains of a storm front that flooded the track before it finally dried out, went unnoticed.
In part that was due to those storms and their tornado breeding, non-humorous “funny weather.” But, mostly it was because this was a one-day show on a Friday when most folks were working not watching on television, and perhaps not remembering to record the race for when they got home.
In many ways the Grand-Am has a diamond in the rough in the Rolex title chase whose potential is great. However, the powers at NASCAR don’t appear to want to take it seriously. And, Indy was a good example of that. By putting on a Friday afternoon, and leaving it to largely fend for itself in terms of promotion, the NASCAR folks were making a statement about where they rank the series.
If the Rolex is going to be anything more than just a “filler” to keep the rich and famous happy, it clearly needs to have a much higher profile than it now has. Otherwise it will always be viewed as “second rate championship.”
And, it deserves better than that. It is time then for those running the Rolex to stop complaining about the lack of respect it gets from both the fans and the media, and to put the resources into promoting it so that it can become all that the Grand-Am says it is, and more importantly all that it could and should be in real life.