CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The line between entertainment and sport in today’s world of professional motorsport is a blurry one. It is, though, one — blurry or not — that has been perfected by NASCAR, the same NASCAR that owns the Grand American Road Racing Ass’n.
Judged by entertainment values, the 2013 Rolex 24 At Daytona that opened the Grand-Am Rolex Series season was a riveting triumph of excitement with Chip Ganassi’s Telmex BMW-Riley fighting down to the wire with Wayne Taylors Velocity Corvette for the victory; a battle that saw both make “splash-and-go” pit stops in the final moments.
In the end, the Ganassi quartet of Scott Pruett, Memo Rojas, Juan Pablo Montoya and Charlie Kimball took the checkered flag over the Taylor Corvette driven by Max Angelelli, IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Ray and Taylor’s son, Jordan, by a matter of seconds.
Moreover, if this weren’t enough, third place in the Daytona Prototype war went to the Michael Sank Racing Ford-Riley of A.J. Allmendinger, Justin Wilson, Marcos Ambrose, Osweldo Negri and John Pew.
And, if all that didn’t provide enough thrills, the warfare in the GT category was such that battle lines seemingly were redrawn every few moments in a three-way contest between Audi, Ferrari and Porsche for superiority that went down to the checkered flag.
Out front were two of the Audi R8s. the first, Alex Job’s Weather Tech entry driven by Filipe Aluquergue, Oliver Jarvis, Eduardo Mortara and Dion von Moltke. Right behind were Frank Stippler, Rene Rast, Ian Baas and Marc Basseng, with third going to the Ferrari 458 Italia of Alessandro Blazan, Marco Frezza and Olivier Beretta.
So close were the results that the first six GT cars were on the same lap. Only the new GX division was devoid of drama with the Porsche Cayman of David Donohue, Jim Norman, Shane Lewis and Nelson Canache leading virtually all the way.
Back at the front, despite the closeness, the Ganassi boys seemingly had the race locked up, moving ahead of their rivals at will whenever they temporarily lost the lead because of pit stop exchanges. Only their teammates in the sister Ganassi BMW-Riley — Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Jamie McMurray and Joey Hand — were able to challenge them. However, that threat came to an end on Sunday when drivetrain problems forced their retirement.
As entraining as the Rolex was, and has been over the years, it somehow hasn’t attracted the attention and respect one might have expected. Keep in mind that the 2009 24-hour, when David Donohue’s Porsche-Riley won outright by less than a second, was the closest endurance racing finish ever, was a triumph that is barely remembered by the press and public today.
Why does the Rolex 24 and the Rolex series suffer from a lack of respect?
The answer can be found in the form of the third-place Shank Racing Ford-Riley, which not once, but twice came back from a seven-lap deficit to challenge for the win. The reason for those comebacks was not only perseverance, but the way the rules are written; regulations that essentially give those a lap or more behind the chance to crawl back atlap at a time on every full course yellow-flag period.
The philosophy behind this is very much rooted in the NASCAR world, which lives on close, hard-fought competition. Put another way, it is artificially contrived, something stock car racing fans accept, but something, perhaps, not as well received by sports car enthusiasts.
Since Grand-Am introduced its technology-limited Daytona Prototypes, the sports car world has largely ignored the Rolex-backed championship. For them, it seems, excellence in equipment, and not contrived excitement is what they want.
However, before anyone condemns the Grand-Am’s approach, they should note that the top tiers of the global prototype arena have become so expensive, that only the richest of the automotive manufacturers can participate. The era of the privateer teams being able to win races such as Le Mans are over.
Given that, manipulating the rules on an ongoing basis to promote attention-getting action on the race track, may not be so bad after all. And if it turns out to be the right way to go in an ever-changing universe, we may all look back in the future and commend the Grand Am’s philosophy of engineering racing excellence as something which not only made sports car racing prosper, but may ultimately have saved it from extinction.