CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The recent Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series event at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, was exciting with Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney taking their first Grand-Am victory in more than a year with their Gainsco Corvette Daytona Prototype.
Still, it wasn’t easy with Ryan Daziel’s and Alex Popow’s Starwork’s Ford Riley just feet behind. And, as if that weren’t enough the Daytona-winning Telmex Ford Riley with Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas aboard, despite a drama filled day that saw Pruett knock the nose off and damage the front, was only a few more feet behind.
In the end, the top five prototypes were separated by little more than a second and a half after two and three quarter hours of battle.
Ultra competitive racing is the norm in the Grand-Am’s show, however, the series that debuted its DP set in 2003, has not boasted a significant increase in fan interest. But why? Here the answer appears to be a matter of who the Grand-Am sees as the ultimate customer for its title chase.
Is the Rolex tour aimed as a home for its privateer participants; or is intended to attract the interest of the fans, both loyal and potential? The answer, given that the 2014 merge of the Rolex and American Le Mans Series will more than likely take on the patina of the Grand-Am’s restrictive-technology approach rather than the more traditional method of pushing the techno equation to its limits, is critical.
However, before we all get too enthralled by standing on our soapbox, keep in mind that sports car racing in general has struggled worldwide both at the gate and in television ratings.
The ALMS, while a better draw in terms of its numbers than the Rolex, hasn’t been setting either ticket sales or its television/internet viewership figures on fire recently. Thus, it is hard to say that the Grand-Am is wrong and the ALMS is right.
In the end, as it has so often been pointed out, it all comes down to money. And, in today’s world, our advanced (and one should note ever advancing) technology’s consumption of funding is growing by leaps and bounds. It is this conundrum that faces not only the sport, but almost every aspect of humanity’s existence. We have the capability. Whether or not we have the will to pay for it is another question.
That was also in evidence at Austin on Saturday when the Grand-Am took a much stricter approach towards vehicle-to-vehicle contact. While the reasons why do include the primary need for safety, there is also another, largely unspoken rational at work here. That again involves costs. For example Pruett’s agricultural exploration of the high curbing surrounding the track, which tore off the nose. Wasn’t cheap.
Assuming that both the front bodywork and splitter are write-offs, the team’s coffers could take a hit of $40,000 or more.
While Chip Ganassi might not be happy about shelling that amount out, it isn’t going to send him to the poor house anytime soon. Nor will it send any of his rival team owners into poverty. Still, such unwanted coming togethers add up, and in the current economic times make those with their checkbooks think twice about opening them.
It is not clear that the fans necessarily want to celebrate caution and prudent driving; at least not to the extent that was seen in Austin where the GT battle was settled in favor of the Turner Motorsport BMW of Bill Auberlen and Paul Dala won after the leading Ferrari 458 Italia was given a one-minute stop-and-hold penalty for brushing up against another car during the event’s final laps; the same penalty handed out all afternoon to everyone else involved in similar incidents.
There is much to be said for those in charge to do their level best in controlling their sports. Certainly the scandals elsewhere have highlighted that. Yet when does control become excessive? Both the Grand-Am and the ALMS must use constant “performance balancing” in terms of their rules to level their playing fields.
And, while this is laudable, it is also costly at a time when costs matter. With next season looming ever closer, just as in the real world, there are choices that will have to be made. Unfortunately, in the case of the fragile sports car universe, those will have to be the correct choices, or the future could be extremely bleak, if not terminal.