CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The upcoming Road America doubleheader which features both the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and its American Le Mans Series counterpart could be critical to the future of the sport.
For the first time since the merger of the two championships, fans will have a chance to compare them on the same track on the same weekend in terms of their performance capabilities and the excitement they can provide on site spectators, and more importantly, the television viewing audience.
As with anything, the devil is in the details, a cliché perhaps, but one aptly applied to the new United Sportscar Racing that will replace both the Rolex and ALMS tours this coming January. So far much of the hard work of melding the differing philosophies governing the rival title chases has been behind the scenes.
Only this week was the compromise tire deal announced for 2014, making Continental, currently the Rolex spec rubber supplier, the exclusive brand for four of the five classes constituting the new combined series; the sole exception being the top ALMS-bred GT division where the choice will be free.
And, while commercially the Continental choice is important, it is probably the least important in terms of what the public will see next season. And, as is almost always is the case, what they will see will be determined by who the NASCAR-owned sanctioning body perceives as its ultimate consumer: the participants or their audience.
Although publically committed to the fans’ side of the equation, in truth, the Grand-Am camp has more often than seemingly considered the needs of its participants more important than those of the folks watching. And, while the ALMS hasn’t always provided the best viewing experience, either for those at the track, or watching at home, the Don Panoz-founded title chase has tried hard to make the ALMS entertaining. But, entertainment costs money, something in short supply these days; particularly for the privateers who have been the heart and soul of the Grand-Am since the 2003 introduction of the often scorned Daytona Prototypes.
And, it is these limited technology sports racers that are the problem when it comes to making the combined championship a commercial success. In their case, their limited technology has meant limited performance; and limited performance runs counter to the traditions of road course sports car racing.
At Road America just how limited will be readily apparent in terms of the lap times posted by the Rolex DP set when compared to those of their ALMS prototype counterparts.
Almost as an aside, is the contrast in appearance between the ALMS prototype brigade, which embrace the wind-tunnel honed “zoomy” look that is the current norm in motorsport, and the slimmed down, but still less exciting chunkiness of the DP entries. In 2003, when the Daytona Prototypes first made their debut, they were upstaged by their top of the line production-based GT Rolex partners. Indeed at the 2003 Rolex 24, the top three positions were filled by production cars rather than the new prototypes.
In the years since, Grand-Am has fixed the problem by reducing the performance capabilities of its GT entries; a solution not necessarily available next year when the Le Mans spec ex-ALMS GT cars will go head-to-head with the supposedly superior DP coupes.
The sticking point for the officials is that because the rules for the Le Mans GT entries can’t be changed, the performance of the Daytona Prototypes will have to be increased; again something requiring new monetary investment on the part of their owners.
How much of a performance increase and hoe much of an investment will be necessary, is something that will be on display at Road America. Racing like all sports these days requires “star power,” and that can cost big bucks.
Seemingly then, if the new United Sports Car Racing tour is to have a secure long-term future, someone is going to have pay for it. A hint of what that amount might be will be evident in the statistics posted in Wisconsin. Let’s hope the performance differential and the amount needed are not too great.