CHARLOTTE, N.C. — To paraphrase an old cliché; the more things stay the same, the more they change. Although this might, at first glance, seem counterintuitive, a perfect example of this was to be found on the streets of Baltimore Labor Day weekend in an American Le Mans Series show that was more of a crashfest than it was a race.
In the end, two facts emerged — the first being that by winning yet again, the Muscle Milk duo of Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr have assured themselves, team owner Gregg Pickett and Honda of the ALMS LMP1 championship. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on one’s viewpoint, it will also be their final LMP1 trophy. This is certainty created by the 2014 merger of the ALMS and its Grand-Am counterpart into the new United SportsCar Racing tour, which will eschew the LMP1 division in favor of the second tier LMP2 and Daytona Prototype sports racers.
The second is that Baltimore was a demonstration that street courses, unless they are the highly groomed Bernie Ecclestone Formula One variety, are not compatible with the needs of today’s sophisticated race cars, whether they be open, or closed wheel in nature. Viewed from the larger perspective, what we are talking about here are mission statements: what is the audience for the United SportsCar Racing championship and how will USCAR capture its attention?
When the Daytona Prototype led version of Grand-Am came into being in 2003, those behind it made it clear they wanted to expand its fan base, saying in effect, “we aren’t looking for the traditional sports car spectator, but a whole new and broader audience that will include devotees from other areas of the sport.”
In the end, the solution failed to please the public, traditional or otherwise; a fact demonstrated by race attendance figures and television numbers. On the other hand, the increasing costs of fielding the more sophisticated ALMS entries have seen many of them disappear from scene, and along with them a good deal of their audience. As a friend of mine who made his money in advertising selling dog food put it, “I don’t care how good an ad campaign you create, if the dogs don’t like the dog food, you’ve failed.” And, so far at least, the dogs haven’t exactly cleaned their ALMS or Grand-Am plates.
As in any exercise, successfully achieving one’s goal is a matter of taking a variety of different components and putting them together in a cohesive package that makes sense. For domestic sports car racing, one of those components is the venues. In the 1970s, when sports car racing was largely ignored by television, street courses made some sense because they brought racing to the people instead of have the people go to it in the countryside far from the urban areas where the majority of them lived.
That overriding assumption trumped the inadequacies of street circuits — their unforgiving barriers and rough pavement leading to much more destruction than was to be found on their rural tailor-made counterparts. Today, television is a motorsport industry staple, providing the sport with an audience once thought unimaginable; and making places such as Baltimore, where this year an hour of the ALMS event was lost to accident clean up, including the massive mishap that took place on the pace lap before the full field had taken the green flag.
Even had that not occurred, the sight of not only the ALMS folks, but the IndyCar contingent as well, leaping off the pavement due to its bumpy configuration made it clear that maybe — just maybe, it would have been to stage the race somewhere else.
But, we’ll know in the next few weeks what tracks will be in, and what will be out when USCAR announces its 2014 schedule. What is more worrying, though, is that with just a little more than two month before testing begins, the technical regulations, particularly those for the prototypes have not yet been made public. According to insiders, ISCAR officials are working diligently to get them “right.” But while that is commendable, why is it taking them so long? The performance potential of the Daytona prototypes, the LMP sports racers and the ALMS’ spec category LMPC division entries has long been known, and quite frankly has changed in the 13 or so months since the merger of the two series was announced.
Clearly compromise is the order of the day. However, which path will that process take? Will it dumb down the more sophisticated ALMS bred machines, or upgrade the DP community instead? And that brings us to the critical “dog food moment.” Will the result of their efforts be acceptable to a so far less than enthusiastic fan; or will it fall short of that audience’s desires and expectations?
Put another way: if the fans love the food, the future of North American sports car racing is bright, if not, it could be doomed to an early death. It is that simple.