OURSLER: The Rambling Road


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you like racing, the second weekend in July provided more than enough for all tastes. The question is, however, whether or not there was too much, and if so did that hurt the sport at a time when the industry is facing some serious problems, both financially and conceptually.

This scenario is especially critical for road course fans, who were treated to a bi-coastal doubleheader on the Saturday which saw the American Le Mans Series come back to life after its annual Le Mans hiatus at Lime Rock, while the Grand Am’s Rolex tour plied its brand of “over the hill and down to the valley” style of driving on Laguna Seca’s Central California coast overlooking the pacific.

At Lime Rock, the proceedings saw hometown boys Chris Dyson and Guy Smith take their Mazda-Lola coupe to victory of the similar Aston Martin-powered car of Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf in the heavyweight LMP1 sports racing division,

While the factory supported Rahal-Letterman BMW M3 of Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand did the same against the Flying Lizard Porsche 911 GT3RSR of Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long, who represent the interests of the German sportscar maker.

Across the country at Laguna, Porsche fared somewhat better with Leh Keen and Andrew Davis claiming the production car honors in their Brumos GT3, as Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty’s Gainsco Chevy Riley beat the series leading Telmex BMW Riley of Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett to the flag by a matter of a few feet.

The victory was the first for Gurney and Fogarty since their first place performance in New Jersey last summer, Saturday’s event making them the first to repeat as Rolex Laguna winners, the pair having triumphed there at the Rolex’s last appearance at the track two years ago.

Statistics aside, the ALMS and Rolex affairs shared a common element, or the lack of the same element — presence. If one had to choose between the two, the competition on the Grand Am side was far more riveting, with the battle between the Chip Ganassi Telmex and Bob Stallings Gainsco camps remaining unsettled until the final flag, while at Lime Rock Dyson and Smith, had, however tentatively, resolved the issue between them and the Luhr-Graf duo long before the checkered flag waved.

The problem for both sanctioning bodies is whether or not anyone cared; the crowds at both tracks seeming to be what one might call “relatively modest.” For the Rolex tour, which to be honest, has focused more on its competitors than a potential fan base, the paucity of ticket buyers is not necessarily a problem.

Indeed, with its NASCAR ownership, and the possibilities that ownership offers, one can expect the Grand Am’s Role championship to be around as long as NASCAR wants it to be, regardless of its revenues at the gate.

For anyone needing proof of that fact, they need only to look at the announcement on the Wednesday before Laguna at Indianapolis that the Rolex series will become part of the Brickyard 400 card in 2012, racing on the course laid out for the Formula One set during the first decade of the new century.

On the other hand, Don Panoz’s ALMS enterprise has found itself without a strong prototype field, the title chase’s sport racing arm being bolstered by the spec Chevrolet-crate engine Oreca chassis entries of the LMPC category, whose zoomy looks, if not performance, adds to the ALMS show.

The question facing the ALMS is its viability as “a world-class” show without a strong prototype contingent.

Clearly, with factory supported entries from Corvette, BMW and Porsche, as well as a strong batch of high performing Ferraris, the production side of the ALMS reminds one of the Trans-Am’s glory years. But, can the production cars carry the Panoz tour until the arrival of the new Le Mans prototypes in 2014?

Unlike, other segments of motorsport, road racing is more based on the dreams of its audience, rather than the reality of the product, a fact demonstrated many years ago by the all conquering Porsche turbo spyder of Mark Donohue which brought huge crowds to the SCCA Can-Am with its 1,500-horsepower engine and 240 mile-an-hour top speed. When the SCCA forced the Porsche from its series in the name of better competition, the Can-Am died: an obvious lesson ignored too many times since.

Road Racing then is about presence. If the cars and the show don’t have that star quality about them, then like a bad Broadway show, survival becomes an “iffy’ proposition. How “iffy” remains a matter of conjecture. There is, then, hope that both the Rolex and the ALMS will find a way to prosper and bring road racing here back to where most of its partisans want it to be.