DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Big things don’t always come in gaudy packages. A case in point is the 2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona that will take the green flag at 2 p.m. Saturday at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Although the entry list for the long-running twice-around-the-clock affair, traditionally the start of not just the sports car racing season, but the North American racing season itself, is not unfamiliar, the circumstances surrounding the event most definitely are.
For the past 15 years the professional sports car scene in North America has been a house divided with the NASCAR-owned Grand American tour on one side and Don Panoz’s American Le Mans Series on the other. A little more than a year and a half ago came the announcement that the two would merge into one.
Named the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship and sanctioned by the International MotorSports Ass’n, the combined title chase will finally come to life at Daytona after what can only be described as a difficult gestation period.
Of the four classes, the Prototype division, the spec Le Mans Chevrolet-powered Challenge sports racers and the two production-based categories, the Le Mans GTs, using international rules and their Daytona GT counterparts, based on the Grand Am’s assembly set, only one has caused true problems for rules makers.
Unfortunately that one is the headlining prototype category where necessity brought together the two very different philosophies behind the ALMS and Grand-Am, the former promoting the sport’s traditional goals of advancing technology and the latter wedded to the opposing idea of containing costs by restricting that same quest for technological advancement.
The solution has been to lower fan expectations by eliminating the top LMP1 universe, upon which the Le Mans 24 Hour classic rests, from the TUDOR tour, while beefing up the performance of the former Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes. Just how difficult the balancing act has been to meld the ex-ALMS and Grand-Am entries into a single cohesive group can be seen in the fact that while the rules for Daytona have been set, the regulations for the rest of the season remain in a state of flux.
In truth, the rules makers have done their job well. Despite the disparity in the philosophies which bred them, the Daytona Prototypes and their ALMS LMP2 sports racing companions should be equal in performance this weekend, leaving the outcome of the Rolex 24 in doubt throughout the day-long event. Likewise, the spec prototypes, as always, will be a toss up, while battles in the two assembly line oriented classes could be among the most memorable of the weekend.
As entertainment, the Rolex 24 most likely will provide more than enough to start the “new era” in North American road course on a high note.
The problem, however, is whether or not the fans will accept what the race and the series offers them. Over the years, the more restrictive Grand-Am tour has not necessarily been the box office draw for which one might have wished, seemingly playing better to its participants than to its intended audience. Moreover, in recent times the ALMS has focused on the manufacturer-supported GT arena than it has on the supposedly more exotic prototypes, where the competition in the now eliminated LMP1 was lackluster at best.
Clearly the decision to eschew the exotic LMP1 division for the more practical LMP2 class with its more affordable production-based engines, as well as to upgrade the Daytona Prototypes with more horsepower and added downforce have put the TUDOR-backed title chase on a solid footing that hasn’t been seen recently in the professional road course arena here.
However, without those exotic technology-pushing LMP1 cars, what is being asked of the fans is to accept something that is not quite “major league.” Put another way, it is akin to going to the ballpark to watch the New York Yankees and getting instead a AAA farm club.
Will that be enough to expand what has been so far a rather anemic interest on the part of the sports car audience for cost-effective motorsports, rather than the unbridled glamour and excitement of the past?
Will sports car enthusiasts buy off on close competition as a substitute for being able to tell their grandchildren they saw the most advanced vehicles to come from mankind’s imagination?
The answer to that could well determine not just the success of the TUDOR championship, but the future of the sport.