CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A funny thing happened to the steamroller march of Chip Ganassi’s Telmex BMW-Riley team to yet another Grand Am Rolex sports-car title this year: imperfection has crept in to what was once a perfectly crafted organization.
This is not to say that, with just two races left and a huge point lead, reigning champions Scott Pruett and his partner, Memo Rojas, won’t claim yet another Daytona Prototype crown in the BMW-powered Riley, because they will almost certainly achieve that honor.
However, it is to say that Ganassi and company are human, and therefore can get things wrong. Moreover, their humanity likewise means that they can be beaten, as they were Saturday at Watkins Glen in the two-hour Canadian Tire-sponsored Rolex event which was part of NASCAR’s Glen weekend.
Coming out ahead for the second time this year at the famed upstate New York circuit, were Glen Six-Hour winners Ricky Taylor and Max Angelelli, whose SunTrust Chevrolet-Dallara was the class of the field. But, as good as Taylor and Angelelli were, their cause was helped by the fact that no matter what the Ganassi crew did, they seemingly could not find the right suspension set up to allow them to challenge for the victory.
At he beginning, Rojas appeared to be almost lost trying to control what was essentially a beast. As for Pruett who took over from his partner, he did better, pushing the ill handling car to second, and at one point even taking a run at Angelelli in the closing stages for first. However, the excessive tire wear, the symptoms of the team’s failure to get the suspension right, forced Pruett to back off and settle for second at the finish.
Even so, the battle between the SunTrust and Telmex camps was such that not only did it remained unresolved almost to the last minutes, but also was so fierce that the third placed Starworks Ford-Riley of Ryan Dalziel and Alex Popow was never seriously in the hint for the top spot. And, it is this which leads to the question of the series’ future.
Almost from the introduction of the Daytona Prototypes in 2003, the hallmark of the Rolex tour has been close racing. However, in more recent times, Pruett and company, despite being in some tough fights, have been the stars of the show. In doing so they have forced their rivals to raise their game; something that not all of them have wanted to do, or been able to do.
In addition to Wayne Taylor’s SunTrust operation, the only consistent challenger to Ganassi’s reign has been Bob Stallings’ Gainsco twosome of Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney, who were taken out early at the Glen in a tangle with a slower car. Next season will see the appearance of the third generation of the Daytona Prototype clan, and perhaps that will bring back the tight competition of previous times.
Keeping things undecided from start-to-finish, though, has not been a problem in the production GT arena, where the Grand Am has equalized the playing field through ongoing rules adjustments on a nearly race by race basis. At the Glen, it was the TRG Porsche of Spencer Pompelly and Steven Bertheau that won, outlasting the rest of the field in what, once again, proved to be racing’s version of the Mobil Economy Run.
With Ferrari joining Porsche, Mazda and General Motors in the GT fray in 2012, the interest the Rolex’ “assembly-line” universe could rise to the point, where it could become a true “stand alone” attraction. The problem, then however, becomes of the paucity of quantity in the DP side of the house.
Although the prototype population numbers around 50, there were only 12 of the sports racers at the Glen, a figure which has been about the average in 2011 so far, and a figure not large enough to permit the Grand Am to send them out by themselves.
With the uncertainties of the upcoming election season and the economy facing the country in the coming months, the Grand Am needs to think serious about where the Rolex series goes in the future.
Created, in many ways to be a heaven for the tradition gentlemen racers priced out of the American Le Mans championship market by the presence of the factories, the Grand Am now finds the support among its core base eroding, in light of the ALMS’ “spec” prototype and all Porsche GT classes.
Up until now there has been no real need to for the Grand Am to promote itself to the public.
However, given the changing circumstances, those in charge may well want to rethink their position. The Rolex tour has many pluses with just two easily defined categories, high profile names, and the tradition of equalized competition; all providing a basis for increasing the championship’s public appeal.
To make that happen will require the investment of time and money, something, which given the circumstances and success of its birth, has given series officials the luxury of not having to do. The dominance of Chip Ganassi’s team aside, the Grand Am Rolex Sportscar Series can have a bright future if it is viewed as a positive asset for NASCAR and not just a side show that denies the ALMS access to the pool of “gentlemen” participants upon which the sport as been so long based. As the say, “It’s time to put up, or shut up” for Grand Am.