Editor’s Note: In case you haven’t noticed, Fourtitude’s new format allows us to more readily run original content and features alongside press release information from Audi, various tuners and various racing series. One regular type of feature we’re happy to bring back to the site is that of editorial opinion. In that vein, I’m re-launching my own FourWord column here and sharing my own opinion on the future of sportscar racing based on two pieces I’ve recently read on SPEED and AutoExtremist.
We’d like to do more columns in the future, from industry guests to new outspoken regulars with captivating opinions. If you’ve got an idea for one column or a whole series of columns and are looking for a stage in front of thousands of Audi fans, drop us a note to info(at)fourtitude.com. We’re always interested in finding new original content for Audi fans. Now, on to this opinion on GRAND-AM and American sportscar racing.
Grand-Am & American Sportscar Racing Going Forward
When news broke of the ALMS and GRAND-AM “merger” a few weeks ago, AutoExtremist’s Peter De Lorenzo was quick to offer some interesting insight into the acquisition/merger. Never lacking opinion, De Lorenzo opined at the time about where the series should go, and this week has further weighed in with the help of Highcroft Racing’s Duncan Dayton following a manufacturer meeting in New York.
The future of sportscar racing remains unclear, but the direction is what you might expect. Until this thing is hashed out, just how to merge GT classes, prototype classes or even drop prototype classes completely remains one highly contested point. Dayton weighs in here heavily, including suggestion that manufacturers should make a $1M a year investment for a contracted three years. Tire manufacturers should also step up with funds and all of this could go toward a competitive TV package and higher prize moneys.
The summary of the story (found HERE) is essentially this. It will require real courage to break from the past and set up a clean-sheet forward-thinking strategy for sportscar racing into the future. And also, the possibility for failure to do so is quite high.
What I Think…
In addition to great courage, I also hope those planners can find great humility. A GRAND-AM insider I met up with at last year’s Rolex 24 told me that the series essentially began life as we know it when Don Panoz refused to pull the name “Le Mans” (and we’re theorizing ACO rules) from the series. NASCAR and thus the France family have shown a propensity to go it alone… the American Football of the racing world. Often in the biggest of sports empires that exist in the USA, finding our own formula usually trumps what plays well in the rest of the world (ROW).
Unfortunately for those seeking to start a successful road racing series, formulas not concerned about ROW tastes are not conducive to the model. A strong factor in what makes road racing road racing is the international mix of competitors. A token Toyota racing team with a homogenized Camry product that’s nearly as American as Apple Pie sort of cuts it in NASCAR… but road racing without the likes of Audi, Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin, etc. simply won’t play to road racing fans.
Here’s where humility comes in. Manufacturers like standardization. Create a class platform that can be run around the world on a same formula accommodating various configurations or technologies and also that is affordable enough for brands and brand importers to field a team and you have a recipe for serious success. The model worked in touring car in the 1990s, in the various “Le Mans” series in the 2000s and is currently working in classes like FIA GT2 and FIA GT3. LMP1 no longer qualifies as programs like the R18 have become amazing spectacles, but also so expensive that even importer markets like Audi of America, Audi UK, Audi Japan and Audi France can no longer afford to field teams as they did mainly in the R8 LMP era.
The Audi R18 ultra could be repositioned as an Audi market team like Champion Racing, Goh or Audi Sport UK (as suggested by Joest’s Ralf Juttner in a SPEED Q&A HERE), and that has potential for a headlining LMP category in regional series like this one. Still, the heart of it will be GT and it is foolish to walk away from GT2 or especially not embrace GT3. The latter GT3 boasts cars from a seriously large mix of manufacturers because these cars can be run affordably in series around the world. Just search the “R8 LMS” tag on this website and you’ll see that Audi has countless R8s racing in many places around the globe. Only GRAND-AM required a serious devolvement in the R8 in order to qualify, bringing down the cars aerodynamics, tire compounds, etc. Interestingly, the World Challenge series allows the GMG R8 LMS (believed to be last year’s Team Phoenix cars) to run pretty much GT3 spec… though larger teams like APR are left running cars with substandard aerodynamics and tires because they choose to run in GRAND-AM under current rules.
An interesting experiment would be APR Motorsport and GMG bringing their two cars out to the same track under the same conditions and letting the same driver log laps in both. Seeing the difference between the two cars’ lap times and also hearing the opinion of the drivers would be very enlightening.
In the De Lorenzo/Dayton piece from AutoExtremist, there is discussion about whether prototypes shouldn’t be dropped completely. Should a model foregoing the yesteryear GRAND-AM DPs be possible… AND companies like Audi could develop a prototype affordable enough for regional teams to compete, then I’d argue for retention of prototypes as a great show and could then travel to Le Mans as well.
If though, as Dayton opines, they were to go to solely a GT setup, then we’d argue for a similar strategy employed by the ALMS back in the late 90s. Take a formula that works and adopt it here. Dont’ reinvent the wheel. In a GT only resolution, we’d suggest adopting Nurburgring/VLN rules with many classes. This would allow the FIA GT cars to run as the top classes, but would also allow the more serious Le Mons teams to jump from that comedic but seriously grassroots endurance phenomenon into a more serious form of endurance racing. And with teams at the Nurburgring 24 fielding cars like Volkswagen Golf Mk3s and D3 Audi A8s, the financial barrier for entry isn’t terribly high. Imagine the Audi Style Racing guys (and gal) trading in their beat up B2 GT and lab jackets for a race-prepped TTS or built B5 S4… maybe with sponsorship and technical support by a prominent Audi tuner looking for some exposure and appreciating what this sort of racing has done for companies like APR.
Another argument for such a graduation strategy for LeMons teams is the role of experiential value and guerilla marketing. First hand customer experience is gold in the business world. Ask Audi why they fund the Audi Sportscar Experience in Sonoma and in other locations around the world. Ask them why a whole division of their marketing is focused on customer experience… and not just how much owners like cupholders. Each of these teams, like the men and women of Audi Style Racing (if I may further use them as an example), promotes Lemons to their friends, family and on discussion forums. They’re proud of their own successes and are excellent ambassadors for both Audi and for LeMons. Couldn’t they be the same for a new racing series with approachable classes like Nurburgring/VLN?
As with the AutoExtremist piece, we look forward to where this new series is going and the potential that offers. Making the right decision will be key, and we can only hope that GRAND-AM doesn’t hold fast to yesteryear technology so exemplified by the current field of DPs and GRAND-AM spec GTs. This works wildly in NASCAR, but it should not be a formula for sportscar.
So what do you think? Are we on to something with our American Nurburgring model or should GRAND-AM/ALMS go a different route? Make sure to post your own take on this puzzle via our discussion forum link below.