Monday, January 23, 2012

Banking On The High Banks

Grand-Am is counting on new Daytona Prototypes such as the Corvette
(above) to increase fan interest in 2012
Grand-Am is promoting the 50th anniversary running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona this coming weekend as the “most anticipated road race in North American sports car history.”  It's not. 

It does come at a crucial tipping point for American sports car racing and will be followed six weeks later by the 60th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring conducted by the rival American Le Mans Series (ALMS).  Believe it or not, once upon a time the same teams and drivers competed at both Daytona and Sebring and those two back-to-back races were a match for anything NASCAR or IndyCar had to offer.  But that was a long, long time ago.

Most everyone agrees that in order for sports car racing to return to its past glory days, there needs to be a united sanctioning body.  But it seems the two groups are farther apart than ever before.

The Rolex 24 will feature the debut of the new third generation Daytona Prototypes (DP) that Grand-Am is betting its future on.  Let’s face it, the old cars were butt ugly.  The new Corvette DP is a great looking car and the other new machines are better looking, much better.  The cars are basically the same “low tech” racers under the fiberglass that are sneered at by many racing purists, don’t underestimate the impact of the looks on fans.

ALMS, on the other hand, has always had great looking and technically advanced Le Mans Prototypes (LMP) cars.  Just not many of them.  That situation took a turn for the worse this past week when Peugeot stunned ALMS and the new FIA World Endurance Championship by announcing it would not be competing at Sebring, Le Mans or anywhere else in 2012.  That leaves only Audi as a factory entry at Sebring, along with a hand full of independent teams affiliated with Honda, Lola, Mazda and others.

Not surprisingly, Hurley Haywood, the only five-time winner at Daytona, believes Grand-Am is now in a position to take a leadership position in American sports car racing. 

“That super, super expensive type of racing is so outrageously expensive to compete in, that the formulas like Grand-Am has, both on the DP side and the GT side, make so much more sense for 1) individual teams and 2), manufacturers,” Haywood said.  “So I think the manufacturers are figuring that out, and they're coming to support more reasonably-priced racing.
“Our cars are -- technically they're not dinosaurs. They've got all the bells and whistles on them that the fancy stuff has, but we just control the costs of operation a little bit better than some of the other sanctioning bodies.”

Because of the move to new DP cars there will be fewer of them competing at Daytona, probably less than 15 in a field of about 60.  A third of those will be Corvettes and the Chevy-powered cars claimed the top five times in the open tests, although less than a second separated the top 10 runners.

Normally the Ganassi Racing super teams would be the odds-on favorite, but they got a late start and didn’t take delivery of its new BMW Rileys until late December.  Lead driver Scott Pruett says they might even have to run one of last year’s generation two cars in the race.  Still, with Pruett looking to join Haywood as a five time winner, you can’t count out them out. 

With all the attention being paid to the Corvettes and Team Ganassi, there will be six Ford-powered cars in DP with drivers including Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Allan McNish, A.J. Allmendinger and Colin Braun.    

The smaller DP field will be balanced by a surge in the GT class.  What was once a Porsche playground now has both Audi and Ferrari supporting very competitive independent efforts.  A host of Mustangs, Camaros and Mazdas will fill out the GT field.   And while DP cars continue to run at about the same speeds as they have for the past several years, the GT cars are running faster each year and are becoming more difficult to pass.  A number of DP and GT cars tangled during the pre-season test and it will be something to watch for in the Rolex.

Looking ahead, Grand-Am has assembled an impressive 2012 schedule with new races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Detroit joining races at Mid-Ohio, Road America, Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca and Lime Rock.  In addition to Sebring, ALMS visits many of the same tracks, including Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio and Road America, adding Long Beach, Baltimore, Virginia International Raceway and Road Atlanta.

It will be especially interesting to see which series draws the most fans at tracks where they both compete.

Pit Stops

All three IndyCar engine suppliers were on the track together for the first time this past week when Lotus joined Honda and Chevrolet powered teams at Sebring for several days of testing.  There was no official timing, but Scott Dixon was thought to have turned in the fastest lap in his Target Chip Ganassi Honda, while Kanaan was just a tick slower and topped the Chevrolet speed charts for KV Racing.  Lotus focused on durability runs with Simona De Silvestro turning in the most laps overall. 

IndyCar also is reportedly satisfied after a couple days of wind tunnel tests that the new Dallara DW12 chassis will post speeds similar to the car it is replacing on oval tracks.  Concerns had arisen after November tests at Indianapolis Motor Speedway had seen speeds topping out in the mid-215 mph range, well under last year’s top speeds.  After making a number of aerodynamic tweaks on the 2012 chassis and using a 2011 chassis from Target Chip Ganassi Racing as a baseline, IndyCar said the two posted similar wind tunnel numbers and, as a result, should produce similar numbers on the track. 

"I admit there were times that I got discouraged over the winter," KV Racing Technology co-owner Jimmy Vasser said. "You kept getting bad reports about the car -- at least from the oval testing -- and how everything was doom and gloom.  But now that I've had a chance to see and hear the car going around the track, I'm pumped.  I'm excited to go racing with these things."

Now this is special.  The Circuit of the Americas, the race track being built near Austin, Tex., to host the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race in November, is selling personal seat licenses ranging in cost from $1,000 to $5,000. 

Seat licenses have been used in recent years by NFL, MLB and major college football teams, providing fans the right to buy tickets, especially at new stadiums.  The Circuit of the Americas license allows purchasers to be first in line to buy tickets at the track for the next 15 years.  You’re paying in order to be first in line to buy your ticket.  Hmmm.  Takes a lot of guts considering a month ago it was 50/50 proposition whether or not the track would ever be finished.    

But if you’re interested, the line starts today at    

NASCAR’s annual media tour is underway this week in Charlotte and several new teams have already announced plans to run at least a partial Sprint Cup schedule in 2012.  There had been some question whether NASCAR would be able to field full 43-car starting lineups at all its races and the new teams make that more likely, although they’ll be mostly of the start-and-park variety.  Inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday were Richie Evans, Dale Inman, Darrell Waltrip, Glen Wood and Cale Yarborough. 

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