Friday, September 7, 2012

Gentlemen, Start Your Sports Cars

It was a news item that snuck right past many NASCAR fans. After all, sports car racing is for a different breed of motorsports fan. All the different types of cars on the same track is confusing. The drivers are mostly foreign, rarely well-known and there is little national media coverage surrounding the sport.

Well, all of that is about to change. The two major professional sports car series operating in the US have merged. The American Le Mans Series was owned by Don Panoz. The Grand Am Rolex series was owned by Jim France. Now, they are both owned by NASCAR. That's right, NASCAR.

Click here for a review of the official merger announcement from Jeff Olson at USA Today. As Olson reported, the total value of the deal was approximately $10 million. Aside from the under-used Road Atlanta and the crumbling Sebring track, the concept that NASCAR wants to totally control this brand of racing in the US is fascinating.

It's not hard to remember France talking about his Grand Am plans long ago. For the top series, he took the NASCAR template of requiring teams to use basically one chassis and gave them a choice of tires and engines. This was the polar opposite of the classic Le Mans style sports car environment of manufacturer prototypes fighting it out while trying to avoid the racing dentists in their rent-a-ride Porsches.

The result of the France plan was that Grand Am got a TV package and some media, but ultimately detached from the global sports car community. The season opening Rolex 24 race from Daytona took on an entirely different look. Grand Am's own "company cars" raced against each other without the feel and flair of real sports car racing.

France is NASCAR's executive vice president and vice chairman. He and Panoz will share senior management duties of the newly-merged sports car series with France taking the senior position. Lesa France Kennedy, who oversees the family's racetrack properties, and NASCAR's deputy general counsel Karen Leetzow are also prominent members of the new organization's board of directors.

All of this leaves a lot of unanswered questions on the table. The new organization has no name but will begin racing in 2014. There are no technical rules in place, no class configurations and few specifics available. Guarded optimism has been the polite response from various manufacturers.

""While we await further details on the homologations and rules for the individual classes," Ford director of racing Jamie Allison told Olson, "the new, unified approach has a lot of appeal to Ford due to the potential international alignment."

The bottom line is that this unholy alliance is essentially a buyout of ALMS by France and NASCAR. Click here for another take on the deal from Chris Gill of Gatehouse News Service. While it makes sense for the two weakened series to unite, even trying to imagine what configuration or classes the series may run is an exercise in futility.

Grand Am makes use of Kennedy's International Speedway Corporation tracks and runs several weekends with various NASCAR series. Now, France has cornered the market on professional sports car racing in the country and can essentially set the tone for the future with a blank piece of paper. While Panoz was the sole connection to Le Mans and the international set, his tone seems to have changed.

"This series that we are putting together is the American Sports Car Series," Panoz told Gill. "We have to take care of our own business, our own market, addressing our sponsors, our fans, our teams, and that’s exactly what we are going to do. Of course we are going to pay attention to what’s going on around us, but we’ll be acting responsibly in our own best interests."

Those words may foreshadow yet another switch in the strategic direction of sports car racing in North America. Whether this new series becomes more closely aligned with NASCAR in terms of racing, business practices and shared media resources is yet to be determined.

One thing is for sure, France and company will have a very busy 2013 trying to build a healthy sports car franchise amid a rapidly changing automotive marketplace and shrinking sponsorship environment. This may be the very last chance for sports car racing to get a toehold in North America and slowly try to climb the ladder of racing success.

We invite your opinion on this topic. Comments may be moderated prior to posting.


Anonymous said...

I agree JD that it is an "unholy alliance". I say that as a life-long fan of sports car racing. I live literally 5 miles from Road Atlanta and go to Petit LeMans every year.

Grand Am is one of the most boring series on the face of the planet, and I fear it will be the death of the ALMS aspect. Much as the merger of IRL and CART was 5 years ago.

I'm honestly sick about this merger. I do hope that you and I are wrong about this though.

Dsburne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dsburne said...

Might this be a foreshadowing of an American based Supercar Series in the next few years? There needs to be some additional exposure for these manufacturers and why would'nt they want to use the marketing muscle of NASCAR.

Of course this may also play into NASCAR needing some additional programming for a broadcast channel... One can only hope.

Unknown said...

I wonder if the hold up has to do with the grand am contract with speed, i red somewhere that on the wait to 2014 had to do with a television contract, and jd had written about the writing on the wall regrading speed, so if the grand am contract was to the end of the 2013 year is it another sign of speed rebranding.

Bobby said...

Grand-Am's television package was much better than ALMS, which had Webcasting and next-day delay television coverage. The entire ACO (Le Mans) prototype situation has been a problem with factory prototypes and the FIA World Endurance Championship for ACO's GT and Prototypes has put ALL of ACO's regional series (ALMS, LMS, Asia Le Mans) in turmoil.

Furthermore, NASCAR has been working with Stephane Ratel and his organisation towards Grand-Am GT becoming the United States' National GT3 Championship. Volkswagen Group (Porsche, Audi) and Ferrari have each brought GT3 cars to Grand-Am, and both BMW and Aston Martin are seriously looking at NASCAR's modifications required for GT3 (no ABS or traction control, truer to stock 5-lug patterns, diffuser and wing differences, which can be changed for different national GT3 series, but also the sturdier roll cage requirements that many believed helped Joey Hand escape from a nasty crash at Mid-Ohio). A Grand-Am team can take a GT3 car they race, replace the diffuser and wing, and race the car in a Blancpain Endurance or any GT3-spec series worldwide.

Don't be surprised to see NASCAR seriously make GT3 racing part of the Rolex Series and works with Ratel to make it the North American GT3 Championship.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking at the potential positives out of this. This will ensure that the 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Daytona are under one umbrella again. And they have made claims that I am assuming will stay true (its in their interest) that they will continue to have some connection with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest allowing for cross participation between the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans again. These are the pluses I take out of this.

Ideally I would think they would have 3-4 classes of cars with better fields now. I assume they'll keep their DP's but hopefully also have an LMP class now, especially if they want to keep that European connection.

Ultimately, we'll see in January 2014!

Mike in Pittsburgh said...

We saw what happened when Tony George finally got removed from the job of killing open wheel. We got better tracks(street and road courses)and more manufactures. Rumor is that Detroit threatened to pull money from both series because they were tired of spending money on both.

Bringing sports cars back together can only help but this was not a merger but a buyout by the wrong company. I love watching Grand-Am and NASCAR in spite of what the France family has done to them but I would much much rather see Panoz and his crew running things which I doubt will happen.

One good thing is now we have a chance of getting a Cup race at Road Atlanta, maybe the Kansas chase race?

AncientRacer said...

It did not get by me. I am sharp as a tack fresh out of the corrugated cheesy odd feeling paper pad.

It did not get by me because, being sharp and all, I read the right side of TDP.

So that dispatched -- I guess its amounts to just another thing for The Palace to ru … ru … oh, ... in ... It all

Anonymous said...

This is the best thing that could happen to sportscar racing. If the France family does this right and makes both ALMS and Grand Am fans happy it could become the second best series in America. Indycar better watch out.

Arian Gomez said...

At first I thought that this was going to be a diaster with basically Grand-Am asborbing American Le Mans Series, but now my opinion is changed. It seems like Grand Am respects the Le Mans link and will incorpate it in the unifed series. Now the 64,000 dollar question is, where are we going to see this new great series in 2014, and will Fox Sports 1 even care to put this Nascar property on if they win part of the 2014 tv contract.

Anonymous said...

I believe the complete opposite.

High tech is fine but I'd rather see competition. The ALMS is a snoozer. Also, great TV contract. Too bad Espn 3 wasn't called the Espn 8. It'd have to fight for air time with Dodgeball on the 'Ocho'.

I'm thrilled that the ALMS is folding. Not a big fan of these kinds of cars on street circuits, hopefully that will disappear.

Pretty sad that Road Atlanta wasn't on the WEC schedule. Shows you how much the rest of the world thought of the ALMS and Panoz.

I forget, didn't Audi test at Sebring this year, but wouldn't waste its time racing at Sebring?

Colorado said...

The France family buying anything is a trainwreck waiting to happen. They need to worry about their current product on the track before they start with sports cars and glass dashboards... This family is the perfect example of "more money than brains". If Jim France spent as much effort kicking his nephew's a** instead of worrying about sports cars, NASCAR would be a credible "sport", instead of the circus joke it is now."Guarded optimism" is pretty telling. "Scared" is a more apt word that I would use. Again, I can't stress enough that they need to finish their dinner before they ask for dessert...

Robert McAdam said...

I am not sure that this merger will take place. The news conference looked like a hostage tape. How could they go into a presser without even knowing the name of the new series? No name, no logo, nothing.

GT racing in both Grand-Am and ALMS is great. I hope that France doesn't ruin it.

I like the new generation of DP. I hope that they keep them.

One big downside, we will go from a total of 22 races to 12. Oh well.

GinaV24 said...

"homologations"? what is that? Do we really need more "generic" brand racing?

I've tried following this series on TV and I do find it difficult to figure out what is going on.

So once more the France family will control a form of racing and literally "drive" it into the ground.

glenc1 said...

I am really only a casual fan in the Rolex series so these are only 'casual' observations....but the news did catch my eye. Because they have always come to the Glen, I sort of got in to watching it, and got familiar with the teams. I am certainly no sports car expert (am not really a gearhead), but I would be cautiously optimistic. If you're trying to appeal to 'ordinary' people; to make them interested in this type of racing, NASCAR has actually (IMHO) done a good job. Almost hurt to say that, lol. But they have gone out of their way to try and 'introduce' the drivers/teams to the audience, and they had to be giddy when Dempsey showed up. Like it or not, that is going to get some attention, just like Priestley did for Indycars. They have 'meet & greets' in the garage open to everyone, for example; they put out flyers to explain the differences in the classes, etc. They even have a very small crop of young Americans.... The classes & rules may not satisfy the sports car experts, but how many of them are there? The Glen is not one of those tracks that has a few races a year and is dead the rest of the time. The sports car clubs and driving instruction schools run there the whole season long; it's a busy place. I've been down there...lots of them are the 'rich dentist' types; some are just regular guys with an expensive hobby. But you can't build fandom on those people alone. So they have to make it understandable and appealing to 'regular' people. Like others, I was curious that NASCAR was interested in monopolizing this kind of racing--there must be money in it somewhere. ALMS was not exactly thriving in the US. But as others have pointed out, without a TV contract, sports car racing would be nowhere; so what happens without SPEED, if that comes to fruition?

Jonathan said...

Dont know what to think of this will be interesting to see what happends.
Gina give this time this may be good.

James said...

You wanna bring this new series into the spot light?
Let them open the Nascar weekend at Talladega...and no, not a road course.
Dress up those Porsche's and hit the high banks for 200 miles without a restrictor plate.

Go to Bristol, Richmond, California 10 races a year on Nascar tracks.

World Rally Car gained a ton of fans from their races at Texas and Charlotte.

Exposure works!

Auto Journalist said...

"the under-used Road Atlanta and the crumbling Sebring track"...

This is the mark of someone who apparently knows nothing of what goes on at Road Atlanta throughout the year (it's used for sport bike and club events as well as drifting and all kinds of other motorsports-related stuff all year), and who hasn't really spent any good time at Sebring.

I've covered both for more than a decade and would much rather be at either of those circuits for the week, than any of SMI/ISC's cookie-cutter 1.5-mi tri-ovals.

Sebring is old. Older than pretty much anything you see in NASCAR these days. But is it "crumbling?" No, you've obviously confused Florida's greatest road course, with Turn 2 at Daytona.

Charlie Spencer said...

Like glenc1, I don't know from sports cars. I've been watching Grand Am for only a couple of years. Maybe ignorance is bliss, but I like the televised product. I've long thought Cup should run more road courses, so for me it nicely fills that hole. I think they pay too much attention to the DP class over the GTs, but the top tier will always get the most attention regardless of how many are sanctioned.

I knew ALMS existed, but that's still about the limit of my knowledge. I had no idea they even had a TV contract, much less which network they're on. I was surprised to learn that Dempsey is the only team that participates in both series; the merger should make it easier on them financially.

I hope this doesn't lead to overexposure. Much as I'd love to see these guys show up at Carolina Motorsports Park (ha!), I think this is a case where less is better. Too many races might make it too expensive for the regular participants to run every race; the DP class often fields less than a dozen entries. It would also make it make it more difficult to avoid scheduling conflicts with the more popular Cup broadcasts, possibly leading to tape delay.

I view this positively, but I acknowledge I don't know squat about the history of the sport.

Daly Planet Editor said...

Auto Journalist,

Been to Sebring for three decades. It's a pit. The hotel is a pit. The parking is a pit. Spot repairs keep it viable when weather makes it the only choice to use for winter testing and racing.

Road Atlanta is often referred to as the lost track. I was there in the 80's when sports car racing had a moment in the sun. Since then, most fans don't even know it exists.

I appreciate your views and welcome your comments. Understand my views are my own and I will continue to voice them strongly as I have for many years.

Thanks for stopping by.


Auto Journalist said...

JD -- Of course your views are your own (as our each of ours), and I've always appreciated your opinions. We agree, we disagree, but I tend to respect your voice.

I haven't just taken hot laps at each track - I've walked every inch of both circuits. Obviously, Atlanta's in better shape (owing to recent repaving and new configurations) but the tarmac at Sebring is a beast in its own right.

Speaking of Sebring: The hotel, by which I'm guessing you mean the Chateau Elan? If that's what you call a pit, you should take a 5-minute ride up Rt. 27 and see what hell on earth looks like. The hotel on the circuit is pretty swank, as track accommodations go. It's no Bellagio, but for southern central Florida it's the cream. I'm pretty sure I have some idea which room Baby Boy Brian will mark as his own.

I'm not exactly cheering this takeover, given that I'm coming from a strong ALMS background (and I don't trust anyone in Daytona), but it looks as if what happened, did so for the continued existence of sports car racing in North America. We'll see how it goes.

Thanks for your reply!


kiara said...

I am not really a big fan of sports cars or racing shows, but I definitely love watching these TV spots. I bet owners of these cars have their own private mechanic to maintain it. They might also have their go-to auto shop for car services.