OURSLER: The Rambling Road
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For the first time in four years Peugeot which has crossed swords with Audi for supremacy on the sports car racing front, won’t be present to continue the battle with its German rival at either Le Mans, or in the about to debut World Endurance Challenge championship. Although Japanese giant Toyota will be joining the fray, it won’t be until later this year, thus diminishing the interest in the opening WEC rounds, including Sebring, to a large extent.
For the American Le Mans Series this is something less tan good news in that the annual 12-Hour is also its inaugural race of 2012, as well as being perhaps its most important on its calendar.
Indeed, given that this March’s affair marks the 60th anniversary of the first Central Florida 12-Hour, the lack of the expected continuation of the titanic struggle between the German and the French auto manufacturers hurts, and hurts greatly.
Unfortunately, Peugeot’s decision to step away from the sport is at once prosaic and blunt. The economic crisis which has caught the European Union in a vice grip, and which could bring down the French financial system, has left Peugeot without the extra funds to continue in motorsport. Put another way, it isn’t selling enough cars for it to be able to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to compete successfully at the top level of the international endurance scene.
And, it is this which brings us back to this coming weekend’s Daytona Rolex 24, the season opener for the Grand Am’s Rolex Sports Series title chase. Like the rest of the sport, the Rolex has suffered the pangs of the present, and so far persistent economic downturn,
Yet, with cash short, the Grand Am’s decision of nearly a decade ago to limit the ever increasingly expensive technology of the prototype universe has given the NASCAR-owned tour an advantage over the ALMS and the Le Mans-operated WEC.
By capping the techno race, the Grand-Am has enjoyed significantly larger numbers of these sports racers at the front of its grids. The affordability of the so-called “Daytona Prototypes” has kept the rich privateers that have traditionally been the foundation of the road course scene here since World War II on board, something the ALMS has long struggled with.
In the past several years, the Don Panoz title chase has worked, with a measure of more than reasonable success to reverse that situation by adopting the Grand-Am’s tactic of keeping costs in check with its spec LMPC prototype division. Without these pumpkin seed cars, of which six are expected to run in 2012, the ALMS’s headlining division would most likely be emasculated to the point of having just two or three of the advanced technology machines.
The problem with limiting technology, no matter how it is done has the consequence of limiting the interest of the fans.
The audience for road racing has been, and continues to be a sophisticated one; a group that thrives on the exact techno advances the Daytona Prototypes and their LMP counter parts lack.
When the Grand-Am began down its egalitarian path in 2003 it said it was seeking a “new breed” of road racing enthusiast, one more interested in close, exciting competition than the pressing the envelop of performance. Now as the Rolex 24 celebrates its first half century of existence this Saturday and Sunday, and the start of its ten season of the DP era, the NASCAR championship has delivered on its promise of exciting, close racing, both among the prototypes and the production car set.
What is hasn’t done, though, is attract a new breed of spectators.
Not only that, but the old ones, for the most part, have likewise stayed home. To redress that, when the green flag waves Saturday, it will do so on a “new look” Daytona Prototype set, one whose appearance has been tremendously improved from that of past years. Will this be enough to give the NASCAR series the credibility it has been seeking? For that we’ll have to wait and see.
Keep in mind, however, that road racing isn’t built so much on reality, as it is dreams, a fact clearly evident in the ALMS’ dependence of the past several seasons on the hotly fought production arena where, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Corvette have provided riveting competition, but which have done little to significantly enlarge the ALMS’ audience.
Dreams do count. But they are also expensive. That is the conundrum plaguing road racing, and perhaps all of motorsport at this point. Peugeot’s withdrawal is evidence of that. The question if its departure is the start of a significant exodus., both corporate and private, or just a single radar screen blip. On the answer to that question could well hang the future of the sport.