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OURSLER: The Rambling Road

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Several years ago the future of General Motors itself, much less its racing programs was in doubt.

Today GM is again thriving as the number one car maker on the planet. As for its motorsports efforts, over this past weekend the Detroit manufacturer showed its muscle on the track as well, winning both the American Le Mans Series’ Laguna Seca Mazda Raceway Six-Hour and Grand Am’s New Jersey Motorsports Park two and three quarter hour show.

At Laguna, it was Oliver Gavin and Tom Milner, Jr. leading Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia to a one-two Corvette sweep of the hotly contested ALMS GT division, while in Southern New Jersey, Ricky Taylor and Max Angelelli posted their second straight Rolex overall triumph of the year with the SunTrust Daytona Prototype Corvette.

Perhaps more important than the coast-to-coast celebrating by Corvette enthusiasts, is the fact that at this time last year, while GM was heavily involved in the NASCAR owned Grand Am Rolex arena, it had not yet decided to lend its iconic Corvette brand name to the championship’s prototype division.

When GM revealed in the fall of 2011 its Daytona Prototype Corvette bodywork would be used by all the Chevrolet DP teams regardless of the chassis underneath, it placed itself in the middle of what, if not exactly is a war, is at least a very uneasy peace between the Grand Am and the ALMS.

Ever since Don Panoz started ALMS in 1999, and Grand Am responded with its “new look” Daytona Prototype Rolex era in 2003, the two have sought to appeal, despite denials, to the same, relatively small — but many feel — demographically influential sports car audience. Moreover, it is an appeal, which includes not only those watching the action, but also to those making it.

At the root of all this, as it has always been is money — and lots of it.

Advances in technology, no matter what their applications, are hugely expensive, a fact particularly true at the higher end of the prototype universe. Consider for a moment that in the 1980s privateers, such as Reinhold Joest could win the 24 Hours of Le Mans as privateers; Joest doing it not once but twice in 1984 and ’85 with his Newman clothing sponsored Porsche 956.

That is not possible now. Today’s turbo diesels and hybrids along with their multitudes of support personnel are simply too expensive for any private entrant. And, as if that is not enough, even their readily purchasable counterparts are likewise so costly, and with so little hope of victory that they are rare items on the verge of extinction.

All that was clear at Laguna where just two of the top-of-the-line LMP1 sports racers were in attendance: the winning Muscle Milk HPD Acura ARX-03a of Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr which won handily and the Dyson Racing Lola Mazda of Chris Dyson which, while collecting second place points in class, was never in the hunt, finishing 23rd overall.

So what was there to watch at Laguna for the high tech fans who attended? The answer: good battles in the two lower LMP2 and spec category LMPC divisions where Luis Diaz and Scott Tucker won the former in the HPD Acura ARX-03b and Colin Braun and Jon Bennett took the latter with their Chevy-powered Oreca.

The warfare there was intense and thrilling, going down to the very end with the Acura second overall and the Oreca right behind in third.

Obviously, the presence of these lesser performing cars have added much not only to the ALMS in Central California but to its season as a whole. However, by definition they’re not top rank. In essence then, the fans were like kids at Christmas hoping for the latest iPad, but getting instead a less desirable laptop.

On the other hand, the Rolex rules since 2003 have been aimed at solving the paucity of privately owned prototypes by limiting technology and keeping manufacturer teams out.

It is a solution, which as produced simplicity, not to mention great racing, but one, which so far has been a hard sell to sport car racing’s fan base.

All this brings us back to the production arena, not only in ALMS where, even at the end of Laguna the GT contingent, including the winning Corvettes, along with their BMW M3 and Porsche rivals were all covered by a small and wet blanket, but also in New Jersey where the finish was equally tight.

While Jeff Segal and Emile Assentato, like Taylor and Angelelli, posted their second consecutive triumph with the Ferrari 458 Italia, the results were in doubt to the end with the Stevenson Motorsport Camaro of John Edwards and Robin Liddell and the Magnus Racing Porsche 911 GT3 of Andy Lally and Potter only yards back.

Ultimately, at least in North America, sports car fans are being treated to a “triage” experience; one that gives them competition, but perhaps not the kind they been used to in the past, but something on a lesser level than hopefully will continue to let at least some, if not all of the sport continue to live.

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Posted by on May 15 2012 Filed under Columns, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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