OURSLER: The Rambling Road
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — More than a week after it ended, the 2014 Tudor United SportsCar Championship era beginning race has left unanswered the critical question of whether or not the series’ audience will accept the NASCAR-inspired vision that has spawned the title chase.
After 24 hours, the finish among the two headlining prototype contenders came down to one and a half ticks of the clock. Yet the victory by the Action Express Corvette sports racing coupe of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais over the similar entry of the family Taylor that included father Wayne, his sons, Ricky and Jordan, and Max Angelelli most likely won’t be long remembered.
The battle between the top prototype contenders was close throughout, something that should have been memorable in its own right. Given that long-distance events such as the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans are usually decided by 10s of miles rather than the few paltry yards that have been the hallmark of so many Rolex 24 endings, the buzz over how the new era in sports car competition was born should be part of a conversion that is still ongoing.
But, it isn’t, this leading to the question of why.
The new Tudor championship’s approach to marketing the series is in a real sense contrived, with movable regulations intended to “balance” the performance between competitors in its individual categories. While not necessarily new, it is solution that runs counter to tradition when it comes to sports car racing.
For them the attraction isn’t so much close competition, but excellence: about seeing the best in terms of technology that humankind can produce. Unfortunately, this runs counter to the NASCAR culture where the tighter the competition, the better the fans like it.
Make no mistake about it, NASCAR became a powerhouse in motorsports because it gave stock car fans exactly that — the tightest racing one could see anywhere.
However, the ingredients powering the road racing world are different. The audience wants imaginations to soar rather than to be constrained, which was the case in the Rolex Grand-Am era that ended last fall and which has been carried over by the IMSA-sanctioned Tudor championship.
Clearly, despite the successes of unfettered series like the old “run what you brung” Can-Am, motorsport needs to have constraints.
Yet, while it seems logical to dictate such restrictions in the stock car world, in the sports car sandbox the approach is the opposite. There the engineers are given complete freedom as to how to meet the challenges placed before them by the rules makers — a fact quite evident in the 2014 regulations for Le Mans and its World Endurance Championship offspring.
Having said all of this, however, there is something to be said for the way IMSA does business, because the costs of bringing forth a top of the line prototype are so great that only a few of the best endowed manufacturers can afford to engage in the exercise. Where in the past privateers had a good chance at beating the factories, often turning opportunity into reality, modern technology has made that equation a thing of the past.
At Le Mans last June there were roughly 150 people needed at the track to ensure Audi’s third straight triumph in the 24-hour classic. Not since the 1980s when Porsche’s 956s and 962s were dominant could an independent team with a fraction of that number of personnel have any hope of standing on the podium’s top step. The NASCAR folks have chosen to solve that issue by eliminating the top prototype category from the Tudor championship, preferring instead to base the series on last year’s Daytona Prototypes and the European-bred LMP2 sports racers.
In light of everything, it is perhaps the most sensible, if not the only option open to those responsible for shaping not just the future of the Tudor tour, but professional sports car racing in North America.
What this year’s Rolex 24 At Daytona lacked was “presence.” Happily there is a commitment to getting it right. However, doing so is something that needs to happen sooner, rather than later.