TUSC’s First Sebring 12 Hours: A Pretty Good Race

March 19, 2014 Updated: March 19, 2014

SEBRING, Fla.—After its somewhat shaky start at Daytona, the Tudor United SportsCar Series needed a really strong showing at the second of its iconic North American endurance classics, the Sebring 12 Hours, to show fans, teams, and sponsors that this new sports car series was worth the price of admission.

Despite what might be described as a “Fix this, break that” management style and some rotten luck, TUSC pulled off a pretty good race.

While there wasn’t nearly as much actual racing as fans would have wanted (more on that later) the racing that did take place was first-rate. No exaggeration, no hype, no spin—the best sports cars in North America did battle on one of the toughest tracks and they did it well.

Several cars contested the overall lead, the GTLM lead switched between Ferrari, Corvette, Viper and Porsche, and even GTD provided excellent, competitive racing. When the cars were running there was action all over the track. As far as all that went, TUSC couldn’t have done better.

(Anyone interested in watching the race can, thanks to TUSC: the entire event can be streamed from the IMSA website. It is definitely worth watching—and you can fast-forward through the yellows.) 

Other factors detracted sufficiently from the overall experience that in the end, the 62nd Sebring 12 Hours was just a pretty good race—but not all of that was TUSC’s fault.

Much Better Than Daytona, Mostly

TUSC’s first race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was also a pretty good race, until the last 20 minutes, when a questionable caution angered fans and sparked cries of “Conspiracy!” All that aside, the race had some issues, most notably Balance of Performance among the two different Prototype chassis types, and next most obvious, the quality of the Internet broadcast (which was the only broadcast through much of the race.)

A lot of fans expected TUSC to show NASCAR arrogance and ignore the fans’complaints. That really isn’t NASCAR’s way of dealing with fans, though: the venerable and highly successful stock car racing sanctioning body has always listened to its fans and has actually tried hard to give them what it thought they wanted (right down to permitting cars to run each other off the track.)

TUSC really stepped up its game for Sebring. The BoP between the Daytona Prototypes and P2s was almost perfect, and none of the various GT cars seemed to have any unfair advantage either. BoP in the premier class was one of the three most important changes TUSC needed to make. The vast majority of sports car fans on this continent were ALMS fans, not Rolex fans; overcoming any appearance of favoring the old Rolex cars over old ALMS cars would be a guaranteed way to alienate three-quarters of the fan base.

Well, TUSC’s tech team did the job as well as it could be done: the two types of cars were as equal in potential as rules could make them. No fan can rationally claim that the series favored DPs after seeing the race at Sebring.

Third most important was the broadcast quality. NASCAR’s Motor Racing Network was picked to do the radio and Internet announcing for the series and this is a highly experienced, very knowledgeable crew—when it comes to oval-track racing. The crew knew virtually nothing about sports car racing when it called the Rolex, and that broadcast was painful to listen to.

For Sebring, TUSC not only brought in sports car veteran announcer Greg Creamer, the rest of the MRN crew seemed to have learned a lot of about the sport in the interim. There were still far too many plugs for other NASACR events rather than discussion of sports car events, but that is business—MRN won’t be covering any other sports car events, so it ignored them in its broadcast. Otherwise, the coverage was a huge improvement over the Rolex.

But media coverage was third; BoP in the top class was first. What issue was second in importance?

Officiating and race management, where a combination of fate and folly ruined every effort TUSC had made to improve.

The Nearly Seven Hours of Sebring

The first thing anyone noticed about the 62nd Sebring 12 Hours was that almost half the race was run under caution. Starting 18 minutes into the race, a record-tying eleven full-course cautions and one red flag cut what was supposed to be an endurance race into a series of short dashes, many barely long enough for the cars to warm their tires.

Only three times in the race did cars run under green for two hours or more; 2:57, 2:40, and 2:06 were the longest green-flag runs. Interspersed were seven runs of about 20 minutes each, and a couple stints of about an hour.

At 291 laps and 1,088 miles, the 2014 Sebring 12 Hours was the shortest race ever run on the current 3.74-mile layout—34 laps and 113 miles shorter than the 2012 race which also had a 62-car grid and 11 cautions.

One can expect a certain number of incidents on a crowded race track over 12 hours. TUSC cannot be blamed for some of the truly bone-headed moves pulled by certain drivers, nor the mechanical failures which are simply part of endurance racing—and important part, because the endurance of the machine as well as the crew is supposed to be tested.

Unfortunately for TUSC, which is trying hard to sell this series, anyone tuning in to the live TV broadcast of the first three hours spent most of their time watching nothing—and some part of that is TUSC’s fault.

TUSC can’t control the accidents and incidents, but it can control its response, and here the series might need a few more changes.

First off, there are a variety of ways to handle a disable or damaged car. Full-course caution is not the only option, or it should not be. Other series use other methods and do so safely (and safety of drivers and track workers is paramount—getting back to racing a few minutes earlier is not a good trade for someone’s health or life.) Still, other series have proven by doing that damaged and disabled cars can be extricated a lot more quickly than TUSC ever managed to do it.

Some people say local yellows or Code 60 won’t work because drivers ignore flags and speed limits. Drivers won’t ignore black flags, huge fines, and suspensions. We are talking about drivers risking the lives of safety workers—as in any other sport where players unnecessarily endanger the safety of other, players should get benched for breaking the rules. If the excuse is that the series cannot make the drivers obey the rules, then the series has admitted utter incompetence and deserves to fail.

Second is the length of the caution periods. TUSC seems to use the approach of completely cleaning up the problem, then opening the pits, then using a few more laps for wave-arounds and wave-bys, so that there is no way to resume racing in less than 20 minutes, even if all that was needed was for a marshal to run out and grab a piece of debris.

One quick improvement would be to drop the Lap-Down Wave-By, which would not only shorten the caution period by a lap or two, it would remove one of the most obnoxiously unfair aspects of the series, the kind of consolation-prize free lap given out after every caution periods to create the illusion that a lot of cars are close to the leader.

Another more complicated issue is response time. Apparently marshals are not allowed to act independently—even if they see a burning car with the driver inside, the safety crews need to ask for permission to respond. When Ben Keating’s GTD Viper caught fire near Turn Six, he had to extricate himself.

Luckily the course was already under caution and the fire wasn’t caused by a collision, but how long will it be until a car crashes and burns? Seconds count in saving lives, and having to radio for permission to save someone is asinine. If the corner workers aren’t smart enough to know when to go, replace them—but these are generally SCCA vets who know more about their jobs than the series management. The corner workers need to be allowed to do their jobs—not for shorter cautions or a better TV show, but to save lives.

Insurance is expensive, as are lawsuits—that is understood. Still, either the corner workers are good enough at their jobs to do those jobs, and thus should be allowed to, or they are not, and they should be replaced. Corner workers are not looking to get hurt to score a big payday, they are looking to help run a race and to help drivers who need it. Asking them to stand by and watch a car burn is wrong in every way.

That Last Caution

The Rolex 24 was ruined in the minds of many fans by a very questionable caution thrown in the last 20 minutes when the AJR Porsche hit the tires in the East Horseshoe and drove away under its own power. The penchant of certain NASCAR series to throw a late yellow to bunch up the field for an “exciting” sprint finish is anathema for most sports car fans, who would rather see a car win by a full lap honestly than see any kind of manufactured spectacle.

This left TUSC in a bind when the #90 SDR Coyote-Corvette stalled trackside with 50 minutes left in the Sebring 12 Hours. The car was in a hard braking zone—it couldn’t simply be left there. The car was also quite close to a break in the wall—it could have been towed aside pretty quickly.

The optimal solution would have been just that—get the car off the course fast so the end of the race can play out uninterrupted.

Instead, the caution lasted for 31 minutes; 31 minutes (actually 30:33) to move one car which left no fluid and no debris on track. Hitch it up, tow it away. What took 31 minutes?

The final caution period was the second-longest of the race—and many of the others involved cleaning up acres of track littered with carbon fiber and various mechanical components. What took so long?

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not believe that TUSC waited until the #01 Ganassi Riley Ford was certain to have enough fuel to finish the race in first place.

I do not believe that TUSC deliberately rewarded the richest Rolex team (and multiple Rolex champion) in order to give a popular Rolex driver and team its first Sebring win, or to create the headline “Ganassi Wins First Sebring 12 Hours” or to give Scott Pruett the joy of a win at Sebring (he is much in need of surgery to repair damage from crashes early in his career; he stayed around for this season but might sit out the next—or retire.)

I don’t believe those things—but some fans will. The Appearance of Impropriety is enough, after that disgusting spectacle at Daytona.

That last yellow flag was unavoidable. What was not unavoidable was such a long caution late in the race. Fans desperately want to see a real race with a Real exciting finish—not a manufactured “exciting” finish. Fans could accept that Ganassi pitted early and won the race by the luck of the draw but if fans have to wonder if Ganassi planned on a late caution, and that caution was a lot longer than it needed to be ….

The funniest part of all this? The finish was exciting anyway and would have been more so if the caution had been shorter. Watching Sebastian Bourdais chase Ryan Dalziel for second was glorious—two of the fastest sports car drivers on the planet, in very different buy very even machinery, going all-out, setting fastest laps, really racing—That’s what it’s about.

If Marino Franchitti in the Ganassi car had been stretching his fuel, pushing hard to stay ahead while also wondering if he would run dry, that would have added another layer of tension and excitement. Had the caution been twenty instead of thirty minutes long, the “Dash to the Finish: would have been twice as good.

The Blown Call

The low point of the race and the entire TUSC series to date was unquestionably when TUSC officials penalized the wrong car and totally upset the standings in two classes. This has been discussed at length here, but in brief: Two cars collided, and video evidence showed clearly which car was at fault.

Race officials then penalized a car which was totally uninvolved and nowhere near the scene, and refused to consider that they might have made an enormous error until finally … they admitted that they had made an enormous error. Unfortunately too much time had passed; there was no way to undo the damage without penalizing many other cars which had also not done anything wrong.

The level of incompetence displayed here is far too great to express in words. The guilty car was clearly identifiable, and it clearly was not the car which was penalized. Arrogant, incompetent race officials made a mockery of the finishing results in two of the four classes simply because they refused to entertain the idea that they might have been wrong.

Everyone involved should be looking for new jobs. TUSC needs to show that if it cannot do the simplest things right, it is at least serious about not letting them go wrong again.

Prototype Challenge: Too Am for the Big Time?

A serious issue revealed by this race is the experience level of some of the ride-buying drivers in the Pro-Am Prototype Challenge class. As the cost of racing has risen sharply, the need to bring in rich businessmen who want to race has also increased, and some of these drivers simply lack sufficient experience. PC drivers caused most of the cautions in the first half of the race, mostly through terrible decision-making.

There is the very reasonable question of whether this class should be in the series at all (and the reasonable answer is “No,”) but there is also the question of how these drivers get licensed to drive in the continent’s top-tier sports car series with only a couple of years experience driving much slower cars.

One can forgive a novice driver for getting over-excited during such an important race, but one cannot simply forgive causing huge life-threatening wrecks through poor driving or poor decision-making. The strength of the Oreca FLM-09 chassis saved a lot of lives Saturday, but enough rolls of the dice and someone will lose and that is not acceptable.

TUSC needs to tell some drivers that no matter how much money they bring, they aren’t ready to compete with the world’s best.

Admittedly, some pro drivers make some idiotic moves as well (some of them named Malucelli.) No one is immune to the red fog of racing. But by and large the pros don’t make stupid mistakes, which is why they are still getting hired to drive. The amateurs don’t through that screening process—as long as they can write a check they can have a seat.

One cannot write a check to buy a driver’s license for the street—but can for a racetrack? What’s wrong with this picture?

Moving Forward

Sixty-two cars took the green flag, on par with the biggest field Sebring has seen this century, and almost every car was competitive in its class. Attendance was down, by most reports, but it was still healthy. Race coverage was better than at Daytona, and the race itself was a pretty good race—a really good race when the cars were actually racing.

Sadly, as at Daytona, the negatives overshadowed the many positives. TUSC did a vastly better job at Sebring than at Daytona. The racing (what there was of it) was as good as it gets. The rest of the show was flawed, however.

After Daytona, TUSC management recognized their errors and tried to fix some of them. That process needs to continue.

The next event, at Long Beach, is a short race with a small field; because the track is so short and narrow, only the top pro classes will be present—the Prototypes class, and GT Le Mans. While the field will be numerically smaller, the track will still be packed with action, and these are TUSC’s premier classes. The race should be intense—a twisting, bumpy street course lined with concrete walls, the some of the world’s best drivers pushing hard on every lap for any advantage.

Unfortunately, the probability for yellow flags is high, and TUSC cannot afford thirty-minute yellows in an already short event. Further, TUSC cannot afford Any controversy. The series has run its two most important races, the Rolex 24 and the Sebring 12 Hours, and after both, fans were talking about everything except the racing.

If TUSC want s to be a viable sports car series, attracting enough fans to draw in sponsors and enough sponsors to fund teams, it needs to start staging events that leave fans talking about the racing.

The Tequila Patròn Sports Car Showcase at Long Beach will run Saturday, April 12. For details visit IMSA.com, and to buy tickets go to the Grand Prix of Long Beach website.