USCR’S Future: Learn From What Worked in the Past
So, the new North American Sports car series, created from the merger of the nearly bankrupt American Le Mans Series (unofficial motto: “Best racing in North America—help us keep it secret”) and the financially failing NASCAR-owned Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series (“There is some actual racing here, but we try to restrain it as best we can”) has announced its name: USCR, the United Sports Car Racing series.
The series has also announced the bare framework of its 2014 rules: basically, the top class from each series will be balanced (how, no one knows—not even the management.)
Naturally fans of the two component series argue about which was better, which should dominate the new series, and whatever else each can debate, because that is the nature of competitive people.
Fans debate the relative popularity of the two series, the importance of maintaining ties with the rest of the sports car world (represented by the ACO and FIA, which run the Le Mans 24 Hours and World Endurance Championship,) the performance and appearance of the two series’ fastest cars, and which classes (Daytona Prototype or Le Mans Prototype 2) should have primacy in the new series.
Most of the debate misses the most important points.
The 2014–2015 seasons are compromise seasons, where all that matters is that the best teams from both series can still race and make enough money to come back in 2016 with new machinery.
The next two years don’t matter. DP vs. P2 doesn’t matter. Which cars some people think are prettier or uglier doesn’t matter.
What matters is where the series goes after its two-year compromise period ends, and entirely new regulations are promulgated.
In 2016 USCR will announce a whole new set of classes and its competition philosophy. The management will not have to compromise between vastly different machinery and different competition philosophies. The management will have to create a framework which is able to attract fans and thus sponsors, thereby maintaining the best teams.
ALMS CEO and President Scott Atherton and Grand Am CEO Ed Bennett have repeated that they know they have “one chance to get it right.” True enough, but they have until 2016 before that one chance comes to pass. Looking honestly at the immediate past, and also slightly farther back, could save the new series.
Popularity, Profitability, Competition Rules, and the All-American Sports Car Series Success Story
This debate gets silly after a while. One series was vastly more popular than the other. Sorry, but there it is.
Fans hear about the “attendance” as unreliably estimated by the promoters, but I rely more on what I see after walking every inch of the track for two or three days at the actual events. I also chat with spectators to get some clue as to how interested they are, and how knowledgeable.
People who have been to events from both series know the crowd at the Rolex 24 is on par with most ALMS races save for Sebring and Petit, both of which are significantly larger. Crowds at other Rolex events … well, “crowd” might not be the best word to describe number of fans in attendance.
Rolex simply doesn’t draw anything near ALMS. It has fans, but far fewer, and (this is a hugely vague generality) mostly not as deeply involved with sports car history.
On the other hand, Rolex gets much better TV numbers (and offers a much better TV product, which, along with promotion, kind of accounts for all that.) One might think ALMS fans go to the track because it is the only way to really see the race, while Rolex fans can get a good racing experience at home on the TV. And in terms of sponsorship, it is really only TV ratings which matter.
Thing is, even with the great promotion and TV product, Rolex couldn’t make money. NASCAR has been propping up the series with subsidies since Day One, and after buying it outright several years ago, has been giving it gifts and paying for teams to compete, and never making a profit. With all the advantages of a big promo budget and quality live TV coverage, the series was a loser.
ALMS put out a product which fans loved, but made such a mess of promoting and presenting it, the series failed. Rolex promoted and presented its racing in the very best fashion, and still didn’t excite the sports car fan base. [etssp 636]
The real issue is profitability. ALMS couldn’t ever make enough money to both satisfy Dr. Panoz and to also satisfy the teams, so the teams got shafted, the promotion was nearly non-existent and generally bungled, and the series went broke.
Had ALMS decided that it was okay to admit that others than the snooty-rich enjoyed the sport, ads might have featured incredible cars piloted by awesome drivers traveling at amazing speeds, and not cars saving fuel (nothing wrong with the Green-X Challenge except no one cared about it.) Coca Cola might have sponsored the series, instead of Yancy’s Fancies. ALMS might have bought TV time and actually presented its exciting racing instead of its sponsors’ lame infomercials. Dr. Panoz might have bought Grand Am.
However … Well, at least we got the Abruzzi, right?
The Rolex Series also never made a profit. Despite “close” racing (at any cost to legitimacy) it never captured fans’ hearts. Probably because “Sports Car Racing” fans are “Sports Car” fans, and could recognize that however a few folks think they looked, the Rolex cars were emasculated and outdated and constricted by the rules, and the racing was not the form of racing sports car fans loved best.
The Rolex Series was not a money-loser because the cars were ugly. The Rolex Series was a money-loser because despite a full-on promotion program and a good TV product, the racing was over-managed and (despite the slightly different body panels and the different badges on the motors) the cars were still spec cars.
Until people are honest enough to admit that That is the main problem, the new series is doomed.
The Profitability/Popularity/Competition Nexus
Even Rolex fans were annoyed when the Rolex 24 was handed to Ganassi this year, and annoyed when Shank got shafted because his engine supplier messed up. Other than that, no one cared because sports Car fans don’t care much about a series where a team can be penalized for tuning the motor better—not adding illegal parts or re-programing the ECU or anything, just tuning the motor a little better. If making the car better is not allowed, sports Car fans aren’t interested.
The Rolex way has been to make the rules so restrictive that every trace of competition is squelched. Every motor has to meet a specific torque and horsepower curve: not just limits, but how much each motor is allowed to produce at how many rpm. Almost nothing on the car is adjustable except the rear wicker and the shock settings. Engineering has been removed from the equation, and anyone who builds a better car, has to make it worse so no one will have an advantage.
That is not sports car racing, and sports car racing fans don’t like it (as the numbers have clearly showed since 1999.)
Hot-rodding—making the car run better, dreaming up little bits (a new scoop or fin or wicker or fender, or a new suspension bit or a slightly different fuel map or whatever) has always been the essence of racing—examining the rules, finding everything they allow, and doing everything not forbidden to make the car go faster: that is racing.
That is one reason ALMS was so popular: the rules allowed teams to build better mousetraps. Cars were not mandated to be identical; teams were not penalized for going faster. The cars were allowed to be stars.
NASCAR has gambled for over a decade that it could sell sports-car racing to the masses, and that the masses simply don’t care about all that; that the masses will gladly watch identical cars in different liveries so long as there is plenty of bumping and banging. For over a decade they have failed.
Forget the next two years and bickering about DP vs. P2—none of that matters. What matters is what USCR presents in 2016. Will the 2016 rules allow teams to race real cars, or will it force teams to compete in castrated kit-cars? Will the series let the cars be the stars, or will the series attempt (as Grand Am has always done) to remove everything except the drivers from the equation and survive by promoting drivers?
That is what will determine the success of the series.
The new series will need to attract fans from beyond the current ALMS/Rolex fan communities. However: it cannot afford to lose the current sports car fan base: that core is simply too great a part of the overall fan pool right now.
Further USCR cannot hope to attract other race fans with a castrated series. IndyCar fans are a potential source for new USCR fans, and they know All about spec racing, and hate it. NASCAR is probably not a potential fan source, but most of them know about identical kit cars, and have been crying out for more differentiation—and the hard-cores there care about the engineering side of things. Not likely they will be sucked in a by a series more restricted than NASCAR.
As for potential fans who don’t follow much motorsport—this is the toughest nut to crack, and no one knows what will work here, but judging from past successes and failures: a series which offers varied, exciting machinery and world-class drivers with unfettered competition can excite sports car fans and that excitement can spread.
What We Know Has Worked
A lot of ALMS fans (myself included, at times) tend to think that the best way forward for USCR is to include ACO/FIA classes: after all, these cars, drivers, and teams are the best in the sports car world, and their events are at all the historic tracks. Adopting ACO/FIA regulations increases the possibility that some of those teams will join for a few races (as Greaves and Aston Martin did at Sebring, for instance) or even contest the entire season (as Rebellion has been doing) in order to get more North American exposure for their sponsors.
There is further hope that some of the factory teams: Audi, Toyota, Porsche, and whichever others join—would consider a North American program, if USCR proved to be sufficiently popular (and wisely managed.)
ALMS succeeded wonderfully with ACO classes from 2006–2008, when the grids were packed with a huge variety of P1, P2, GT1 and GT2 entrants. Rules at that time allowed the P1s and P2s to compete on equal footing, which made for some amazing racing.
That is indeed one possible route, but let’s not ignore that ACO/FIA classes have not always been the best option for North America. And let us recall that the best couple of decades in North American sports car racing history were provided by an All-American rules set.
The Last ‘Golden Age’
The Camel GT/IMSA GTP era (say 1975–1993) proved that North American fans will turn out in droves for exciting cars and talented drivers racing at high speeds. While IMSA’s Camel GT started out using existing FIA European classes, the series introduced its incredibly popular AAGT class in 1975, and these ugly, awkward, amazing cars captured the imaginations of car-lovers everywhere.
In 1981 IMSA introduced the GTP category, based on FIA Group C but without fuel economy rules, so the cars could go all-out throughout the race. Fans loved it. The cars looked like proper sports racers: futuristic, bizarre, be-winged, and they had the performance to match. Not every car was beautiful, but watching these beasts in action stirred the soul of anyone who had the slightest interest in auto racing—and the series’ popularity proved that.
Those cars, those rules, made sports car racing huge at a time when almost none of the races were televised, and even huger when cable TV came along and offered an outlet. Those cars and those rules attracted fans by the droves, and sponsor dollars in huge volume, which attracted a lot of great teams and drivers.
For a solid decade GTP was the best sports car racing on the planet. It worked. Maybe with some different management decisions the series might have lived past the next two years. In any case, the format was hugely successful for a long time. Maybe the folks who have shepherded two newer series to disaster, might take some cues from the last great success? [etssp 637]
IMSA COO Scot Elkins said in an interview in February that the new series (it didn’t have a name at that time) would look at the ACO/FIA regulations in 2016 (which would have been in effect for two years then) and determine if they made sense for North America. ALMS CEO and President Scott Atherton emphasized that market forces would decide which way the series went at that point.
Their messages were clear: forget the first two years of USCR, which will be a huge and ugly compromised mess. In 2016, USCR will return to its ACO/FIA roots if that makes economic sense, or will make its own rules.
If these gentlemen, along with Grand Am CEO Ed Bennett and NASCAR’s Jim France, will recall sports car history, they can find simple guidance for the path forward to success: Awesome cars, excellent drivers, open competition rules. This is the only formula which has ever worked financially for sports car racing in North America.
Add to that the promotional might and experience of NASCAR, and a TV product based on actually presenting the high-quality racing instead of being a vehicle for infomercials, and USCR really could be the next big thing in sports car racing history.
Rolex 2.0 simply won’t cut it, any more than the Rolex Series has so far. ALMS 2.0 might work, so long as all the things Grand Am did right with Rolex (promotion, TV) carry forward. However, the differing sports car cultures on each side of the Atlantic might mean (as it did for ALMS) that ACO/FIA rules simply won’t work here.
If the USCR decides against ACO/FIA rules, and sets out on its own, then it should follow the pattern of what worked in the past: the Camel GT/IMSA GTP era, the last Golden Age of sports car racing in North America, where the cars were the stars, the drivers were also, the racing was wide open, and the series was successful by every measure.
I know sports car racing is all about automotive ingenuity, but there is no need to try to reinvent the wheel.