Combining the popular but underfunded American Le Mans Series with the less popular but NASCAR-funded Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series was supposed to create a super-series, with all the best drivers, teams, and sponsors racing on all the best tracks, to finally realize the potential of a sport which for 13 years had been hindered by being split into two competing halves.
Many people associated with the sport were skeptical that the two management teams, neither of which had been able to make their respective series succeed, would suddenly find the acumen to create a series which would, but many were hopeful. With the commercial weight of NASCAR behind it, the new series could bargain for a better TV package, would have money for proper promotion and purses, and might finally make a profit for the management, the tracks and the teams, while presenting first-class racing for the fans.
With only 30 days left until TUSCC’s first public event, the Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona on Jan. 3–5, and some major issues left unresolved, it is getting increasingly difficult to stay optimistic.
From the start, TUSCC was faced with a very thorny problem. The top class of ALMS, the P1 class, was all but defunct, with only one competitive car and two also-rans. The second class, P2, which would become part of the premier class in the new series, was represented by only four cars, but other teams expressed interest.
The top class in the Rolex Series, Daytona Prototype, was well-subscribed, but compared to the P2s the cars were slow, heavy, and relatively primitive. The DPs were slower even than the third-tier PC class of the ALMS. Because of this, the DPs were unpopular with most fans.
Creating a merged premier class, called simply Prototype, out of DPs and P2s was immediately recognized as the most difficult and also the most important task facing TUSCC—recognized by everyone except TUSCC management, apparently.
Still No Regulations for the Top Class
ALMS COO Scot Elkins was named as Vice President of Competition for the new series, charged with writing the rules and balancing the classes. Elkins was well known and well thought of in North American sports car racing; he had managed five classes of cars in ALMS without much problem. Elkins was aided by Grand Am’s managing director of competition Richard Buck; the pair seemed to have all the time, money, and know-how needed to make the new top class work.
As the days following the announcement of the merger stretched into months, and no word was heard about how the very different types of cars would be balanced in the top class, doubts began to grow.
Teams generally need several months to create a budget for the next season, and to take that budget to sponsors. When no rules were announced by the middle of 2013, some fans, drivers, and racing journalists began to worry. When no rules were announced by the end of the two series’ 2013 seasons, even some team owners began to comment on the difficulties the delay was causing.
Teams which owned DPs wanted to know how much they would need to change their cars to make them competitive with the much faster P2s, and how much it would cost. Teams running P2s wondered the same.
IMSA, the governing body of the new series, should have started testing P2s and DPs on track as soon as the new series was announced. With NASCAR backing, TUSCC certainly had the money to rent or even buy a pair of chassis for testing, and since the series controls Daytona International Speedway, Road Atlanta, and Sebring International Raceway, it had readily available testing venues.
Instead of writing the new P-class regulations, series management spent its time fine-tuning the series’ name and deciding on new job titles and management structure—important to be sure, but without racing rules, job titles would be moot.
Spirit of Daytona Steps Up
Before TUSCC managed to write any solid regulations, the Spirit of Daytona team spent its own money to fit its Coyote-Chevrolet with new side tunnels, a diffuser, and a dual-element rear wing, all of which would increase downforce and make the car quicker through the corners. After announcing its plans in September, the team tested these new parts at Road Atlanta in late October.
Elkins, who had mostly been relying on data derived from computer simulations, consulted with SoD and eventually released a TUSCC-approved package very similar to SoD’s. The new aero package costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, pushing up the price of a chassis which was originally designed to be inexpensive to operate.
Along with the new aero package for DPs, Elkins announced that all cars in the prototype class would use identical Continental tires, and that P2 cars would also have to carry an extra 60 kg of ballast to equalize their performance with DPs.
This was problematical for P2 teams. Originally Elkins had announced that P2s would be unchanged; this mattered, because P2 cars are raced in several series around the world and at the Le Mans 24. If TUSCC’s P2s used the same regulations as the rest of the world, then TUSCC teams could compete easily at Le Mans, and also, teams from other series could enter TUSCC events.
With teams having to learn entirely new set-ups to compensate for different tires and added weight, moving between series would be a serious challenge—a challenge which might cause teams not to bother.
Meanwhile, many teams were finding it hard to put together budgets and find sponsors given that they couldn’t project costs for the 2014 season. Stalwarts from both series: Muscle Milk Pickett Racing, Dyson Racing, Gainsco, Starworks, 8 Star, Sahlen’s, Level 5, and Michael Shank Racing, all had to cancel or curtail plans to race in the new Prototype class because there were no set regulations and no time to prepare.
Eventually, some European teams, like Oak, Greaves and Pecom, which had been fixtures at the premier ALMS events the Sebring 12 Hours and Petit Le Mans, had to re-evaluate their plans to compete in the new series. With no set rules, no budget, and no time to line up funding and drivers, racing in TUSCC’s new top class began to seem less attractive every day.
Testing: Too little, Too Late, and Too Dangerous
TUSCC’s new aero package was first track-tested at Sebring and Daytona on Nov. 16–17 and Nov. 18–19. The Sebring tests were not conclusive. Only a single P2 team, Extreme Speed Motorsports, showed up, but they were testing a new drive-by-wire throttle system and didn’t run many laps at speed.
The testing at Daytona was a disaster. Two Daytona Prototypes suffered serious wrecks due to tire failure, and both got airborne as a result of spinning at speed. P2 cars sport a large dorsal fin and an array of holes to vent underbody pressure to help keep the cars from flying in the case of accidents; DPs, with their primitive aero, had never needed such accoutrements.
No one could say for sure if these two cars launched into the air because of the new aero parts. Because of the uncertainty, the second day of testing had to be cancelled.
No one can fault Scot Elkins for cancelling the second day of testing: safety comes first, and since he didn’t know why the cars crashed and how to prevent further such incidents, he did the only sensible thing.
However, the cancelled test meant that four weeks before its first public event, the traditional three-day Roar Before the Rolex 24 test session, TUSCC found itself without final technical specifications for its headline class and without testing data to write those specs.
All Is Not Yet Lost
There is still time to salvage at least something for the Roar. Continental Tire will be testing its 2014-spec rubber at Daytona Dec. 10–11. This test will be open to all Daytona Prototype teams; hopefully a lot will show up, and hopefully in the interim Elkins and his crew will have devised some safety fixes for the DPs.
Some have suggested flaps to seal the diffuser tunnels if the car goes backward; others have suggested roof flaps such as NASCAR uses to vent high-pressure air from under the car. Whatever is decided, the solution will have to be implemented very quickly, and the teams will likely have to foot the bill.
Even if the Daytona Prototypes can be made to run safely with the new aero aids, a huge issue will remain: there is still not enough data to balance the P2 and DP chassis. At the one day of testing completed at Daytona, ESM’s P2 s were dramatically slower than the DPs. Whether this can be remedied by removing ballast or increasing restrictor openings is unknown. The series can’t even be sure that the ESM cars’ performance was indicative of the P2 class as a whole. There simply isn’t enough data.
So far, only two DP teams (Spirit of Daytona and Telmex-Ganassi) and one P2 team (SpeedSource Mazda, in a brand-new and totally untested diesel-powered Lola) are signed up. The SpeedSource Mazda won’t be able to provide good P2 data because A.) it is a brand new car and motor and will be going through initial shakedown tests, and B.) it is a diesel and while it will also need to be performance-balanced with the DPs, it gives no insight into what the petrol-powered cars could do.
Elkins and the TUSCC team still have time to run more tests and make more adjustments. Yes, the delays have already cost the series some of the cars everyone counted on seeing, and the delays and mismanagement has cost the series some credibility.
Still, there is time. Elkins and his crew can still ensure that the Roar comes off well, that the teams get to test their cars in the configurations they will actually run at the season-opening Rolex 24. There is still time to make the cars both safe and competitive. But there is no more time for failure.
Whatever it costs, TUSCC needs to make sure that it has enough data to make P2s and DPs competitive; TUSCC needs to make sure that fans who attend or read about the Roar don’t get the impression that the Rolex won’t be a real race.
TUSCC president Scott Atherton has said several times that he realized that the new series had “one chance to get it right.” Sadly, the series has blown its first several chances, but TUSC can still pull off a successful debut event.
ALMS had, among its many mottoes through the years, one which really made sense: “For the Fans.” Racing, like any sport, starts and ends with the fans. If the fans aren’t happy, they have plenty of other racing series to watch. If the fans like the new series, TUSCC will be able to attract the sponsor dollars it needs to make a profit for itself and for the teams.
The fans could still see an epic sports car race at Daytona this January. If they do, a lot of the missteps will be forgotten.
Scot Elkins and company certainly have the know-how, and certainly ought to have the resources. If the management team realizes the urgency and commits to making the Roar a success, the Rolex 24 should be a bigger success, and the future will start to look a little more golden.
If, instead, TUSCC presents a threadbare grid; if the outcome of the race is decided in advance by an imbalance between the two types of prototypes; if TUSCC cannot solve its problems in the next few weeks to have a successful Roar, which would help attract attention to the Rolex 24 … well, sports car racing in North America has seen some dark days, and more could follow.
Tickets for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 (Jan. 3–5, 2014) and the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona (Jan. 25–26, 2014) are available online at the Daytona International Speedway website.