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Flat Spot On: The Rivalry Continues

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 28 2012

The Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race is about to be run for the 50th time. It's still going strong. (Photos courtesy of the Rolex GRAND-AM Sports Car Series)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Due to its status as the first major circuit race on the calendar each year, the Rolex 24 at Daytona has been a calling card to the rest of the world for American road racing for 50 years. What a ride it’s been since Dan Gurney waited on the banking and then coasted across

the line in his Lotus Ford – despite a blown engine – to win the inaugural three-hour Continental event in 1962.

That finish for the ages came just three years after Lee Petty christened Daytona’s high banks with a spectacular finish in the first Daytona 500. The same year, one of America’s other memorable events took place right down the road at a sprawling airport circuit, where Bruce McLaren won the first ever Formula 1 race in the U.S. at Sebring.

Given Daytona’s humble beginnings in 1959 and the open-ended prospects for motor racing as the giant known as America continued to grow and prosper in the post-War world, it can be understood how the man who built Daytona and created the 24-hour, “Big Bill” France, might have seen Sebring as a rival when it came to capturing the public’s imagination on the subject of motor racing. Indeed, 53 years after that F1 race at Sebring, F1 and NASCAR have grown into billion dollar businesses.

The rivalry between Daytona and Sebring has continued in the form of sports cars. That rivalry is

With marques like Ford on board, the racing at the Rolex 24 seems stronger than ever.

manifested by the Grand-Am Series, owned by the France family of Daytona, and the American Le Mans Series, owned by Don Panoz, who owns the lease to operate the airport circuit at Sebring, where the annual 12-hour race each March continues to pose as America’s other calling card to the world of endurance racing.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me whatever happened to the Sebring 12-hour? He was not a current initiate when it came to sports car racing, but remembered when Sebring was as hot a spring break destination for college students as Ft. Lauderdale. His comments indicated that Daytona continues to bank on its storied place in the American imagination when it comes to all things automotive, including sports car racing.

Alas, the cognoscenti recognize a different reality. Because of its links to Le Mans and now the World Endurance Championship, the sandy soil of Sebring also remains hallowed sports car ground. People who grew up with the idea of a world title visiting America regularly are the same fans who follow the ALMS, which banks on presenting the same type of cars and often the very same cars that race at Le Mans. It is the technology present in those cars, ultimately, that distinguish the ALMS among the cognoscenti.

Interestingly, this year the World Endurance Championship returns to Sebring for the first time in 40 years and the 12-hour race is celebrating its 60th running. Add those two together, plus 50 years of Daytona and you get 150 years worth of sports car celebration. That’s not a remotely logical assessment, of course, but works if one’s mind runs to promotional hyperbole, these days better known as hype. Lord knows, these landmark events evoke plenty of it.

Meanwhile, here in Daytona, as it always does at this time of year, hope springs eternal about the

The defending Rolex 24-winning Riley BMW of Chip Ganassi Racing.

coming year, the coming season, the yet unborn prospects. With the arrival of Ferrari and Audi in the GT ranks and the arrival of Corvettes in the Daytona Prototype category, the future continues to look bright for the Grand-Am – a fact underscored by the 50th anniversary celebration of the Rolex 24 at Daytona (nee Continental) and a capacity crowd expected to be on hand in the infield.

Yet, where have Ferrari, Audi and Corvette carried their flags for the past decade in America? At Sebring and in the American Le Mans Series. So if the Grand-Am prospects look bright, is it because of a line-up that increasingly mirrors the ALMS?

Looking ahead, the Grand-Am will visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year and continue to move from strength to strength with the arrival of a new era of prototypes featuring smaller and sleeker greenhouses – more like, ahem, those appearing in the ALMS.

The ALMS, meanwhile, continues to struggle to find new prototypes as it patiently awaits the arrival of the new Toyota hybrid and Porsche, also anticipated to be a cutting edge hybrid. Meanwhile, Peugeot will not appear at Sebring to challenge Audi now that the French manufacturer has pulled the plug on its Le Mans program. And the field at the Petit Le Mans this fall at Road Atlanta may suffer after being dropped from the FIA’s schedule as a points event in favor of one American appearance at Sebring.

For these reasons, one might expect that the hubris and hope springing eternal in the Grand-Am garage at Daytona includes the prospect that the Grand-Am may become THE sports car series among the cognoscenti just as the Daytona 24-hour seems to capture the imagination of the general American populace.

Alas, it’s been roughly a decade since the two respective American sports car series were launched and they’re both still going strong. Like the rivalry between Daytona and Sebring.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 28 2012
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