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Flat Spot On: Grand-Am Takes To Road Atlanta

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 23 2013

Racing Grand-Am cars at Road Atlanta certainly agreed with the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing group. But are the DPs fast enough for fans? (Photos courtesy of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

BRASELTON, Ga. – It’s been a while – and it seems like ages – since this writer walked the pit lane just prior to a Grand-Am race at Watkins Glen and couldn’t help but notice some crew members who were not bound for over the wall duty sitting in lawn chairs and wearing blue jeans. Before the Daytona Prototype category was created, in its

earliest days the Rolex Series was a bit of a gypsy tour.

There’s been an impressive change over the span of a decade when it came to walking the paddock and pits at Road Atlanta during the Grand-Am’s first visit to the north Georgia track last weekend. The haulers, teams and cars in Daytona Prototype and GT were first class and professional as was the race itself. Even though Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas spanked the field in their Riley-BMW entry from the Ganassi team, they had to maintain a rapid pace through traffic the entire race, which gave the fans plenty of action to watch.

It was a race interrupted by only one caution with a respectable crowd estimated by this writer at 5,000 on hand to see it unfold. It was hardly a mega-crowd like the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta brings in. But the performance level confirmed that fans are very likely to get a good race in 2014 after unification when the Daytona Prototypes return for the Petit.

In this race where only one safety car period ensued, several different strategies emerged in DP among teams trying to at least get a podium and more championship points behind the fleet No. 01 Ganassi machine , which created some interesting battles for the runners-up positions. In GT, teams also went with pit stop and Continental Tire strategies that kept things interesting before Robin Liddell and John Edwards prevailed in the Stevenson Motorsports Camaro after Liddell edged past the Ferrari of Alessandro Balsan at Turn 10.

One of the warm-ups for the unification of Grand-Am and the ALMS schedules next year, the race at Road Atlanta – purchased last year by NASCAR Holdings – was a preview of how the current DP’s perform on a track where the ALMS has run its Petit Le Mans since 1998. The key question? How fast would the DP’s run on Continental Tires versus the most recent race times from the LMP-2 cars of the ALMS?

Going forward, the new United SportsCar Racing will attempt to equate the LMP-2 with Daytona Prototypes.

A Porsche 911 GT car crests a hill at Road Atlanta.

According to Road Atlanta’s lap times, DP’s are about five seconds slower.

To hear the current teams tell it, the DP’s should remain where they are and the LMP-2’s should be slowed down. In other words, budget is an issue with the existing DP teams expected to carry the newly united and hopefully bigger and better sports car series forward.

Here’s why it’s a bad idea to slow down the LMP-2 category, even if there’s just one or two cars or teams that transition into the United SportsCar Racing next year. The ongoing connection to Le Mans is the best possible future the new series can establish for itself, one of the key reasons NASCAR Holdings paid $22 million to set up the merger.

Over the last 10 years, whenever I was asked by a Grand-Am participant why the crowds were always larger at the ALMS events even though the car counts were smaller, the answer was a no-brainer. American sports car fans want to see the same cars that raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s an age-old promotional avenue, one that was evident at the first Petit Le Mans when the Le Mans-winning Porsche GT1-98 came to Road Atlanta to race in front of a track full to the gills with fans.

This approach to ticket sales goes back at least as far as the days of Bill France Sr. Part of the success of NASCAR founder “Big Bill” resulted from bringing the winners of the races on the sands of Daytona to other events on the schedule in the 1950’s, when there was plenty of competition from other stock car racing promoters. Fans wanted to see the same drivers and cars from those legendary beach and road course events at their local track. One could even argue that “Big Bill” established the 24-hour at Daytona in the 1960’s as a way to bring the excitement of Le Mans to the sandy shores of north Florida.

If the Daytona Prototypes are ever going to compete at Le Mans, and help grow United SportsCar, they must be equated to the same speeds the ACO, the rule makers at Le Mans rules, have established for their LMP-2 category. Also, if LMP-2’s are competitive in America under outlines similar to the ACO, then more entries from Europe are likely to show up at the Daytona 24-hour, Sebring and the Petit Le Mans.

One final consideration: once the GTE class is adopted in its entirety by United SportsCar, these cars will be pushing the DP’s at the current speeds when it comes to lap times and cornering. A good race requires enough variance between the prototypes and GT cars – as was evidenced at Road Atlanta last weekend, where the difference in lap times between DP’s and the GT’s in the race was about seven seconds. (With no changes to the DP’s, the differential to the GTE cars would be closer to three seconds per lap at Road Atlanta.)

A lot of water has to go over the dam before the DP’s appear at Le Mans, including FIA crash testing and a new

Pitting for the public at Road Atlanta.

generation of cars, possibly in 2015. As it stands presently, the link to Le Mans will be established by the GTE class of the ALMS, which will be adopted in its entirety under unification in 2014. (We also hear that the GT Le Mans class that will replace the current GT category in the Grand-Am will become a pro-am series, i.e. a professional matched with a gentleman driver.)

If the current DP teams believe the “losers” pay in the merger and it’s the LMP-2 cars – of which there will be several – should be the ones who are penalized by rules changes, it would be a mistake. On the other hand, United SportsCar Racing should pay attention to increasing purse money for the DP participants, who are not funded significantly by factory connections. Also, due consideration should be given to aerodynamics of the DP’s, which can lose drag and gain downforce in the corners with the right package. That would reduce the cost for engine manufacturers to make all the gains from horsepower and put less stress on a tire manufacturer.

All indications are that the expertise of the ALMS is being folded into the unified series in terms of administration and personnel, which also speaks to the fact that the merger was done on a win-win basis between the two prevailing series.

While it remains to be seen how the relationship between United SportsCar and the ACO develops, the possibility of a prototype connection to Le Mans is well worth pursuing and the possibility of LMP-2’s becoming a well supported category in the unified series at major endurance events.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 23 2013
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