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Kansas A Battleground In The Fight Over ‘Rovals’

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 20 2013

Racing sports cars on banking should be part of Unified SportsCar Series' package. (Photos courtesy of the Grand-Am Rolex Series)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Jim France looked to be in a good mood as he walked the paddocks at Kansas Speedway after Saturday night’s debut Grand-Am Rolex Series race at the facility. He looked like a politician in an election year as he smiled, patted backs and shook hands with drivers and team owners.

Which is kind of apropos as France, the founder of the Grand-Am series and the man who sits atop the pay scale for the new Unified SportsCar Racing series, is in the middle of an interesting political skirmish these days. It’s the skirmish between old school sports car types that loved the kind of racing embodied by the American Le Mans Series, and the hybrid school which thinks the future of American sports car racing depends on adopting attitudes and economics embodied in the Grand-Am philosophy.

Put more simply, its a battle of tradition vs. practicality.

And it’s a battle that is kind of symbolized by Kansas Speedway.

France told RacinToday.com that he loved the Kansas event. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a good race that came right down to the end. And the fans came out and everybody seemed to be enjoying it,” he said.

But when asked point blank if the sports cars would return to the infield road course at Kansas, France took a breath.

“Well, I hope so,” he said. “I’m not really involved with the scheduling.”

Why wouldn’t Kansas be on the 2014 schedule? International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, spent millions to construct the thing. The area surrounding it – with its stores, restaurants, water parks, casino and bars all within walking distance of the track – is loaded with extracurriculars.

Driver after driver said during the weekend, it is a good track – for a roval.

And there is where it becomes a political shuttlecock.

Kansas is a roval. And if ever there was a symbol of the divergent ideologies of ALMS and Grand-Am, it is the subject of racing on infield road courses.

The week before Kansas, both series raced at Road American, the rural Wisconsin road course which a large majority of sports car racers and fans will tell you is their favorite American venue. It has the things that drivers and fans love – long straights, a variety of corners, elevations changes, bucolic scenery, history, atmosphere and bratwurst. It’s European in feel.

Kansas is comfortable. It’s got grandstands from which every portion of the track can be observed without spectators having to pack up and move in order to increase perspective. If something occurs anywhere on track, it can be seen and enjoyed in real time. Fans don’t have to wonder how Max Angelelli took the lead away from Scott Pruett. There’s plumbing in the rest rooms, there are garages with concrete floors and garages with roofs in the paddocks. It has a NASCAR feel.

The 2014 schedule for the Unified series – which combines ALMS and Grand-AM – has not yet been announced. When it is, look for it to include 12 or so races. Count on it including tracks like Daytona, Sebring, the Circuit of the Americas, Road Atlanta and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

After that, there is no shortage of venues which will be seeking dates. Some very nice road courses will be among the seekers.

With cultures as divergent as those represented by ALMS and Grand-Am in the Unified series, you can bet there are behind the scenes clashes occurring at this very moment. Clashes on lots of issues. Clashes that are likely holding up the announcements of things like equipment specs (the lack of an announcement on which was an obvious concern among competitors at Kansas), rules and, yes, venues.

There is going to have to be compromise. And there are going to be losers.

The hope here is that a roval – in addition to Daytona – should be represented in the mix of venues. Rovals bring racing to the fans at a time when sports cars need racing fans.

Remember: The term “merger” has been misused to describe what happened between the ALMS and Grand-Am last year. Jim France and his series bought out ALMS, which has, in recent years, had problems with fan counts and car counts. The fact that Grand-Am won out in its long competition with the ALMS gives it the right to dictate a fair share of the terms.

When it comes to venues, there should be a place for Kansas – and/or another roval or two – on the schedule.

This is not a plea for the complete “NASCAR-izaton” of the Unified series. Just a reminder that an economically viable business plan is essential to the continued existence of big time sports car racing in America.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 20 2013
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