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Flat Spot On: Daytona Prototypes Get Some Romance

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 18 2013

The approach to prototypes in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will be key in sustaining the series. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Alert readers may notice the dateline of this story. It was once used at a time when the owners of Road Atlanta recognized the name of the little nearby town was a better introduction to road racing stories, which should always have a little romance.

Since the gates of the track first opened, road racing has sprouted many branches. But as much as I like reminiscing about history, this story is about the future.

Except for endurance racing fans that have been living under a rock inside a cave, everybody knows that the Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series will be unified next year. Early in this process, during the run for the roses at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, this writer had some stern words that could have been interpreted as coming from someone wearing merde-colored glasses (as opposed to rose-colored). It was about how road racing series disappear faster than you can say Can-Am or GTP.

Lo, many months down the road and there is every indication that the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship has made the right moves to position endurance racing for a solid future. There is one final piece of the puzzle remaining – the technical approach for prototypes, which was the subject of Flat Spot On in January. What will the future of prototypes look like when the Petit Le Mans rolls around again next year?

I’m happy to know that the performance of the prototypes will clock in very much like the LMP2 category first introduced at Le Mans in 2000 (initially as LMP 675). Those in the Grand-Am paddock had hoped for a different course, one where the Daytona Prototypes would become the benchmark for the combined series instead of LMP2 and thus save some money for the team owners and engine manufacturers absent spending required to re-develop the cars.

Perhaps because they were engaged in such fierce and compelling competition among themselves, the Grand-Am prototype teams never quite got the message on how to attract a healthy crowd – like the one hanging from the trees at the track near Flowery Branch in 1998 at the first 1,000-mile race in the hills of north Georgia.

That first Petit Le Mans, one year before Don Panoz launched the ALMS, re-introduced the romance and excitement to sports car racing. Why? Fans could see the same state-of-the-art cars that had raced at the Le Mans 24-hour, including the winning Porsche GT1-98. And they would see the winners of the Petit Le Mans gain an automatic entry to the great endurance race in France, which turned out to be the Ferrari 333SP of Risi Competizione.

The only way to sustain that vital connection to the Le Mans 24-hour, plus a world standard for cars, is to make the Daytona Prototypes equivalent to the LMP2 category that races at the Sarthe Circuit each June. The biggest benefit of the merger between the two series is, in fact, sustaining that link.

It is typical of racers who have developed loyalties and experience with certain methodologies to swear by those same methodologies come hell or high water, an attitude that includes fans but above all participants. So it’s not surprising to recognize that Grand-Am prototype teams are less than thrilled with a directive to find 50 horsepower, add underbody tunnels, a dual element rear wing and an extended front splitter.

Many years ago, I remember Max Angelleli, one of the all-time great Daytona Prototype drivers, asking me why the low prototype car counts in the ALMS and the predictable outcomes drew so many more fans than the Grand-Am? My answer: the Le Mans connection. Including GT, fans could see some of the same equipment and teams that had raced at Le Mans.

In the new era, it’s clear that the LMP2 cars are not the technical marvels now being raced at Le Mans in LMP1 such as the hybrids of Audi and Toyota, plus Porsche next year or Peugeot in years past. And, at this year’s Petit Le Mans, the Lola and HPD chassis in LMP1 configuration are three seconds down the road versus the LMP2 cars. Nothing compares to the cornering speeds being achieved in 2008 and 2009 during the Audi versus Peugeot battles, either.

Alas, the phrase sustainable car counts means survival and growth. In addition to the romance of the Le Mans connection, the linkage to the French 24-hour helps promulgate a larger group of cars eligible to race at Daytona’s 24-hour, the Sebring 12-hour and the Petit, among others. The same is true for the GT category of the new United SportsCar series, where the rules are taken straight from Le Mans, and for the GT Daytona class, based on the FIA GT3 rules.

So the Daytona Prototype team owners have been asked to step up to some new rules to create a sustainable prototype class. Once in place, (assuming there will be a lot of complaints about the performance balancing), this effort will likely result in Daytona Prototypes eligible to race at the Le Mans 24-hour. Of course, it will cost at least $500,000 for a U.S. team to compete in the France versus the current price tag of $350,000 to race in the Daytona 24-hour. But money has always been part of the romance in sports car racing, hasn’t it?

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 18 2013
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