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Flat Spot On: Sunshine And Jaundice at the Rolex

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 24 2014

The Tudor United SportsCar Series is about to hold its first race. The mood in Daytona is interesting. (Photo courtesy of IMSA)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was the warmest of times and the coldest of times on the day before the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The skies? They were murky and clear.

The warmth emanated from satisfaction that the long-held dream of a single united endurance racing series in North America had finally become reality in the form of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. It was the weather – blustery wind under sunny skies – that put everybody into quickstep mode and warm headgear. But at least weather conditions were measurably better than points north and west.

Plus, there was the start-up aspect of a new season under any banner that ameliorated the chill. Hope and a dollop of goodwill spring eternal at this time of year if only because the wheels have yet to turn in competitive anger. In the mean time, there’s a lot of “hale fellow well met” in the garage as the last details of preparations are made.

More so than years past, there’s the buzz from the new combination of cars and drivers all preparing to race under one roof business-wise and more literally the firmament above the France family’s speedway by the sea. Owned by NASCAR, one of the strongest and richest racing organizations in the world, the United SportsCar Championsip has more fiber than ever before. Plus, the president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, will be on hand to drop the drapeau at the start. When it comes to endurance racing, the ACO is the kingpin outside North America so this year’s race is getting a double dollop of racing clout.

In years past there was bragging about the number of prototypes and the number of crossover driving stars from other disciplines. This year there’s less star power with the likes of drivers Jimmie Johnson, Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti or team owner Rob Dyson on the missing list, to choose a few examples. But absent sheer start power, there’s more a sense that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The murk, inevitably, lies in the slough of despond, otherwise known as Balance of Performance. To bring together the LMP2 prototypes of the American Le Mans Series – and the world beyond the U.S. – and the eponymous Daytona Prototypes required a lot of money, work and faith to arrive at the rules in time for the drop of the green. And, few are entirely happy on one score or another.

If the dogs aren’t barking, well, it wouldn’t be racing. (We pause here to suggest that IMSA, now being the only game in town, appears to have over-played its hand with so many, ahem, re-interpretations of its rulebook designed to keep the playing field level. It’s a question of time whether manufacturers and teams will grow to loathe these frequent bulletins enough to leave them behind like so many leaves blowing in the wind. More importantly, will it discourage new manufacturers or customer teams from deciding to join the series, particularly in the under-subscribed prototype category?)

Sports car racing has always been the motorsport of the rich, often pursued by those who can afford it – or tolerate it in the case of the Balance of Performance. But it appears clear that the owners and operators of United SportsCar – NASCAR – are also bringing some firepower, if not wealth, to the scene. There’s a solid TV package and Ford has joined Chevy in the DP category with Honda soon to follow. All of this follows from NASCAR’s standing in the racing community – a card that could not be played by ALMS founder Don Panoz. (On the other hand, Panoz sold the ALMS to NASCAR for many millions, which created the current new possibilities.)

Will it all hang together? Well, Porsche and Audi threatened to pack up their respective Porsche Cup Americas and R8 LMS entries when IMSA announced a rear wing change that would have required new parts – after qualifying. The idea was to slow down the GT Daytona category, which is well balanced in terms of qualifying times but a little fast when it comes to the mix of four classes on the high-banked bowl and infield course. (IMSA backed off on this rule, ahem, reinterpretation.)

Ford team owner Michael Shank downgraded IMSA once the DP’s were slowed by an engine restrictor change. The P2 drivers, meanwhile, complain about Continental tires designed for the weight of the DPs that are too stiff and hard. (The new and costly aero on the DP’s, it seems, allowed them to lift off precipitously if tires blew up, which they did in pre-season testing; hence the new generation of harder tires.)

So then, lots of warm howdy-do’s in the winter wind before the racing begins in earnest and the inevitable barking. (None of which ever comes from the media center!)

From here, it’s going to be a memorable race beyond the “first” mark of the new era. There are enough Corvette DP’s in capable hands to insure a close finish among the prototypes. The P2’s may have a look-in in the final four hours. But in any event it will be great to see them on the same track. And, they’ll get their revenge at Sebring.

The GT LM class, where everybody is said to be sandbagging to avoid a Balance of Performance change for the Le Mans 24-hour, will be a crackerjack race. All the refugees from the ALMS – BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and Viper – insure there will be a tight battle at the end, possibly joined by the new Aston Martin entry from TRG. And oh yes, yellow flags will help keep a handful on the same lap.

The PC classes and GTD will hold up their end of the bargain as predictably “balanced” and numerous enough to produce at least a two-car drama.

One wag said the race was going to be like a bad adult film, given all the pre-race barking. “There will be lots of moaning and groaning,” he said, “and not much action.” I would tend to disagree. Perhaps it’s a matter of hope springing eternal the day before the race begins and the season along with it. But this jaundiced eye sees a brighter future ahead.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 24 2014
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