Commentary

U.S. sports car racing revs up

Updated: January 6, 2014, 5:22 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With a decade-plus struggle for governing power in the rearview mirror, sports car racing in America is in position to experience dramatic growth in the next few years.

Grand Am Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series have joined forces under the banner of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, and unlike the hastily convened 2008 Indy car unification between Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, the sports car powers that be put a year of planning into their merger. The result promises to offer road racing fans the best of both worlds -- the technology and international allure of the ALMS with the management and marketing clout of NASCAR.

[+] EnlargeChristian Fittipaldi
Brian Cleary/Getty ImagesChristian Fittipaldi clocked the fastest lap during the recent three-day sports car test at Daytona International Speedway.

On Sunday, governing body IMSA announced that the TUSCC will essentially adopt the Grand Am rulebook, including the point-scoring system and driver requirements.

"The final component of the merger between the ALMS and the Grand Am Series is now in place," said Scot Elkins, IMSA vice president of competition and technical regulations.

"Bringing together two series, which operated under markedly different rules, was a mammoth undertaking. We took advantage of the opportunity to closely examine the rules and procedures utilized by GRAND-AM and the previous iteration of IMSA to create a package that includes best practices from both."

Of course, not everyone can be happy, and what got left behind is the ALMS P1 Prototype class -- the multimillion-dollar cars that compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, including the diesel-powered Audi and Peugeot entries and the hybrid Toyota. The ALMS P2 class of smaller, less technologically advanced prototypes made the cut for the TUSCC, but the cars have been detuned slightly in an attempt to create parity with the Grand Am's Daytona Prototypes -- cars that look remotely similar to the more exotic prototypes, but with crude tube frames and more mundane powerplants such as the venerable small-block Chevrolet V-8 and Ford's EcoBoost V-6 turbo.

Leveling the playing field between the more powerful but heavier DP cars and the nimble P2 cars is the biggest challenge that the TUSCC technical team faces. A strong belief exists that the DPs will be given an advantage because the class was the brainchild of Jim France, the eldest member of the family that controls NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. The Daytona Prototypes have been heavily criticized by hard-core sports car connoisseurs since the category's 2003 debut, assailed as ugly, built-to-a-price cars that look and sound nothing like a proper sports car.

That said, in their current state of tune, the DP cars were about a second a lap faster around the Daytona International Speedway road course during the Jan. 3-5 Roar Before the 24 test session. The fastest lap was turned in by ex-Indy car and F1 racer (and 2004 Rolex 24 winner) Christian Fittipaldi, who clocked 1 minute, 38.63 seconds in the Action Express Racing Corvette DP. The fastest P2 car failed to break the 1:40 barrier.

"It was very interesting to see different cars running together at different speeds, from four different classes," Fittipaldi said. "We managed to put into practice everything we learned since our last test here. The car felt very strong, but we still have a long way to go before the race."

Truthfully, we probably won't really know how the prototype class stacks up until midseason, because the opening two races of the TUSCC schedule (the Rolex 24 at Daytona Jan. 25-26 and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 15) are at "power" tracks that theoretically should put the DP cars at an advantage. By the time June rolls around, races will have been staged at "handling" tracks including Long Beach, Laguna Seca and Belle Isle that likely will bring the P2 cars to the forefront. In any case, expect a round of midseason rule changes if one type of car proves substantially more competitive than the other.

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To its credit, the TUSCC technical team has chosen to raise the level of the DP car's performance rather than trying to slow down the P2 cars. The 2014 DP cars feature more power, improved brakes and more effective aerodynamics through the use of a rear diffuser. The new-breed DP cars proved difficult to control in testing at Daytona in November, with a pair of cars taking flight, but there were no major incidents during the recent test sessions.

Richard Westbrook, who was involved in the most frightening of the earlier test crashes in the Spirit of Daytona Corvette DP, was fastest on the final day of the Roar shakedown.

"We're really happy with the test, especially after the accident here in November," Westbrook said. "That was the worst possible start for our 2014 campaign, but ironically, it helped turn everything around. It's still early, but we had a fantastic, trouble-free test and a nice car."

TUSCC wisely chose to maintain the production car-based GT classes from both of the defunct series, rather than trying to equalize very different technology levels. The GT Le Mans (GTLM) class is likely to be the most closely contested category of the new era in American sports car racing, with factory representation from Chevrolet (Corvette), BMW, Porsche and SRT Viper, and semi-works teams from Aston Martin and Audi.

Almost all of the featured marques topped the timing screens during one of the five practice sessions at the Roar.

"This is an opportunity that I've hoped to be part of for the past 10 years -- an all-factory GT team here in the states," said Porsche works driver Patrick Long.

"Corvette has been setting the bar the last few seasons, and SRT has progressed faster than many people expected," he added. "We're not sure where the Porsche is going to fit in, but fortunately, Daytona is usually very good for the Porsches."

The GTLM class is a showcase for manufacturer participation in American motorsports, and indeed the TUSCC is in a strong commercial position compared to competitors such as the currently unsponsored IndyCar Series. In addition to the title sponsorship from TUDOR watches (the budget price brand of the Rolex family), the TUSCC enjoys partnerships with Tully's Coffee and Tequila Patron, which has posted a $300,000 contingency fund for the four endurance races on the schedule.

If TUSCC management can level the performance gap in the Prototype class to everyone's satisfaction, this promises to be a vintage year for American sports car racing. Now if they could just figure out a way to incorporate the mighty P1 cars …

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