Sports Car Racing in North America is Defined by Two Leagues With Decidedly Different Philosophies
A race within a race.
If you wanted a quick answer to the question of what separates sports car racing from other forms of motorsport, the preceding statement sums it up pretty succinctly.
Unlike open-wheel and stock cars, sports car races typically have several different classes of machinery competing on the track at the same time, all with vastly different levels of horsepower, torque and downforce.
The result is often exciting (and chaotic) as faster cars attempt to navigate around slower ones, which are also engaged in fierce battles of their own. It’s provides for a passionate, fast-paced form of road racing experience that has been hot in Europe, but thanks to other more popular and well-established forms of racing, has a lower profile in North America.
Sports car racing in North America has fought hard to achieve stability and increase recognition. Similar to the well-publicized IRL/CART split in open-wheel, big league sports car racing broke into two factions in the late 1990s. The division would eventually produce the two leagues known today as the Grand-American Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series. As opposed to open-wheel, sports car racing in North America has managed to flourish with two distinct series.
Leagues of Their Own
Now in its 12th season, the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) has provided a consistent brand of racing for North Americans to enjoy many international teams, drivers and manufacturers. Seeking to target well-educated, higher-income earners who will intimately identify with the brands on the track, luxury marques like Audi and Porsche have erected large displays at ALMS events to showcase their street cars, thus completing the link between racing and consumer products.
On the other side, Grand-Am Road Racing was formed in 1999 from the ashes of a short-lived United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). Under NASCAR’s France family, the Grand-Am Rolex Series would eventually reduce a complex five-class structure down to two, Daytona Prototypes and Grand Touring (GT). Grappling with a “more grass roots racing” feel than the ALMS, Grand-Am Road Racing President Tom Bledsoe noted that the Grand-Am series was created to bring the close racing associated with NASCAR to sports cars racing. Featuring tightly regulated design and construction parameters, the Daytona Prototype (DP) class was formed in efforts to attract larger fields in their top division. “Grand-Am is all about close competition and being inclusive – not exclusive.” says Bledsoe.
Both ALMS and Grand-Am possess strong production-based GT fields that event attendees can identify with. Cars like Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche 911, BMW M3 and Madza RX-8 mix it up on track to provide an exciting and unpredictable show.
Adjusting to Change
Like any other form of motorsport, sports car racing is an expensive venture as teams build and prep their vehicles of choice into world-class racing machines.
In 2003, the Grand-Am Rolex Series predicted the escalating cost of sports car racing would threaten the health of active team participation in the top series. Reducing the involvement necessary from auto manufacturers, stock-based engines are purchased from a variety of suppliers including Chevrolet, BMW, Ford and Porsche. Operating under a firm set of class rules would eventually help the Rolex Series paddock. Compared to the nearly million dollar price tags of international prototype cars, the Grand-Am Rolex Series Daytona Prototype (DP) cars are priced at a thrifty $400,000 (all figures US).
Even with the presence of well-funded DP teams such as Chip Ganassi Racing and SunTrust Racing, a shot at greatness is still attainable for more modest operations. “We are also able to compete with the larger budget teams even with a pro-am combination like we have with the Crown Royal car,” said team owner Michael Shank of Michael Shank Racing. He sings the praises of the Grand-Am as their team sits second in the overall championship.
Heavily reliant on factory support from auto manufacturers, the American Le Mans Series has been more vulnerable to declining car counts. Where factory teams once boasted multi-million dollar budgets in the LMP class, cuts brought on by the global recession that began in late 2008 have forced high profile brands such as Audi, Porsche and Acura out of the prototype classes, although Porsche still maintains a healthy presence in the GT and GTC divisions.
As a result of the corporate belt-tightening among the automakers, Patron Highcroft Racing (competing with support from American Honda’s racing arm, Honda Performance Development) has largely ruled the prototype class in 2010. Prior to the season, the series integrated the less-powerful P2 cars into one class with the faster P1 machines, known simply as LMP. This move bolstered the field, and also gave a reprieve to teams which were stuck with potentially obsolete cars. In a recent round at Lime Rock Park in late July, the combined prototype class put on an exciting battle as the Team Cytosport Muscle Milk Porsche RS Spyder fought off Patron Highcroft for the overall win.
Two Challenge classes have also been created to encourage privateer teams to join the series. Beginning in select rounds in 2009, the GT Challenge (GTC) class welcomed Porsche GT3 Cup vehicles onto the grid. With a GT-suited Porsche 911 GT3 RSR costing roughly $500,000, the cost of the GTC class cars run just only $150,000 each. GTC has run each round as a Porsche-only class in 2010, but Audi has expressed interest in modifying its R8 road car for 2011 GTC competition.
Also debuting this year at Sebring, was the Le Mans Prototype Challenge (LMPC). Utilizing a Chevrolet engine inside an Oreca-sourced prototype chassis, this class serves as a low-cost option for teams seeking to run a full ALMS season. Running lap times around 4-7 seconds slower than the open LMP category cars, it takes a trained eye to distinguish the LMPC cars from those of the open prototype class.
With the future of the environment becoming a greater societal concern, a new opportunity to promote sports car racing as an exercise in the development of green technology was embraced as a means of adding new relevance to competition.
Several years after ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz attempted to enter a hybrid version of his Panoz GTR-1 prototype at Le Mans, one of his drivers decided to take it upon himself to help persuade the series to invest in green racing initiatives.
In 2004, David Brabham sent an email to both Panoz and ALMS president and CEO Scott Atherton, suggesting they seriously consider the adoption of an alternative fuel strategy.
“Back then, I felt like world was changing and that people who didn’t move with it were perhaps going to be in trouble. If you enjoy what you do you want to try to able to sustain what you do,” Brabham explained in a confernce call prior to the ALMS round at Mid-Ohio.
“I sort of drew back a little bit and looked at and thought motorsport is definitely going to have to change in the future, in terms of its carbon footprint. I felt that motorsport was an area of development in that area, because there’s nothing like competition and motorsport has a lot of very smart, intelligent people amongst it,” he continued.
“If you use that energy in the right way, and all you have to do is change the rules of the game, all of a sudden you’ve focused people’s minds. That’s what the American Le Mans Series has done. They’ve opened the door up to green technology, and we’ve only just started,” he said.
In the years since Brabham’s email, the American Le Mans Series has taken the lead in the advancement of alternative fuel technology by becoming the first major motorsports league to allow the use of three different alternative fuels in competition: E10 and E85 gasoline/ethanol blends along with clean diesel.
In 2008, the Green Challenge debuted at Petit Le Mans. An extra layer of competition, the Green Challenge awarded points to teams and manufacturers based on overall performance, fuel efficiency and environmental impact. Now known as the Michelin Green X Challenge, it has been in effect at every ALMS race since the beginning of the 2009 season. The initiative was launched with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and SAE International.
These innovations continue to spur others.
Last year, Corsa Motorsports finished 4th in the prototype class with a Zytek machine equipped with KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). For the upcoming Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in early October, the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid will make its North American competition debut.
While the Grand-Am Rolex Series hasn’t promoted its green initiatives as much as their counterpart, Bledsoe says the league is “...constantly exploring new green-related initiatives. Nothing is ‘off the table’ as we move forward into a future where environmental concerns will continue to be vital to our survival not only as a sport but as a society.”
On the last weekend in August, Canadian sports car fans could feel a little conflicted about their allegiances, as both series will make their annual trek north of the border to compete on different tracks in two provinces.
Running as a support race to the NASCAR Nationwide Series in Montreal, the Rolex Series will compete in front of one of the largest crowds of the season. This year will mark the series fourth visit to Circuit Gilles Villenueve, but Quebec tracks have hosted Rolex Series events previously at Mont-Tremblant and Trois Rivieres. In fact, Grand-Am’s touring car series, the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge still has a stand-alone weekend at Trois-Rivieres in mid-August. “The fans and facility are first-rate. It is truly one of our showcase events” Bledsoe says
of the Montreal weekend.
The longest-running race venue in Canada, Mosport International Raceway, is celebrating its 50th season in 2010, and the Mobil 1 Presents the Grand Prix of Mosport featuring the American Le Mans Series is the venerable track’s signature event. Since it’s inaugural season in 1961, many of the greatest names in motorsport have raced on the 3.957 kilometre (2.459 mile) road course, including Sir Sterling Moss (won the inaugural Mosport pro race, the Players 200), Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Mark Donahue, Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart among many others.
In addition to hosting the world’s best international sports car drivers, Mosport International Raceway has also seen Canada’s best road racers find success, including Mississauga, Ontario’s Ron Fellows. This year, the maple leaf will be flown by two drivers. Driving for Autocon Motorsports, Tony Burgess of Toronto drops into the LMP class possessing 40 career sports car starts, while the eager 20 year-old Kyle Marcelli of Barrie, Ontario competes as an ALMS rookie in the LMPC category. Referring to an expected driver lineup that will represent 15 countries, Mosport’s vice president of Sales and Marketing Jerry Priddle proclaimed, “We welcome the international flavour of the field.”
As returning fans descend on Mosport, Priddle also welcomes newcomers to enjoy a free-roaming adventure around the track. “One of the great appeals of Mosport is the accessibility and great viewing areas. There are a variety of corners and fast straights that fans can spectate from.”
No plans currently exist to consolidate North American sports car racing into one series, and it doesn’t appear to be a negative issue. The Grand-Am Rolex Series appears content with their racing formula as they’re continuing to build a cost-effective, close racing-style, approach to the sport.
For the American Le Mans Series, while concerns about the health of the more international-focused tour haven’t disappeared completely, the series appears to have been revitalized with the two new Challenge classes and the league’s involvement in the new Intercontinental Cup is helping to slowly bring the manufacturers back to the sport.
Demonstrating itself as an adaptive entity, sports car racing should continue to highlight not only the exotic, but also the street-relevant technology of the automotive industry. Click below for more...
<hrdata-mce-alt="Page 2" class="system-pagebreak" title="Page 2" /> Kyle Marcelli: The New Canadian Road Warrior
There are some people who pointedly question the motivation of today’s youth. Providing the perfect counterargument to the debate, 20 year-old Kyle Marcelli’s rise to the prestigious American Le Mans Series in 2010 is the model for determination. Plunging himself into the inaugural season of the Le Mans Prototype Challenge category, the Canadian driver is radiating with promise.
Performing an 8-year step up the motorsport ladder from karting, through touring cars, up to his current position in professional sports car racing, Marcelli described his career as being based on, “persistence, dedication and hard work.” After collecting the 2007 Formula Ford championship and most recently a 2nd place class finish at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in ALMS, he coyly confessed that he never foresaw competing at the ALMS level at age 20, although he was confident he’d make the series grid eventually. He was quick to credit his sponsors for keeping everything “moving forward”.
Marcelli’s big break came in 2009, when he became a test driver for Intersport Racing. His entry into competition for 2010 has not come without first year struggles, however. Driving LMPC vehicles wearing three different car numbers, his original ride with Primetime Racing ended when the team’s #11 car disappeared after Long Beach. He competed with Genoa Racing at Laguna Seca in May, before returning to Intersport for the Utah Grand Prix at Miller Motorsports Park in mid-July. Accepting that “things happen and you have to adapt”, he welcomed this first-year complication with his typical positive attitude. Happy to be running the full 2010 ALMS schedule, Marcelli realized, “I’m always learning, every event and every time I get into the race car.” Driving the LMPC car, the Canadian is left with nothing but praise for the vehicle. “The series really did a great job bringing the LMPC in for 2010,” he commented. “Personally, I love the LMPC. It takes a certain craft to drive one quick and
I think my ex-prototype and formula car experience is paying off.”
With more than half a season under his belt, Marcelli will is playing on his home track of Mosport International Raceway in August. Having watched the ALMS Grand Prix of Mosport with his father for many years, he has become familiar with the road course competing in other auto racing divisions and also serving as an advanced driving coach. Considering family and relationships extremely supportive for elevating him through this career, Marcelli would like nothing more than to score a LMPC class win in front of his country. “I have a lot of sponsors, media, friends and family coming to that event and it would be very special for me to take the victory,” he said.
Partnered with American Brian Wong piloting the #89 Quicksilver car for the remainder of the 2010 campaign, Marcelli has a positive outlook, and believes class victories are within his grasp. His ultimate goal, however, remains a lofty one. “When I debuted in the American Le Mans Series back in March, I set out to be the youngest class champion in ALMS. At the end of the day, that’s still the goal.”