A couple times a month, I drop by a Saturday morning round-up of auto esoterica that gathers in the parking area of the Premier Automotive Group in Irvine, California. PAG is the big corporate building that houses Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin. It's an extremely laid back deal: hot rods, the R Gruppe 911 bunch, drifting examples, MGs, Alfas, weird German-built Ford convertibles that appear to look like three-quarter scale Galaxies. Recently, the Ferrari club showed up with 104 cars, including a number of vintage and current racing machines. The crowd reflects the cars in attendance. Cars & Coffee, as the gig is known, also draws a number of car journalists and photographers, so it's a good time to compare notes, talk about who has been fired, upcoming gigs, the industry in general.
In my case, I'm often asked when I will devote editorial space to the shortage of front-line American drivers in sports car racing. The answer isn't complicated as to why, money and judgement are at the top of the list. Last month, I took a few shots at NASCAR, but in addition to marketing, there is another area where it has succeeded admirably: home grown drivers. You can make a decent living if you break in to the NASCAR ranks, even their lower support series, but in Grand Am or the American Le Mans Series, it's an entirely different scenario.
Let's start with the ALMS, in particular that bastion of red, white and blue, the Corvette team funded by GM and run by Pratt & Miller. A few years ago, there was a shuffle of drivers that saw the home boys dumped in favor of two Euros named Ollie. Political cover was evident by retaining one gringo and a Canadian in one of the 'Vettes, but the true number one pairing was obvious.
Both Oliver Gavin and especially Olivier Beretta are quick and accomplished drivers, but also have driving gigs in Europe. GM program manager Doug Feehan has made no concerted effort to try and get home grown talent to represent that most American of cars.
Audi and Porsche are worse. Both companies count on the US market for substantial sales, yet according to the motorsport powers that choose the pilots, no locals need apply. I'm not talking about the occasional guest shots or the one lone Californian who drives for Porsche, I mean a real team mixture. Penske's program with the RS Spyder is a mystery. The Captain has always been a man who has done things his way, or when working with other manufacturers, his viewpoint carries a great deal of credibility. His Porsche driver line-up consists mainly of Alex Job Racing alumni, so you know who is calling the shots. Seems to me, Penske once helped develop Porsches with a couple of guys named Donohue and Follmer.
I took a look at the results from last year's ALMS round at Laguna Seca and the first American pairing didn't show up until 12th overall. I've been a fan/attendee/participant of sports car/GT/prototype racing for as long as I can remember and honestly, I couldn't care less where a driver hails from. Brabham, Mags, McNish, Enge-these drivers have been responsible for some incredible on-track battles. McNish lapping the field in his Audi, including his own teammate. Tomas Enge showing how an Aston Martin DBR9 can be made to handle. They are good and deserve to be where they are. But how does someone who wants to reach that level even get the interview? The old nurturing system of bringing someone patiently up through the ranks is gone. Today you have your 15 minutes to impress and put that Senna-like lap in, and then you get to pitch a sponsor as to why Sebring and Le Mans are important.
Racing has always been about money and the connections to get that better ride. That won't change, and frankly, it can't, because it's how the business works. It's more difficult to get that big break. Manufacturers spend millions developing and building new cars, and it makes sense that their products be shuffled about by drivers they trust. Stuffing and repairing a Ferrari F430 GT is a far bigger expense than a Formula Ford. Better to have an ex-F1 journeyman than a bunch of renegades.
Today, the younger talent is snapped up early. The rest of the world brings them along through karting, junior teams, single seaters, and touring cars. In the US, all the emphasis is on stock car racing, because it offers the highest profile for the money. One only has to look at what's happened to Indy car racing, a sad shell of what was once a breeding ground for driving heroes.
At the annual Monterey Historics, there is usually a tribute to a famous driver. The amount of Americans who have distinguished themselves among the rest of the world is dwindling, as American racing turns inward. Playing on the world stage requires commitment and a belief in the talent. No one can tell me that there's not a driver in the US who, given competitive (not just grid-filling) machinery, could equal or even better what we are constantly being told is the best in the world.
If real sports car and GT racing is ever going to really matter here, there has to be talent. If not, the results will continue to be published in small print at the back of the sports pages. And how many advertisers pay for placements there?