This month's text has its roots in a recent conversation with my oldest (still in school) offspring as he was looking at some photos of the Monterey Historics, circa 1982. He was seven months old at that time and his mom and I hauled him up there as we were running our Abarth (still in the family). So it really was his first race. One photo was worthy of a comment from him. It was taken from the pit wall at Laguna Seca, looking back at the hill. You could clearly see the entire paddock and Turns Seven and Eight. "Where are all the big trucks?" he muttered.
About Bryan: he grew up around sports cars, Formula One and, until his late teens, the Historics. Motorsport people were always over at the house, he has ridden in 962s, 935s, McLaren F1 GTRs, 959s and a few old Bugattis, etc. Sat in with the director in the ESPN remote during an Indy car race when they mattered. He even hustled a big Bentley Turbo around California Speedway at a buck thirty a few years ago, after getting a few laps of instruction.The thing is, Bryan is not a car guy, he couldn't care less about mechanical stuff and actual racing just doesn't do it. When we had a McLaren MP4/13 stored in the garage, he may have looked at it once or twice. The Ducatis also take up too much room, in his opinion. So while the real stuff is nowhere, the virtual side is where his interests have laid down tracks. He is into the games big time and design is his major in school. To him, it's all about the aesthetics and the execution. A fast lap at Le Mans via Sony is better than a round trip to La Sarthe via Air France.
Sign me up for Father Failure 101. Or maybe not. Bryan (and several of his friends, some whom are actual gearheads) thinks racecars competing in the ALMS are cool-looking, NASCAR is mindless entertainment and humorous (much like the games), F1 is largely processional and dull, but cool revs. Guess what ranks at the absolute bottom, or the top of the slag heap, depending on the view? The Rolex Grand Am Series has the worst-looking cars on the planet. The most memorable description for the proto-turtles is: "They look like a trucker's feed cap with the high peak."
Recently, the Grand Am circus made its annual stop at Laguna Seca, and what I witnessed does not bode well for its future. At least not on the West Coast, where only three rounds are scheduled out of 15 events. In all the years I have gone to Laguna Seca, I cannot recall a race that generated so little interest as to be non-existent. Forget any buzz surrounding the paddock, I was trying to find a pulse. This wasn't the fault of the SCAMP folk who operate Laguna Seca, they tried to generate as much local hype as possible. But how do you sell something so few want?
Clearly, Grand Am officials made a huge blunder on the scheduling. Two production car races were run on Saturday back-to-back. Think of a five-hour tuner race and it's no wonder the crowd of maybe a thousand bailed out mid-afternoon. Sunday's crowd was larger, perhaps two thousand, but the Daytona proto-turtle field had shrunk to 19 cars. A recent decision by Grand Am to separate the GT field from the DPs proved unpopular with both the drivers and the few fans. The reasons make sense, as the grids have grown alarmingly large, but sports car racing has always been about mixed classes. Production-based Porsche 911s on the track with pure prototype machinery.
Grand Am's problem is that there are way too many GT cars with drivers that are not up to the level of those in the upper class. A suggestion would be to go back to a qualifying GT race and take the top 15 or so to join the main show. As it was, the 19 that took the flag on Sunday had their share of incidents, without the GT cars being used as traffic. It fell to a series of yellows and full course cautions for the race to play out. The race was decided in favor of the Alex Job Racing Ruby Tuesday Crawford Porsche (the only good-looking car in the entire field) and that was with the checker being thrown under a yellow. We already have enough of that nonsense in other forms of motorsport, no one wanted to see that at Laguna Seca.
At every race I attend, I always make it a point to talk to the paying spectator. The most obvious aspect of this GA race was the lack of youth, and I don't mean the young couple pushing a pram with an 11-month-old baby. No, the MIA types were more like Bryan and his grid-filler group. People I spoke with did agree the racing was close, lots of action, but completely forgettable. Grand Am hypes how many cars finish on the lead lap, lead changes, etc. Nothing unique there, I saw hundreds of sprint car races at the now-departed Ascot Speedway that had that action covered. I loved it, but it didn't make me want to own a sprint car.
Sports car racing has to be different and must regain its aesthetic purpose to recapture the imagination. It's about the lust, the "Man, I wanna do that" aspect. Is it any surprise so many people in their 20s admire the older race cars from the '70s, '80s and '90s-Porsche Turbos, IMSA GT and GTP, Group C, and the short incredible time of the GT-1 cars? The Audi R8 may well be the most successful sports prototype of all time, but most will agree it's just not that exciting to look at. It didn't move the masses at Le Mans the way the Bentley coupes did, regardless of the Speed 8's origins.
In the GT ranks, few would disagree the Aston Martin DBR-9 is simply an awesome-looking beast and sets a standard of what a proper GT racecar should look like. The loss of the Astons in the ALMS has left the Corvettes to battle among themselves and the result is as exciting as paying your taxes.
The lesson Grand Am is ignoring is that looks do count, great drivers want to be in exceptional cars and history does matter.
Now, if I could only figure out how to use that damn Nintendo Wii controller.