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The Way It Is/ Historic racing is booming in America. Can we learn anything from it?

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
My destination the weekend before last was Road America in the kettle moraine country of central Wisconsin for one of the USA's leading historic racing events, the Kohler International Challenge with Brian Redman. This year's historic weekend at Road America included a special salute to the original, unlimited CanAm series which was founded forty years ago in 1966 and ran for nine glorious years through 1974. The CanAm tribute was organized by Dan Davis and Pam Shatraw of Victory Lane magazine and drew an entry of forty-eight cars.

Forty CanAm cars took the green flag for Sunday's featured eight-lap CanAm race which was won by Wade Carter's big-block McLaren M8F after pacesetter Dave Handy half-spun on the second-last lap on dirt thrown-up by another car which had spun into a sand trap. The impressive Handy recovered to finish second in his small-block McLaren M6B ahead of a string of newer, big-block cars.

I was there to direct the shooting of some footage for my partner Adam Friedman of Traveling Light who plans to make a TV show and DVD about the CanAm series. Adam also wanted me to interview event master Redman and 1972 CanAm champion George Follmer who was invited to be the event's grand marshall. And just before leaving for Road America I got a call from Motor Sport magazine in the UK, asking if I could cover the CanAm celebration for them in place of Pete Lyons who had taken sick and couldn't travel to Wisconsin.

Like many racing magazines, Motor Sport has been through some challenging times and changes in format over the past few years. Recently bought from Haymarket by Stratfield Ltd, the magazine's famous green cover has been restored and new editor Richard Robinson seems like a genuine, enthusiastic fellow. I wish him good luck on rejuvenating the magazine and told him I'd be delighted to write a story from Road America about the CanAm. My own career as a writer and reporter goes back to those days and there was a certain wistfulness in writing about the CanAm for the next issue of Motor Sport because I covered the last two years of the series in 1973 and '74, and was at Road America for the CanAm's final race in August of '74, a sad end to one of North America's greatest racing series.

Those memories aside, I'd always wanted to go to Road America's mid-summer historic weekend but never had the opportunity until this year. I'd heard about the fabulous collection of race cars of all types and kind that gathered at the track for the races and the parade of cars and concours in nearby Elkhart Lake. It was a pleasure to discover that the reality exceeded my dreams as more than 450 cars took to the track for the ten races on a hot, sunny weekend--perfect for consuming the track's famous brats and rootbeer floats!

They say variety is the spice of life and it's certainly there to enjoy in historic racing with everything from F1 and CanAm cars to Mini-Coopers and MGAs. A tour of the paddock revealed plenty of superb cars and it would not be fair to give special recognition to any of them because the general level of preparation and finish was so high. Unfairly, my eye was caught by three cars that were only on show rather than racing--a couple of magnificently-restored Watson-Offy sprint cars from the early sixties which had been driven by Rodger Ward and Elmer George, and Harold Higgins' stunning '429er' Ford-powered McLaren M6B CanAm car built in 1969 by the Agapiou brothers for Mario Andretti to drive in a few races.

But there were plenty of beautifully-prepared runners including fleets of Porsche 356s, Lotus 23s, Corvettes, and McLaren M6s and M8s, to individual cars like Augie Pabst's 1958 Scarab mk III. Pabst is a director and big supporter of Road America and also runs a Jaguar XKE. In addition, there were tremendous fields of formula cars from the sixties, seventies and eighties--Formula Fords, Formula Bs and Atlantics, F5000 and Indy cars--as well as more modern formula, GT, sports/GTP and Champ cars.

And of course, there was James King's Historic Grand Prix group with more than twenty cars, most of them from the seventies and early eighties, and most with Cosworth DFV engines, although there are a trio of F1 Ferrari twelve-cylinders as well. The F1 cars put on a good show, particularly the front half of the field who drive enthusiastically and race pretty hard. Of course, the sound of the many DFVs and few Ferraris is exquisite and played perfectly through the hills, dales and forests of Road America. It's a real treat watching these cars from the concession stand at the top of Hurry Downs as they exit turn six and sweep downhill into the Carousel and also from the outside of Canada Corner amid the trees on the backside of the track.

James King would love to run the historic GP cars as a support race at the revived Road America Champ Car weekend and I for one would love to see it happen. As I say, King's fleet of F1 cars look and sound good and a short, ten-lap sprint race on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning would be a perfect addition to the Champ Car weekend at Elkhart Lake.

I talked to a handful of fans during the historic weekend about Champ Car and Road America and they were hopeful but frustrated with the overall state of Champ car racing and worried also that the late September date--outside the July-August summer holiday season--was not the best time to draw a big crowd. I agree and would love to see Champ Car find a workable mid-summer weekend to race at Road America and do it in company with King and his historic GP guys.

In fact, why not put on a historic Formula Atlantic race as well to further compliment and build interest and awareness in today's booming Mazda/Atlantic championship? A menu like that would provide a tremendous celebration of open-wheel racing and would be a great promotional hook to help build Champ Car's event at Road America. Surely, it's a no-brainer.

At the historic weekend, many people--fans and people in the business alike--asked me about the prospects for reunification between IRL and Champ Car. I'm afraid to say I had to give them my negative forecast. Most of them are very frustrated about the situation and see themselves losing interest as fans and worrying about their businesses if they work in the sport. Many smaller car preparation shops and engine builders have found work in historic racing in recent years as open-wheel and sports car racing have treaded water and it's interesting to see how far afield the ripple effect of Tony George's dystopian vision has impacted the people who make a living from preparing, maintaining and developing race cars, racing engines and components. There's a deep-seated fear out there, way beyond the Indy/Champ car world, that the Indianapolis-based midwestern racing business is rapidly losing steam as more and more teams and operations move south to Charlotte.

This broader realization was driven home to me at the end of the first day of shooting at Road America. As he was packing his gear away my cameraman, who had witnessed some but by no means all of my conversations that day, made a quiet remark. "I knew there were problems in this sport and that NASCAR had taken over from road racing," he said. "But I had no idea how sad it is for so many people."

It's often salutary to ask if we can learn anything from the past and I couldn't help but reflect on that question as I enjoyed myself amid the old cars and drivers at Road America. First of all, the great enthusiasm of the participants and a tidy turnout of fans proves that there remains a healthy base of road racing enthusiasts. Beyond that point, the old CanAm series provides the perfect example of how not to manage a racing series both technically and promotionally. The CanAm had great appeal because it comprised abnormally fast, spectacular cars that set track record after track record as new technology was unleashed and exciting new cars appeared every year. In the end, Porsche and Penske out-spent, out-engineered and out-horsepowered the rest of the field, driving out the McLarens, Chaparrals and many hopeful privateers.

But more importantly, the SCCA had no technical vision or capability when it came to writing rules that would both encourage innovation and manufacturer participation, and at the same time be more cost-effective. This conundrum killed the CanAm in 1974 and also killed IMSA's GTP series twenty years later as well as CART's once-great Indy Car World Series another ten years on. And it remains today as the greatest challenge facing any auto racing organization--the FIA with Formula One, and most certainly Champ Car, IRL, ALMS and GrandAm.

Looking around the paddock at Road America's historic weekend a few weeks ago the message was clear to me that independent thinking and innovation have always been the fuel for motor racing. People like to do their own thing in their own way. That's what drives competitors and fans alike. As I've written before, if the sport is to regain the lofty stature it enjoyed during the best days of CART ten and twenty years ago and the great days of the CanAm thirty-five years ago, much more enlightened thinking than currently exists must be brought to bear on the subject.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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