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The Way It Is/ Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon brought star power to last weekend's Rolex 24-hour race.

by Gordon Kirby
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This year's Rolex 24 at Daytona was a fiercely fought affair with Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon among those featuring in the multi-car battle for the lead. In the end, Chip Ganassi's team scored its second consecutive victory in the race with a flawless performance by the crew and drivers of Ganassi's number one Lexus-Riley driven by Montoya/Scott Pruett/Salvador Duran. Second place eventually went to Milka Duno's CITGO Pontiac Riley driven by Duno and former and current open-wheel stars Patrick Carpentier/Darren Manning/Ryan Dalziel while Gordon finished third in Wayne Taylor's Pontiac Riley co-driven by Taylor/Max Angelelli/Jan Magnussen. With top name drivers like Montoya and Gordon featuring and a racelong fight for victory, neither the Grand-Am Rolex Sport Car Series nor anyone at the Daytona Speedway could have hoped for a better way to kick-off this year's Daytona speed weeks.

The Grand-Am series has pulled together an increasingly strong field in recent years, particularly for its keynote event at Daytona. Once again there was a great field of drivers for this year's Rolex 24 with stars from many forms of American and European racing enabling sponsor Rolex to vigorously promote the race nationally and locally. Indeed, there were huge grids for both last weekend's twenty-four hour race, which enjoyed a starting field of sixty-nine cars, and for Friday afternoon's GT race which boasted more than one hundred starters and was won by another former open-wheel racer, Canadian David Empringham.

So it was that the opening weekend of speedweeks graphically demonstrated that there is a massive participant base for sports car racing in America and after the 24-hour race Grand-Am president Roger Edmondson was moved to comment that he believes this year's race represented, "the end of our pioneering era."

With Bill France Jr's brother Jimmy France providing the backing and longterm planning the Rolex series has quickly developed into a healthy, NASCAR-ized form of sports car racing. Engines are restricted to naturally-aspirated, production-based V-8s which make around 500 horsepower and no fewer than half a dozen car builders, led by Riley and Crawford, are building chassis for the series. The application of NASCAR principles has helped generate a large, closely competitive field but many purists grumble that the cars are unattractive, bland at best, lacking in both aesthetic and technological appeal.

I have to say I'm in that camp and I was particularly struck while roaming the speedway's infield last Saturday night with a deeply dissatisfying aural experience. The Grand-Am field sounds considerably worse than it looks. In fact, it sounds like a poor Saturday night short track show with the engines waffling, sneezing and emitting a low-grade drone. To me, it's nothing like an international sports car race with the wail of Porsche turbos and Ferrari or Jaguar V-12s producing spectacular acceleration and braking with the brakes glowing in the night into turn one. In today's world of course, all this has been swept aside in favor of NASCAR-style lowest common denominator racing.

After the race Scott Pruett said that he goes to the races to see wheel-to-wheel racing, not fascinating or spectacular cars. But I beg to differ. I know from my own anecdotal experience in recent years that there are many, many fans whose interest in the sport is rapidly waning. They want to see visually more attractive cars and more impressive engines, aurally and technically. Some fans and manufacturers are gravitating these days to the ALMS because there's at least a whiff of technology and aesthetic appeal in that series. A vast swath of road racing fans in the USA are being ignored and I believe these are the very fans who would provide the sport with a more diverse and upmarket base.

I am deeply aware that I am jousting at windmills with these comments. Over the past thirty years, each of the SCCA, USAC, CART, IMSA and IRL have totally failed at managing the technological content of racing, a key component which made the sport so attractive for ninety of its hundred years. The litany of failed sanctioning bodies probably were even more incompetent at managing technology than they were at organizing, promoting and marketing their various woebegone series. Today, everyone tries to apply the NASCAR model, further demonstrating the deep bankruptcy of thinking that resulted in the failure of automobile racing in the closing stages of the twentieth century as anything other than an entertainment vehicle.

Of course, the other aspect to contemporary American sports car racing is that, just like Champ Car and IRL, it has lost any brand identity to the wider world. The season starts with the Grand-Am at Daytona and is followed six weeks later by an entirely different field of drivers and cars at Sebring. Back in the great days of the world sports car championship in the sixties and early seventies America's two most renowned sports car races used to kick off the old world sports car championship season and were covered in great detail by the New York Times as well as the country's car magazines like Road & Track and Car & Driver. Today, it's all about niche markets and like Champ Car and IRL, neither the Grand-Am nor the ALMS enjoys a national media footprint. Can the sport's heydays be recaptured with today's NASCAR version of sports car racing? I very much doubt it.

Regardless, the level of competition in the Grand-Am is very strong and winning against such a deep field means the same old principles are required, including endless pre-race preparation and planning as well as faultless execution. In this way Chip Ganassi's Grand-Am team, run by Mike Hull, has established new standards for the Rolex series similar to those of the great factory teams of sports car racing's glorious history. This year's winning car at Daytona led no fewer than 468 of of the race's 668 laps, emphasizing it's pace-setting superiority.

This year's top Rolex 24 rookies, Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon brought a lot of media interest to Daytona last weekend and with both superstars featuring strongly in the story of the race they helped push the race in the right direction in terms of recognition and credibility. Montoya said Daytona veteran Pruett was a big help to him.

"Scott helped me a lot, telling me this is the way you've gotta drive the car," Juan remarked. "Anything you asked him, he was very helpful about. He helped me a lot with how to drive the car in the first hours of the race. Scott doesn't take any risks. There are a lot of times when you could have gone for it, but he showed me that's not the way to do it. Scott really helped me set my mind up for the race.

"It's hard because you want to try to get ahead of them and at the same time you don't want to be the guy that screwed up and lost the race. They often remember the guy who screwed up and lost the race rather than the guy who won it. So it's a fine line."

Montoya has never raced in a series were he had to deal with so much traffic and a big performance differential in the cars, but he very much enjoyed his first twenty-four hour race.

"It was " he said. "The hard thing is you have to be careful. You have to watch the guy you're passing very closely. What Chip told me before the race is you've gotta drive your car and everybody else's around you. If they hit you from behind, it's your fault. If they hit you in the side, it's your fault. And that's really right. You've got to drive your car and the other guy's car."

Gordon was equally delighted and said he'll be back for another shot at winning the Rolex 24. "I had a great experience with Wayne (Taylor) and this whole group," Gordon commented. "I worked with a lot with Max (Angelelli) in the tests at Homestead and here, and these guys were so helpful to try to get me up to speed. I didn't know what to expect but I had a blast out there. But I made some mistakes, so I'm going to have to come back because I don't like to make mistakes. I want to come back and fix those and give it another try and just be an asset to the team.

"I felt there were times when I ran some some good laps and put a good stint together," Gordon continued. "All in all, it was a really great experience for me. It's a lot of hard work and to see what these guys put into it for twenty-four hours is unbelievable. You never know as a driver when you're going to be in, or when you're going to be out. It's a very challenging race and you've got have patience and you've got to be aggressive, and that's a lot of what it takes to run good in 500-mile races here as well. So it's just another great learning lesson for me."

A few weeks ago in selecting my choice of America's top ten racers of all-time, I arrived at the conclusion that Gordon and Tony Stewart are the only modern American drivers who might eventually earn a place among the sport's true greats. But the only way either of them can achieve such a lofty position is by racing successfully in other forms of racing outside NASCAR. In today's world however, where sponsorship and commercial contracts rule and NASCAR is all-dominant, it's very difficult for any top driver to compete in a wide range of cars. After finishing third in last wekend's Rolex 24, Gordon tipped his hat to Stewart.

"To race at the Cup level in thirty-eight weekends out of the year," Gordon observed, "and do all the testing and personal appearances and things we have to do for our sponsors and to see (Tony) race the way he does, he's the modern era A.J. or Mario. He's a very talented driver.

"You've just got to make the time," Gordon added. "I made the time for this event and I'm glad I did. It's just such an awesome experience for me and this car is such a fun car to drive. Our (NASCAR) cars are big and heavy with not a lot of tire and not a lot of grip, and this car has a ton of grip which is an experience in itself. Ever since I got the opportunity to drive an F1 car I've wanted to do more road racing and so I'm glad this opportunity came along and I'll look at the schedule and hope to do more.

"But I'm not going to be like Tony and go do Late Models and Chili bowl and all that stuff. I'm pretty content with what I'm doing."

Indeed, it's great for the sport that guys like Gordon, Stewart, Montoya and Jimmie Johnson brought some media interest and credibility to this year's Rolex 24. But if sports car racing is to become a major sport once again I believe it must produce its own superstars as well as more interesting and attractive cars.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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