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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Scott Pruett discusses American sports car racing's future

by Gordon Kirby
The day before four-time Grand-Am champion Scott Pruett led Chip Ganassi's team to its fifth win in last weekend's Rolex 24 Hours I sat down with Pruett to discuss the thorny questions posed by the merger of the Grand-Am and ALMS. Pruett fervently believes the merger will be a great thing for American sports car racing if the powers-that-be are able to get the formula right.

"That's the million dollar question right now," Scott said. "All the potential in the world is there. With these two different groups, both the car manufacturers and tire manufacturers have been divided and the same sort of thing's true with sponsors. There are also some manufacturers have hung on the sidelines because they couldn't make a decision to go ALMS or Grand-Am. So the two series coming together means the future couldn't be brighter for road racing in America. The way I view it is it couldn't be better for the sport.

"I think it's also a good thing that it will be operated under the umbrella of NASCAR whose business is going racing. That's what NASCAR does, whether it's Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Truck, AMA, or any of the other properties that they own. There's a big machine behind it of marketing, television and cooperative relationships between sponsors and manufacturers.

"The challenge is, how do you bring it together? A key thing, I think, is how many P2 cars are there going to be? If there are two or three, then it's an easy decision. They're obsoleted. If that's the case, you just continue on with the current Daytona Prototype. If there are ten LMP2s, then it's a very different challenge. But how many P2 cars are there? There's Dyson and Greg Pickett, and there don't appear to be any more coming down the pike.

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"There are no P1 cars. They cost way too much money and really need a factory team to run and manufacturers want competition and that's just not going to happen. The manufacturers appear to be interested in racing P1 cars only in the World Endurance Championship.

"When you get serious, hard-core factory operations they come in and spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year, it crushes the sport. They come in and dominate but after winning everything for a couple of years they leave and that leaves the series high and dry.

"The reality is that the France family has invested heavily in the current Daytona Prototype and invested a lot of time, effort and money in looking at equality, consistency, durability and looking at putting on a great race for the fans and also keeping the budget at plus or minus $3 million a year. If you go through the pit area I think that would be a common number. So there are a lot of things to consider and think about, and it's not going to be any easy decision."

Pruett emphasized the unpredictable nature of equivalency formulae and 'performance balancing'.

"I've been around road racing a long time and I've seen them try to race turbo cars against normally-aspirated V6s and V8s with different weight minimums and different this, that and the other, and it's always a huge challenge to try to find equality. You might find equality here at Daytona, a very fast track, but then you go to Lime Rock and the equivalency produces a hundred and eighty degrees opposite result. So that's, without a doubt, the biggest challenge. How can you really do this?

"I think as they venture into it, what we see in the first year may be significantly different from what we see in the second year. It's going to take some time to establish some true equality and see what evolves as we go. It's going to take some time."

Pruett believes the stated desire of the combined series to maintain a working relationship with the ACO and Le Mans should be very much a secondary issue in determining the 2014 rules.

"I enjoyed going to Le Mans," he remarked. "It's a great race, but as they create this series Le Mans should be a secondary thought. It needs to be on their minds but it cannot drive the direction of the series. I've been around this sport for a lot of years and I absolutely believe that the rules and philosophy that works here doesn't necessarily work in Europe.

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"This is going to be a North American series. Don Panoz tried to embrace the Le Mans philosophy and if that had worked and been successful he certainly wouldn't be joining forces or selling his series to NASCAR. I think if you focus the series on North America--the US, Canada, maybe Mexico and Brazil--I think as they series grows that whole corridor of North and South America should be looked at as room for expansion.

"The good thing we have going for us here in the States is that North America is still the biggest market. For sure, China is rising fast but North America is still the biggest market for cars. I don't care whether it's BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Lexus, Honda, Toyota, etc. So let's build something that the American fans love and has the ability to grow and prosper into the future."

Pruett hopes the new formula will retain the ALMS's thriving GT category.

"The other piece I don't really know is the GT side of it," he said. "Without a doubt, the ALMS's GT category is something to preserve because manufacturers and fans like it. You've got BMW, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche all going at it and they have to preserve that. I think that's a must."

Pruett also believes strongly in the concept behind the existing Daytona Prototype.

"These cars are very much--I hate to use the words 'old technology' because they're not the proper words. But the cars are very basic in their design. The original concept of the cars we're running now is to keep it affordable so if somebody crashes you can fix it.

"They are tube frame and with that they can only go so fast because they are limited in their rigidity. When you start going faster and getting more grip out of the tires and generating more downforce, the requirements of what you need from the chassis start changing significantly. That's why carbon fiber tubs and other things came about because you needed a stiffer tub and with that came expense.

"The other thing was they wanted the drivers to drive the cars. We don't want too much downforce. We don't want ABS or traction control. Let's keep the driving in the drivers' hands so they have to muscle their cars around. We want the competition to be close so you're leaning and grinding on each other a bit. It's not about putting a brave driver in the car so he can go deep in the corner using ABS, get it turned and then stand on the gas and use traction control to get off the corner. We want the driver to make the difference not the technology.

"Another thing with these cars is you have to be cautious with the tires. I think what we saw in Formula One last year was some of the best racing we've ever seen because of tire degradation and how the drivers and teams had to take care of the tires. The same thing's required in the Grand-Am and I think these are all very important things that they need to work into this equation."

Pruett thinks the latest generation Daytona Prototyes are considerably more attractive than the older cars.

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"Without a doubt, last year's change in the bodywork made the cars look nice," he commented. "I like the look of the cars now, especially when you park a new one next to an old one. You say, Wow! I didn't realize how ugly those things were. So I think they' made them look better."

I asked Scott if he thinks there's any room for new technology in the combined 2014 formula.

"That's always a very interesting question for me. There was a time in my life in racing where it was all about wanting the latest, the newest, the best technology. Now it's come full circle where you absolutely need limitations, especially with where we're headed as a country and where we're headed globally by being more responsible with what we do with our cars with more fuel mileage and efficiency.

"At the same time, you've got to have exciting racing and that comes from having thirty or forty cars being very closely-matched. The best races I've ever been at are those that come down to the last lap where you're fighting for the checkered flag. And we can't forget if you're successful as a governing body you'll see the grandstands filled up.

"The epitome of that is Formula One. I love Formula One but I got bored watching the races and they took that into consideration and changed a lot of rules and made it more exciting. I watched every Formula One race I could last year because I loved watching it. It was great racing. Even guys you thought couldn't get to the front were running at the front from time to time.

"So the hundred percent technology approach doesn't work. The door's got to be open to new technology, but it's got to be limited and responsible and that will take some pretty hard governing. After all, teams employ very smart people who can think outside the box and take advantage of every loophole they can find in the rules.

"But you need to have some new technology. Look at NASCAR. They had to go to fuel injection because you couldn't buy a car that was still carburetted. They were very slow to get there, but they got there in the end. They also responded aggressively to people complaining that all the cars look the same and were sick of it. So they listened to the fans and came up with this year's new car. I think the cars look cool and I hope it brings back the fans.

"You've got to have cars that have identity. A BMW needs to look like a BMW, an Audi needs to look like an Audi, and so on. I think Chevrolet have done a nice representation of the Corvette with the latest Daytona Prototype. It's a good-looking car."

I asked Scott what he thought about Parnelli Jones' statements in his new biography suggesting that IndyCar in particular should ban electronics, substantially reduce downforce and increase power.

"I think drivers need to drive the cars and the cream will always rise to the top," Pruett grinned. "I'm all for putting the tools in the drivers' laps. Let them drive and let's see their talent behind the wheel. So let's make the tires harder and give them more horsepower.

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"The easier you make the cars to drive, the more people can do it, and I think you start heading away from the true expertise and recognition that these are really talented drivers. I've been through all the technology of ABS, traction control, active suspension and all that stuff makes it a lot easier for the driver to drive the car and a lot more difficult to have great racing because there isn't that element of getting in too deep, locking the tires and a guy gets up inside you.

"You've got to manage our cars. They're always trying to get away from you. You've got to be real careful under braking not to lock up the inside front. There are a lot of things you have to do to drive the cars but you can lean on each other pretty hard. You have to drive the cars and I think that's great."

Pruett concluded our discussion by expressing his best hopes for the future.

"I see this as a perfect time to bring these two series together because it comes about at a time when manufacturers are spending money again," he said. "The economy is looking a little better and you get the sense that manufacturers and sponsors want to go racing.

"I also get the sense from the manufacturers that I've spoken to that in a perfect world they want to race something that has a silhouette of what they have on the showroom floor. It's not they don't like prototypes, but if they had their druthers, they would certainly want to race a silhouette of what they sell, and I understand that.

"So I think first and foremost they've got to take a really hard look at what has worked and what hasn't worked in the past. You've to look at can you realistically blend all these things together? In my view, that's going to be an incredibly difficult thing to do.

"My hope is this is NASCAR's business and they're looking at it differently than a group of investors. I know it's going to be difficult to bring all the pieces together. I know even if it's not right to start out they will get it right. Look at what they do in Sprint Cup. If it's not right they have no problem changing it. They know the fans are the most important thing.

"I can see this being an incredible series in the future if they can find the right foundation. If the fans love your product, the advertisers and the manufacturers will come."

Of course, the fact is that beyond the Rolex 24 Hours, the Grand-Am series struggles to draw crowds or media. Meanwhile, the ALMS pulls healthy crowds at most of its races and there's no question that ALMS fans love the technical variety of the series and its willingness to embrace new technology. Nor is there any question that most ALMS fans are left cold by Daytona Prototypes. The attraction for ALMS fans is about the aesthetic and technical appeal not the mantra of close racing espoused by NASCAR, Grand-Am and IndyCar.

So can a happy medium be achieved? Every form of motor racing faces the same challenge and it will be intriguing to see if Grand-Am/ALMS or any other sanctioning body is capable of getting it right over the next few years.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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