Monday, May 08, 2006

Rolex Sportscar Series in the flesh

From the day that the Grand American Roadracing Association formed, comparisons with the American Le Mans Series began. This was further bolstered by the creation of the Daytona Prototype category. I watched with interest as the upstart GARRA series battled with small crowds, low credibility and a lack of talented drivers.

Fast forward to 2006, and the Grand Am series is now divided into two: the Rolex Sportscar series for the Daytona Prototypes and higher-powered GT cars; and the Grand Am Cup for production cars. Both series have large grids and close racing. A number of top drivers now come to GARRA to race: Eddie Cheever, Andy Wallace, Jorg Bergmeister, Jonathan Cochet, Max Angelelli and Jan Magnussen to name but a few.

What a lot of ALMS fans seems to forget is this: GARRA and ALMS are not rivals. They are two totally different series, whose only similarities are in the number of drivers who compete in both, and cosmetic similarities between a few of the cars. What I discovered this weekend when I got to see GARRA for the first time is that both have their own niche and can happily co-exist.

ALMS is all about the best, fastest sportscars that coincidentally are all running to the same rules that Le Mans uses. It's not about weight penalties, parity between cars or big grids. You may only get 10 prototypes at an event but you can be damn sure they're really spectacular cars with superb drivers and solid financial backing. They'll bring big fancy trucks with big, fancy hospitality, and all team members will be wearing immaculate uniforms that match.

GARRA is about simpler technology that is easier to run and fund and is thus more readily available. The upside to this is nice big grids and tight racing. The downside is that cars can come off as a bit goofy or low-tech, and that many teams are not particularly well-funded or able to secure the services of top drivers.

The parity, low-tech and emphasis on large fields and tight racing is undoubtedly a result of the influence of the NASCAR personnel involved in the series. They know what makes the typical American race-goer tick, and they're trying to address that in a road-racing arena. They've done well, I have to say, and the series looks set to continue to thrive.

There's room for both championships. Just because I went to see the Rolex race yesterday doesn't mean I won't go to ALMS in October. I will for sure. I prefer the well-funded, high-tech ALMS cars and teams, as well as the heavy European influence. But I had fun yesterday - a lot of fun. The weather was nice, the crowd was light compared to MotoGP, it was easy to get into and out of the track, it wasn't very expensive and I watched some great racing.

Would I have had more fun at the FIA GT race at Silverstone on Sunday, with those great Aston Martins, Saleens, Maseratis and Ferraris? Probably not - it pissed it down with rain and if I'm going to attend a race I'll take sunshine over rain anyday even if I am watching a bunch of goofy little prototypes on Hoosier control tyres....

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