Thursday, September 03, 2009

Why GrandAm Shouldn’t Race at IMS

GrandAm is testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway today, and circulating rumors (including those mentioned by Curt & Kevin on Trackside this week) say that there could be a GrandAm endurance race at IMS in 2011. People will tell you things about how endurance racing won’t work there, because the track doesn’t want to release fans into the surrounding neighborhood late at night, and things like that, but let me add some more points to the list of why GrandAm should not be let onto the grounds to stage an actual race.

1) The cars are not viewed by ANYBODY as the most sophisticated in their field. IndyCars are the fastest single seater cars that run anywhere in the US. Formula 1 are the fastest cars that turn right and left anywhere in the world. MotoGP bikes are the motorcycle equivalent of F1. NASCAR Cup cars are the fastest “stock cars” anywhere, and the top-drawing form of motorsport in the US. These are the types of events that belong at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. GrandAm cars are not the fastest sports cars in the world, and are not even the fastest sports cars in this country. The Grand Am GT cars are basically at the same level of speed as the newly introduced GT-Challenge class in the American Le Mans Series. This GT-C class did not even run at Mosport last weekend, because the closing rate between it and the cars in the prototype cars was judged to be too great to be safe. That does not sound like the sort of car that should be on the track during a “feature” race.

Similarly, the GrandAm headlining Daytona Prototype cars are only marginally faster than the GrandAm GT cars, and in fact, sometimes struggle to get through slower GT traffic, due to insufficient straightaway advantage and microscopically better braking. If your headlining cars are only 1-2 seconds per lap faster around the track than the under-under-undercard Porsche Supercup cars that graced the Speedway back in the USGP years, then you probably ought to stay home.

2) There is no proven fan following of the GrandAm series, either in Indianapolis or anywhere else in the US. When NASCAR arrived at the Speedway in 1994, it was obvious that there would be a sell-out, as NASCAR’s popularity was clearly in the midst of a 20+ year upswing. When F1 arrived in 2000, there was no question that well over 100,000 tickets would be sold, since American F1 fans had gone without a US Grand Prix for eight seasons, and were starving for a chance to see F1 cars on home soil again. Add to that the factor that tickets would be far cheaper than tickets for any of the European rounds, so there would be many fans coming over the Atlantic for a relatively inexpensive racing weekend in Indy. On the other hand, can anybody tell me what the biggest crowd has been for GrandAm during the entire Daytona Prototype era (2003-now)? 25,000? 20,000? Possibly far less? Why should anybody expect that GrandAm at Indy would draw well in excess of double the largest previous crowd in series history? Even if they did draw 50,000 people to the Speedway somehow, how embarrassingly empty would the grounds look, at only 15-20% full? And would even 50,000 ticket sales be enough to justify all of the costs incurred simply by opening the gates (yellow shirts, security, EMTs, concession workers, clean-up crews, the electric and utility bills)? Unless your face values start at $200 a piece, then I’m thinking probably not.

3) When GrandAm shares a track with NASCAR for a weekend, it is always treated like a 4th class citizen. At Daytona this year, during 4th of July weekend, the GrandAm cars had to practice, qualify and race all in one day, with the two hour race itself starting SIX hours before that night’s Cup race. How many Cup fans do you think came out to the track six hours early watch a bunch of guys they’d never heard of driving cars that don’t appear to be going as fast as Cup cars? I’m thinking not too many. At Watkins Glen last month, the same sort of thing played out, with the GrandAm race starting two full hours after Cup qualifying had wrapped up. Given the choice between staying at the track for 2-4 extra hours to watch GrandAm and going into town to get dinner, how many NASCAR fans do you think chose the former? Just last weekend, when sharing the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve with NASCAR’s #2 series, GrandAm was relegated to running its race on Saturday, so as to not impede on the “fantastic” “racing” of the Nationwide series (material for another blog post sometime, though you should check out Declan Brennan’s take on the weekend). Anyway, if NASCAR, whose parent company ISC also owns GrandAm, doesn’t see fit to bill the GrandAm series at least as highly as the Truck or Nationwide series, then why should such a clearly lower run series be allowed to be a clear #1 for a whole weekend at the Speedway?

4) GrandAm does not appear to be a series on the rise, but in fact seems to be a series that’s withering away. Let’s look at average car counts in the headlining Daytona Prototype class:

2006: 26.1 cars entered per race
2007: 19.9
2008: 18.9
2009 (so far): 16.9

The current rumor is for a GrandAm race to run at the Speedway in 2011, as part of the Centennial Era celebration. Are we so sure that the series is going to be around that long? If it actually makes it two more years but the trend continues, who is going to come out to watch 10-12 DPs and a dozen or so GTs run around for 6-12 hours? Won’t that look kind of silly?

Look, I love racing. The more, the better, as far as I’m concerned. However, there is something special about Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For 83 years, only the Indy 500 took place there. For the last 15 years, only top-level motorsport events have come to town. But, once you open the gate to clearly inferior forms of motorsport, then where do you draw the line as to who to let in and who gets shut out? If GrandAm gets to run, do you also kowtow to future overtures from NASCAR to run Nationwide and the Trucks there? Does the Speedway circle a date for Indiana Sprint Week? How about karts or quarter-midgets? They’d be cute to watch there, right? On the other hand, if they’re going to start running autocrosses on the front straight, complete with a Chicago Box on the yard of bricks, maybe I should shut up and start thinking about booking my hotel room for 2015…