Series unification will propel US sportscar racing to great heights

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If there is one model for running a series that motorsports administrators around racing are trying to avoid, it’s the messy Indycar/Champ Car split that ruined open wheel racing in the early 2000s.

It is not a stretch to say that the open-cockpit category is still struggling to regain even a small slice of the glory days before Penske, Ganassi and Andretti departed the CART World Series, as it was then known, for Tony George’s all-oval Indy Racing League.

The national rise of NASCAR was directly tied to the decline of Indy-style racing.

At around the same time as the CART/IRL split, it seemed that racing fans were experiencing a severe case of déjà vu, because sports car racing went in two separate directions not long after the IRL-CART war began.

You had the high-technology American Le Mans Series (ALMS) on one side, maintaining ties to the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series on the other, a series owned by the NASCAR conglomerate down in Daytona Beach, Florida.

These two series, though somewhat similar in terms of their endurance format, were never really on the same page.

Grand-Am regulations were heavily controlled, producing close yet contrived racing in what were once majorly ugly low-cost Daytona Prototypes (though the new bodywork has improved their look immensely), while the ALMS went about their thing with technologically-advanced Le Mans prototypes that looked and sounded downright awesome, and a series that maintained links to the twice-around-the-clock classic in France.

Ultimately, both series’ suffered. Small crowds and a general lack of impactful television coverage brought about cracks in the façade of both the ALMS and the Rolex Series.

As a whole, sports car racing was suffering. If only the Indycar and CART people had shown as much foresight as Brian France of Grand-Am and Don Panoz of ALMS did when they and their offsiders got together to plan the formation of a new series that will combine the best of both worlds.

Beginning in January 2014, the Tudor United SportsCar Series is poised to propel sports car racing in North America to heights never seen before, and it may even leap past Indycar racing on the popularity index.

What’s not to like? Fans will get the best of both series all rolled into one, beginning with the famed Rolex 24 at Daytona event at the Daytona International Speedway (part oval, part road course) and then, the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Following those marquee endurance events, the series will visit a collection of the best natural terrain and street circuits in North America.

How’s this for a hit list of excellence? Road America, Long Beach, Circuit of the Americas, Mosport, Laguna Seca, Indianapolis and Road Atlanta.

For a North American road racing fan, that’s about as good as it gets.

Sure, you could have stuck Mid-Ohio and Lime Rock Park on the bill as well, but this is the first year of a unified series, which has come together rather quickly – here, binding agreements with certain tracks from both series’ make scheduling complicated – and it’s not hard to imagine that there’ll be upgrades and improvements over the years.

Still, the 2014 schedule is a solid foundation from which to build the profile of the series, except on one count: don’t start me on the inclusion of the boring oval/road course at Kansas Speedway.

Let’s all hope that it’s a one-and-done deal, because it’s ludicrous that Mid-Ohio and Lime Rock Park aren’t on the schedule, yet a boring roval is.

Minor scheduling gripes aside, how tremendous is it going to be in Daytona Beach come January?

You’ll have the cool Delta Wing, plus Daytona Prototypes, Le Mans-style prototypes, dozens of GT cars – Porsches, Aston Martins, Ferraris, Audis, Corvettes, Camaros and Mazdas in perhaps the greatest collection of GT driving talent and manufacturers racing anywhere in the world– and all the best drivers on the same track every week.

No longer will there be races opposing races on the same weekend, a situation which served only to further dilute an already small fan-base and forcing drivers to choose chasing a championship in one series or another.

Some issues regarding the technical specs aside, this is a dream situation for fans, and, really for anyone who wants a tin-top racing alternative to NASCAR competition.

The TV package on the fledgling Fox Sports cable networks – America’s newest sports networks, Fox Sports 1 and 2 premiered in the middle of the year – will see the sports car racing gain exposure via other properties like NFL, college basketball, college football, NASCAR’s three national touring series’ and the daily news/information shows.

A teaser trailer here and there on some of the network’s highest-rating programs and timeslots is certainly going to bring the series to the attention of many Americans who had perhaps not known that there was a sports car racing series.

That’s the goal, really: exposure. Right now, aside from a select few fans, no one in America knows Scott Pruett or Alex Gurney or Ricky Taylor from a bar of soap.

Contrast that to the stars of NASCAR, whose likenesses are all over TV, magazines and staring you down in cardboard cut-out form when you walk into a store.

I’m not expecting that Pruett and co will become as universally known as Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt Jr, but there’s every chance that they’ll become more recognisable than some of Indycar Series drivers.

As perhaps the most important season of sports car racing in the last two decades inches closer, the new dawn looks promising.

The unified series had done all the right things so far, in reaching out to disaffected fans, sponsors and racetracks, and there is a sense of great anticipation and optimism heading into this season which I can’t remember being present for many years.

Kudos for the two sides, ALMS and Grand-Am, who had very different ideals about how sports car racing should be run and regulated, in their coming together with a minimum of fuss, bother and bickering to get the 2014 season ready in a rather short space of time, considering the technical specs that had to be developed.

The powers-that-be have clearly realised that the fans are the ones who matter the most, and have moved mountains to get everything ready for pre-season testing and the first – arguably the biggest, too – race of the season, so that the fans see the best product possible, a herculean effort no matter which way you look at it.

It promises to be a wonderful season of endurance racing.

The Rolex 24 can’t come quickly enough! Let’s throw the green flag and get it started!

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