The Sport of Racing
Grand Am’s tight rules make for a competitive field at Laguna Seca this weekend.
Thursday, May 4, 2006
Mike Shank believes Grand Am sportscar racing could blow up like NASCAR. It’s something he’d dearly like to see. And it could happen. While NASCAR’s popularity has grown bigger than baseball and the NBA combined, most people still need to be told exactly what Grand Am—or road racing in general—is all about. But in the seven years since the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series came into being, it has definitely gained momentum.
“I’d say we’re where NASCAR was in ’80 or ’81,” Shank says.
A 39-year-old race team owner and former driver who is here this weekend for the US Sports Car Invitational at Laguna Seca, Shank has good reason to be hopeful. The Grand Am series was founded and is owned in large part by Jim France, whose family built NASCAR. France has brought a lot of innovation and savvy to this still-new class of motorsports, and the fan base is growing steadily.
“In fact, I am politicking very hard within Grand Am to change the name of the series to the NASCAR Rolex Road-Racing Series,” Shank says.
Grand Am features two classes of cars. The Daytona Prototypes are a new breed of racecar, built from the ground up to rigorous Grand Am specs. The GT class features powered-up Porches, BMWs, Mustangs, Cadillacs and the like. Both classes are strictly regulated to discourage the outlandish spending that has turned Indy racing into a big-money game. Shank says this results in better competition.
Shank, who drove Indy cars professionally before crossing over to Grand Am, says he had grown tired of the game. “The guy who had the most gold won every time,” he says. “And that’s not the case now. The rules package has made it so a guy like me can beat a Chip Ganassi.” (Ganassi is the sport’s well-endowed 800-pound gorilla, with a fleet of cars and an army of staffers, while Shank has two cars and is sponsored chiefly by a guy who owns a fleet of taxicabs in Columbus, Ohio.)
Fans benefit from this arrangement, too. Grand Am races are famously tight. “You wouldn’t believe how close the competition is,” Shank says. There’s a lot of bashing and banging.”
He describes a race last weekend: “The leaders swapped spots three times in the last lap,” he says. “The guy who was in third won. That kind of excitement is what brings people back.”
Grand Am is also attracting top drivers. In recent years, NASCAR stars like Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Petty have taken up road racing in Daytona prototypes, turning off the oval track and onto the challenging, twisting terrain of road-race courses like Laguna Seca.
Shank says Laguna Seca is one of the most challenging of the road race courses, even to a vet like himself.
“The left-hand curve that leads up to the corkscrew—it looks like your driving off the end of the earth, and you’re going 100 miles an hour,” he says. “A lot of bad can happen there. You just have to have faith.”
RACE WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS
2:45-5:15pm Grand Am Cup Race
International and American coupes and sedans straight from
the dealer showroom compete in this heat. The only difference
between these racers and the ones on the highway are
modifications for safety.
10:15-11am Mazda MX-5 Cup
A field of identical Miatas with six-speed manual transmissions gives fans a peek at entry-level driving in this race, which is part of a new series for 2006. The MX-5s are essentially stock, with only bolt-on modifications to the intake and exhaust systems.
Noon Road and Track 250
Exotic, mid-engine Daytona Prototypes, the premier class of the Rolex series, are closed cockpit cars built low to the ground that can hit 185mph. In this race, the featured event of the weekend, these speedsters share the track with the Rolex Series Grand Touring (GT) division, which boasts roadsters with engines that range from the Porsche GT3 flat six to the V-8 Corvette. Translation: over the course of the two-hour-plus marathon, expect a lot of action from the famously competetive prototypes and the high speed GT performers.
3-3:30pm Historic Stock Cars
Restoration and preservation never looked so cool—or so quick. Cars in this race must have competed in a NASCAR Winston Cup, Grand National or other NASCAR classification.