Photos: LAT & Marshall Pruett
The first year of unified sports car racing will present many changes for some fans to follow. Here’s my unfiltered look at some of what’s taken place since the merger was announced as plenty of newness has filtered throughout the North American sports car scene.
The American Le Mans Series was purchased by NASCAR, most of its classes and some of its staff was blended into the Grand-Am organization like a big motor racing version of The Brady Bunch, and with both factions under the same roof, we have a new entity, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.
WHAT DO YOU CALL IT?
There’s no shame in admitting “TUDOR United SportsCar Championship” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like “F1” or “IndyCar.” You can use TUDOR Championship, which the series likes, and you could refer to it by its acronym, “TUSCC,” but it sounds a bit too much like a bizarre championship for elephant racing.
In the conversations I have with most people, I prefer IMSA, short for the International Motor Sports Association, which serves as the sanctioning body for the TUDOR Championship. It conjures thoughts of IMSA GT racing from the 1970s, IMSA GTP from the ’80s and early ’90s, and holds a special place in the hearts of those of us who grew up on IMSA racing.
IMSA oversees the TUDOR Championship, the Continental Tire Series and the 142 development series involved with the merger, so it isn’t a perfect choice to single out the top category, but among the options above, I’m sure you’ll pick one that works the best.
FROM MERGER TO RACE 1: STATE OF READINESS
Many of the things involved with bringing the TUDOR Championship to life have been completed at precariously late intervals, but, and this is worth emphasizing, all signs point to the series being ready to go for its inaugural event at Daytona International Speedway.
The foibles and facepalm moments have been well-documented – I think I’ve spent more time than anyone delving into those shortcomings – and there will surely be more chapters to add in that department. Frankly, it’s to be expected with any new series, and even old and proven championships like F1 manage to find new and inventive ways to screw things (See: F1, 2013, Tires, 2014, Engines…).
Yet with the Herculean task of combining two series, doubling the car count and coming up with a rules construct to let them race with some level of equal opportunity, the TUDOR Championship looked rather smooth and polished during the Roar Before The 24 test earlier this month. If you’d asked me what I thought about the series being ready for the Rolex 24 at Daytona last September or October, my answer wouldn’t have been positive or polite.
To my surprise, and thanks to a lot of hard work from many people who we rarely see or hear from, the IMSA staff has made great strides in a short amount of time. I’m sure the Rolex 24 will have a few head-shaking moments, but I expect the overall event to go off with a limited number of surprises.
If you’ve been looking for the right time to put the forum squabbling and nitpicking aside, it’s here and now. If you want the TUDOR Championship to succeed, they need all the online evangelists and bar stool preachers to help spread the sports car gospel.
Welcome to the touchiest subject in the TUDOR Championship paddock. With all of the extra racing for the incoming ALMS teams – a 24-hour race at Daytona, in particular, and the added time for Grand-Am teams with the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 10-hour/1000-mile Petit Le Mans season finale, budgets have gone up. Way up for some classes and cars.
Daytona Prototype teams have taken the biggest financial hit with all of the performance upgrades that were implemented. High-downforce bodywork, carbon brakes, paddle-shifting systems and more powerful engines, along with the extra track time that burns through parts and consumables at a higher rate, have tacked an extra million dollars or so onto 2014 budgets.
One serious DP team owner told me last week that he’s still searching for that extra $1 million and can’t say whether he’ll complete the season unless it’s found. Mergers are rarely cheap for team owners, and while the topic of budgets and other behind-the-scenes items rarely make it out to the casual fan, it’s fair to say the dollars needed to keep TUDOR Championship cars on the track is a concern for most teams in the series.
I expect the situation to improve in the coming years, and with more fans, better TV ratings and an increased profile, teams can secure more sponsorship. I’ve seen many sports car series crash and burn – even ones with amazing cars and drivers – and rising costs have always been to blame.
I don’t think the folks at IMSA have their formula wrong, but after years of ALMS and Grand-Am teams working away from a known and attainable budget, there’s a palpable sense of unease with what it will take to get through the season.
You probably know about the post-merger class structure, but if you don’t, five ALMs classes and two Grand-Am classes have become four: ALMS P2, PC and GT survived. ALMS P1 and GTC did not. Grand-Am DP and GT survived. With the TUDOR Championship, you now have:
Prototype: for ALMS P2 and Grand-Am DP cars, plus the DeltaWing. ALMS P2 cars ran on tires of their choosing while Grand-Am DPs used spec rubber from Continental. The Prototype class uses spec Continentals. DPs have been given more power, better braking and vastly improved cornering capabilities though downforce. P2 cars have stayed close to their ACO specs. The DeltaWing…is the DeltaWing.
PC: for ALMS PC cars, which are essentially unchanged from 2013. Unlike Prototype, PC requires the use of at least one driver with a non-pro rating in the lineup.
GT Le Mans: for ALMS GT cars, which has been re-branded as GTLM, and serves as the only TUDOR Championship class where open tire competition is allowed.
GT Daytona: for Grand-Am GT cars (and the Porsche GT3 Cup cars that comprised the defunct ALMS GTC class). Unlike GTLM, GTD requires the use of at least one driver with a non-pro rating in the lineup.
60 cars at regular events, 67 to 68 for the four endurance events (Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, Road Atlanta). The numbers have changed more than once, and could do so again.
THAT’S A LOT OF CARS
Indeed it is. Depending on the event, based on the track length or duration of the race, 2014 could be a record year for caution periods. Many cars capable of different cornering and straightline speeds with a lot of aggressive pros and well-intended amateurs could make for regular clashes under braking and at apexes.
For a look at the complete rulebook, click here.
I’ve never been a fan of Grand-Am’s points system, and that’s what the TUDOR Championship will use. It follows NASCAR’s Sprint Cup points table where consistency, rather than winning, is rewarded. Win a lot of races and, if those pursuing you aren’t too far behind, your gap will barely grow. It almost guarantees each championship will go down to the final event, which isn’t a bad thing, but it also means teams don’t have to sweat over finishing second or third. Whatever, it’s what IMSA has chosen.
Here’s how the top-10 positions pay points – check out the sporting regs for the rest of the positions.
Grand-Am’s pit stop procedure of allowing refueling and tire changing to take place simultaneously has been adopted, which will take a bit of practice for ALMS teams to master.
The topic of safety car deployment has been brought up a few times recently, so I asked IMSA’s Scot Elkins to give a rundown of how they hope to manage caution periods in a timely manner:
It’s kind of a hybrid between Grand-Am and ALMS in terms of how it’s going to operate. We’re using most of the ALMS program because we have the four classes. So some of the things we did with Grand-Am we can’t do, which was we did a field split before we went back to green just to make sure the prototypes were all up front and the GT cars were in the back. With four classes, that’s not possible. And then we’ve incorporated a procedure that we had in Grand-Am and now we’ve incorporated that into the TUDOR Championship, which was what we call the lap down wave-by flag, which gives the cars the opportunity to stay out and get a lap back based on how they go through the pit procedure in terms of when the pits are open for those particular classes.
Then we’ve also incorporated a thing called a debris yellow. A debris yellow is kind of different; it’s something we’ve addressed from feedback from competitors and fans and everybody. What we’re going to do is we will go yellow but we will not open the pits when it’s just for debris or something safe and quick. It just gives us a chance to go yellow to deploy vehicles out to retain that debris and then go back in and get back to green much faster, so we don’t have to go through the whole wave by, pass around procedure that tends to take so long. So we’ll do the debris yellow, we close the pits, take care of the debris and then we go back to racing.
LOOK & INFO:
A change to the ALMS on-board leader system, one that only called out the top-3 cars in each class via three lights, has been replaced with actual LED panels that show the car’s position number within its class.
The Fox family of channels will play host to the TUDOR Championship in 2014, with most events carried on its Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 cable outlets. Some live streaming will be offered at various times. RACER will keep you posted ahead of every round with tune-in information.
Fox Sports 2 has a relatively small reach, meaning some of you will not get to see every race live on TV. Fox Sports 1 – which is the former SPEED Channel – will, according to series COO Scott Atherton, air rebroadcasts of races that originally air on Fox Sports 2, and Atherton says they’ll be shown soon after the live broadcast and at a friendly hour.
If you can’t wait to see a TUDOR Championship event, and it’s being shown on a cable channel you don’t have, help the attendance figures by driving or flying out to see it in person.
NASCAR-owned MRN will serve as the exclusive radio and internet radio provider for the TUDOR Championship. For ALMS fans that came to love Radio Le Mans’ coverage, RLM will not, at present, have a presence in North America in 2014.
I could tell you plenty more about all the changes to look for, but I need to stop somewhere and this is the perfect jump-off point.
RACER will be on the ground and starting our on-site coverage from the Rolex 24 on Wednesday, we’ll have lots of stories, photos and video to offer and, in a nice twist, the race starts on network TV – Fox – with a big pre-race show. If we all do our jobs properly, you should come away from the race feeling overwhelmed with content and primed for a 12-hour nap.
Tune in for the 52nd Rolex 24 At Daytona at the following times:
Saturday, Jan. 25
Tune in for the Daytona season opener at the following time:
6 p.m. on FOX Sports 2 (Same Day)