PRUETT: Trans Am back on the cam

Image by Chris Clark

PRUETT: Trans Am back on the cam

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Trans Am back on the cam

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On its current trajectory, the Trans Am series is getting closer to reclaiming its place among the most popular sports car racing series in North America. As someone who grew up marveling at the outrageous cars and manufacturer battles that made Trans Am stand out from its rivals, I can’t wait for the restoration process to be completed.

Established by the SCCA in the 1960s, Trans Am held the country’s imagination as the birthplace of our Pony Car wars. From the 1970s through the 1990s, it evolved from production-based factory cars to full-bore, flame-spitting monsters wearing badges from Audi, Chevy, Ford, Mercury, Merkur, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Porsche.

Tommy Kendall’s 1990 Chevy Beretta Trans Am. Image by Marshall Pruett

That Trans Am iteration’s last hurrah, as Champ Car’s opening act, added Jaguar to the list before it fizzled and died in 2006, shortly before the open-wheel series met its end. Trans Am’s return a few years later was welcomed, but its place among the major series had been lost. The American Le Mans Series, and even Grand-Am’s Rolex Series, kept Trans Am in the shadows as the outlaw sports car series toiled in relative anonymity until a former telecommunications executive saw value in taking controlling interest in the property.

If the turnaround efforts that began under new owner Tony Parella and series president John Clagett are successful, there’s every reason to believe IMSA and SRO Motorsports America will have a problem on their hands. For racing fans, it’s an excellent scenario to consider.

Once forgotten, and finally on its way back, there’s nothing like Trans Am, which make it a perfect antidote to the litany of sports car series littered with spec-minded thinking and drastic overregulation.

At the leading edge of Parella’s multi-class offerings, the wildest days of Trans Am’s past are celebrated as lightweight, tubeframe creations, with cartoonishly dramatic bodywork, and screaming V8 engines packing an 800-plus horsepower punch, deliver something you won’t find anywhere else.

Modern multi-class Trans Am action at Road America. Image by Chris Clark

The TA and TA2 cars do sport rear wings and splitters, but downforce isn’t the key to their performance. Wide, slick tires do their best to handle the power and braking forces, and offer impressive grip in the corners, which is often peppered with snap oversteer and broad slides. Inside the cockpit and engine bay, you’ll find nothing that looks like cutting-edge technology or driver aids. No traction control. No anti-lock brakes. No paddle-shift system.

It’s a purebred racing machine that exists for no other purpose than to thrill its drivers and entertain the masses.

The most amazing aspect of Trans Am’s TA and TA2 chassis is the cost. In TA, a brand-new, turnkey chassis sporting Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro/Corvette or Dodge Challenger bodywork will set you back between $325,000-$365K. In TA2, the series’ most popular category, new cars run from $125,000-$150K. Compare that to the price of a new, spec GT3 car from various manufacturers that retail for $500K-$750K, and the difference is alarming.

Operating budgets for the 12-round championship, which co-headlines with Parella’s SVRA vintage racing organization, and races on the undercard a few times with IndyCar and NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, are equally welcoming. TA2 runners have told me they spend somewhere in the $350,000 range for the season, which makes for one of the great bargains in racing. At the top tier, a TA budget can hit $700,000. You’d need to double or triple that figure to go endurance racing for a year with a homologated GT3 car.

Like turning your friends onto a favorite underground band or TV show, Trans Am sits in that place where too few people enjoy its brilliance, and all it needs is one thing to break into the mainstream. The commitment from a major auto manufacturer to lend marketing support would do wonders for Trans Am’s profile. Interest from team owners struggling to make a living in other series might find decent bumps in income with the addition of a Trans Am program.

Or having one of its most famous former entrants, Roger Penske, who now owns the NTT IndyCar Series, connect with Parella to forge a relationship for 2021 and beyond. I dream of a time where Trans Am becomes a regular part of IndyCar’s events, giving fans the added value of open-wheel and sports car racing on the same weekends.

Factor in some of the smaller classes Trans Am offers, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore the series’ steady rise. Think about all of the daily bitching about Balance of Performance and Driver Ratings and the rest of the nonsense associated with most sports car series, and then think of Trans Am’s TA and TA2 classes, where they don’t exist.

Of the many favorite memories I savor from a lifetime spent in racing, Trans Am’s annual visit to Sears Point in the 1980s and 1990s managed to create a tradition I practiced for many years. As a race mechanic working at one of the shops in the paddock, I’d use my SCCA Pro Racing credential to get onto pit lane during one of the sessions and wander towards Turn 11 with camera in hand.

Greg Pickett flexes his Trans Am Camaro’s muscles in the early 1990s. Image by Marshall Pruett.

With outrageous power on tap — more than the rear tires could control — it was common for drivers to round the hairpin, mash the throttle, and exit the corner sideways with the left-rear fender drifting precariously close to the wall. As the Scott Pruetts or Tommy Kendalls worked their crossed-up magic leaving Turn 11, their cars nearly hit the same section of exit wall — about a three-foot length — before getting the wheelspin under control and rocketing down the straight to start another lap.

Enthralled by the sound and power and skills on display, and with minimal interest in self-preservation, I made the annual trek to that three-foot section of wall, squatted down so my head was just peaking over the top of the wall — dead level with the spinning and sliding glory aimed right at my face — and fired away with my camera. The sheer thrill of exploding acceleration and its arc that arrived one to two feet from my head was like an electric shock to my senses. Some of the photos I captured also weren’t half-bad.

It would never be allowed today. The session would be stopped, an ambulance would be called, and police would escort me to a psychiatric care facility. But back then, when personal stupidity went unchecked, those visits to Turn 11’s corner exit apex point seared the epic awesomeness of Trans Am into my soul.

Add in the hundred other events I’ve attended during my former crew member career where Trans Am was on the schedule, and all I’ve enjoyed over the last decade-plus as a traveling reporter with Trans Am on the undercard, and it’s held my attention and passion like few series.

It’s a place with raw, animalistic creations to tame. It’s pure racing at its finest. Man, I really hope it gets back to the position in the sport where it belongs.

Learn more about Tony Parella’s plans for Trans Am in the podcast below:

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