Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mid Ohio Madness - All Racing, All The Time

After a long and hectic weekend at Mid Ohio shooting a ridiculous number of images, walking several miles over hill and dale, and falling asleep each night with the hum of race engines in my ears, some might wonder if I really have been out in the sun too long with this post. Three straight days at this track is like a week's worth of racing most anywhere else, with so many sessions crammed back to back to back. I wouldn't want it any other way and the technical and creative challenges I faced last weekend made it all the more interesting. Throw in a little rain Saturday morning and high heat and humidity on Sunday, and you have a racing photog's best recipe for either disaster or something approaching the "zone" that many athletes have experienced. The top dressing for it all is luck - being in the right place at the right time and having a camera ready. I can't say I really found that zone this past weekend, but after a few thousand pix and as many cars flying by, everything did slow down and I was able to quickly dial in about any shot I wanted. By the time the IRL race was over Sunday, I was sitting on the photographers' bleacher in victory lane and thinking to myself that I had done a pretty good job. And I had 16 gig of images, sore feet and a back seat full of sweaty clothes in my car to show for it.

On the drive home, another thing struck me, having been to Mid Ohio several times the last few years to shoot both the ALMS and Rolex Grand Am events. While I love the big prototypes, the addition of the "Challenge" class cars to this ALMS race was disappointing to watch, as they were clearly just field fillers. Anyone can seemingly get a Porsche 911 and go racing. Sure it makes it interesting for the drivers because of the huge differential in top speeds, but should a P1 car have to spend half the race flashing his brights at the slower cars like de Ferran seemed to? How long before a P1 or P2 car rounds a blind corner at top speed and plows into a stalled GT car that is just there to build the car count? God forbid it should happen.

What I'm really wondering is what will be the catalyst for a sports car unification ala Indycar and Champ Car? Let the GT cars run their own races as support categories except in the endurance races - Daytona, Sebring, LeMans and Petit LeMans. Maybe add Indianapolis to the mix if they can figure out how to make a 6 hour or 1000k event work on the IMS road course. Get everyone together for those races, and let the prototypes hammer one another in the sprint races. Of course there are a number of problems with that approach, not the least of which is each series philosophy on equipment. Rolex is more customer car oriented with lower tech requirements and Hoosier spec tires. This leads to big lap time differences compared to ALMS so an equivalency formula of some kind would be needed; often simply adding weight is enough to do the trick.

For example, the Pontiac Riley of Gurney and Fogarty were on the Rolex Mid Ohio pole this past June at 1:18.059 and the last DP car qualified at 1:24.086 back in 19th. Conditions were dry but not as hot as this past weekend. Thirteen GT cars followed in a range from 1:26.171 to 1:32.680 for a total car count of 32 machines. The Rolex series has been known for its "gentleman" racers, sportsmen with cash to burn who help fund an entry so they can race with the big boys. It would be hard to argue that Alex Gurney, Scott Pruett and others like Max Angelelli or Romain Dumas couldn't hold their own regardless of what sports car series they were in. The Rolex race ran 2 hours 45 minutes and the winners completed 111 laps with a fastest race lap of 1:18.909 by the 6th place Ford Riley of Michael Shank Racing.

By contrast, six weeks after the Rolex event, ALMS fielded just 26 cars, with only 10 prototypes in P1 and P2 combined. Pole winner Gil de Ferran stopped the clocks at 1:09.443 while the slowest P2 car qualified at 1:15.898. The slowest production based car ran 1:29.470. De Ferran's fastest race lap was 1:11.105 and ALMS ran 118 laps in the same 2 hour 45 minute race window in much hotter conditions. So there would obviously be some work to do to for the manufacturer and technology based ALMS series to see true competition from the Rolex brigade.

Would the result yield better racing for sports car fans? I sure don't know, but the crowd at the Rolex event is paltry in comparison to the ALMS/IRL weekend. Maybe the fact that the Rolex race is run late Saturday afternoon to get on TV has something to do with it. Maybe the fans like the combo event where they can see IRL's high speed open wheel stars on the same day as the ALMS. I don't know what the answer is, but everyone seems to sing the blues amid a cry of "in this economy etc., etc., ...) so something is probably going to have to give. How long will Acura want to be the lone manufacturer at the top of the podium? So far it's working for the parent company Honda in the IRL, but I do not think they would shy away from competition. After all, they decided to enter sports car racing when the mighty Audi's ruled the roost, and even Audi succumbed to the doldrums of the worldwide car market this year and bailed out on full season racing at the top levels. Would more manufacturers bring sports car racing together so we could see 30 or so prototypes battle it out in their own feature races?

Who knows? I'm just asking, that's all. And everyone knows how to become a millionaire in racing - you start with ten. See you at the race track.

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