While I have known to be a bit of a crotchety guy in the last couple of years, for some reason my overly critical attitude doesn’t often make it into my writing. Not sure why, perhaps I just like to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than throw hard working people under the bus. With the announcement that IMSA is making some procedural changes, perhaps the time has come for me to weigh in on the disaster that is the Tudor United Sportscar Championship.
First off, I must say that I was excited about the so-called merger of the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am, even if it was a not so thinly veiled buyout situation. There are some pretty talented people on both side of paddock, so I was anticipating that they would pull it off.
Two races in, the organizers have done many things well. I was at the Rolex 24 and the crowds were truly impressive, certainly much larger than last year. From what I have heard, the crowds at Sebring were equally large. The field is jam packed full of top level teams with some spectacular machinery. Two of the biggest problems in auto racing these days seem to have been overcome. While there was limited television coverage, depending on where you live, the online stream of Sebring was better than any television coverage I have ever seen, even though it did seem to crap out for an hour or so around the 11th hour.
The problem is that the things the series has screwed up are equally as fundamental as having fans and competitors, so much so that they could very well be starting to lose both already.
Just to recap, at Daytona there was a non-incident which IMSA officials turned into an incident. A Ferrari and an Audi were racing for position in the closing stages of the race. At one point, the Audi left a bit of a gap, allowing the Ferrari to get alongside. As a result, the Audi got squeezed two wheels off. There was no contact, just two drivers racing each other hard for position. Moments later, IMSA announced that the Ferrari was being penalized for “avoidable contact”, when the video clearly showed that there was no contact. The political waffling that followed was of monumental proportion. The Audi was handed the win and then after the race, the win was revoked and handed to the Ferrari. The Ferrari owner had already gone home in disgust and has reportedly not been seen at a race track since.
There were so many things wrong with Sebring it is tough to list them. The “avoidable contact” issue again came to light, as one car was repeated bumped by a white Porsche. Race organizers along with two expert driver observers agreed that a penalty should be applied and so it was. Like at Daytona, there was video evidence. Unlike at Daytona, the car that was penalized was not even involved. Like at Daytona, the race winner was dictated by the penalty, but unlike Daytona, it was not properly corrected after the fact. Then of course there were a couple of terrifying incidents on track, caused by amateur drivers with money. The guys who pay the bills for many racing teams. These and IMSA’s yellow flag procedures surrounding other minor incidents meant that close to half of the twelve hour race was held under a full course yellow. Not what the fans came to see, nor what the competitors spent a fortune to do.
This morning, IMSA has released their plan to correct some of this moving forward. Let’s start off with their plans to correct their disastrous officiating.
- Enforcement of an IMSA rule requiring the display of the car’s number on its in-car cameras.
- Upgraded video review equipment to high definition (HD).
- A new system for cross-checking cars and drivers involved in on-track incidents.
- Addition of a third driver advisor to work alongside the IMSA Race Director and two driver advisors to assist with evaluating responsibility in incidents and other on-track situations.
Allow me to comment on each one of these solutions in turn:
- Let me get this right, there is already a rule in place, so basically they are putting this back on the teams, when really it is IMSA’s fault for not enforcing a rule in the first place.
- They went to Target and picked up some new televisions for race control.
- Officials and driver advisors should be able to see the car numbers and sponsor markings better on the crisp new TVs in between watching Smokey and The Bandit on the PIP.
- “Uh, oh. Mr. Atherton, we’re gonna have to budget for more snacks in race control.”
IMSA also thinks they need to revamp their yellow flag process.
- At events where there is only one prototype class in a race, the pits will be opened for that class when the field is packed up and while GT cars are still performing the Pass-Around procedure. This change will expedite the full-course caution process by a full lap.
- The “Lap-Down Wave-By” procedure – which provides a strategic opportunity for cars a lap or more behind to gain a lap back by staying on course while leaders make pit stops – will be more limited in its application. There will be no Lap-Down Wave-By in races less than two hours and 30 minutes in length. For races between two-and-a-half hours through six hours, the Lap-Down Wave-By will be used only once in any 90-minute period after 60 minutes from the start of a race. No Lap-Down Wave-By will be used in the last 30 minutes of a race.
- Efforts also will be made to use “Debris Yellows” where a situation is likely to involve the simple removal of debris or the flat-tow of a stopped car to a safe location. A Debris Yellow includes the Pass-Around procedure, but the pits remain closed until the race is restarted.
I’ll tell you what folks, start dealing with on track incidents in the way that road racing has always done it. Local yellows for small stuff, full course yellow when there is big stuff, red when there is really big stuff. White when there is a safety vehicle on track. Quit trying to manipulate racing with “lucky dog” wave-bys and the like. Just because NASCAR owns the series doesn’t mean that their rules work. The series is about road racing, not oval tracks. Stop trying to re-invent it.
The big question is, are IMSA’s somewhat laughable solutions to a problem they (or their owners) have created, enough to undo the damage that they have already done? The fans, while disgusted, still seem to be engaged so time will tell if ticket sales continue to be positive. Most motorsport media folks I know are just plain old disgusted. Then, there are the teams, and there are even bigger issues for the teams.
The public sees the manipulation of race results and on track nonsense, but they don’t necessarily see some of the behind the scenes bickering. The series has had a habit of throwing last minute rule changes and demands on teams and manufacturers that cost competitors many thousands of dollars, money which has often not been budgeted for. Money which may prevent some teams from participating in events later in the year. IMSA has been treating teams like captive customers with no other place to go. Well, there are already rumours that some teams are investigating other series like IndyCar or even NASCAR. With just 22 cars on track at St. Pete’s, you know that IndyCar would welcome new teams with open arms. Following Memo Gidley’s devastating crash at Daytona, team owner Bob Stallings is taking the rest of the season off. The famed Brumos Porsche team pulled out before the season even started and team spokesman Hurley Haywood has said that they are basically waiting to see what happens with the series before committing to a return to racing. The owner of the Ferrari I mentioned earlier, Scott Tucker, is sure to be looking for somewhere else to play. Rumblings say that these may just be a few examples.
One thing is for certain is that IMSA needs to run a flawless event next weekend at Long Beach. Otherwise, they will quickly lose their crowds both on the track and in the stands.