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Sports Car Racing Is (Almost) Back

They tried their best. Lord knows how they tried.

At least that is the way it appeared to the drivers, entrants, and fans who were standing around watching the powers that be seem content on destroying sports car racing. Everybody knew it. Only Dorsey Schroeder had the courage to publicly display his feelings when he prominently put a sticker on his USRRC Can-Am car. It depicted the four characters from South Park with the words: THEY KILLED SPORTS CAR RACING. THOSE BASTARDS!

The war waged throughout 1998 causing many to fear there would be nothing but ashes left. It was even sillier than the CART vs. IRL split simply because sports car racing didn't have what the open wheel factions had -- big time sponsors vs. a big time event. Skip Barber summarized the sports car situation in an August, 1998 interview in Racer magazine, "All these people think they are fighting over something wonderful, when there's really nothing left." The only thing everyone involved was successful at was producing an alphabet soup of acronyms for the sanctioning bodies, series names, and classes which only managed to confuse even the diehard enthusiasts.

However, like South Park's character Kenny, no matter how many times he gets knocked off in each episode, he keeps coming back for the next one, ready to go. And sports car racing did come back, race after race. Only to suffer the same fate as poor Kenny. Until 1999.

Sports car racing took a strange and unexpected turn at the first race in 1999. It resembled the early scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when during the Black Plague a man went around asking everyone to bring out their dead. When one wheelbarrow was brought, a body said, "I'm not dead, yet."

A record entry (and the maximum allowed to start) of 85 cars showed up for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona (even though only 78 cars survived practice and qualifying to actually take the green flag) run by SCCA under the USRRC umbrella. Manufacturer interest was on the rise. Even though Porsche dropped their factory supported teams, Chevrolet entered the fray with two new Corvette C5-Rs for the GT2 class. So much attention was given to this debut that Chrysler quickly summoned their European ORECA Dodge Viper factory team to hop across the Atlantic and do battle with the bowtie boys. Even more importantly, a record crowd showed up to watch the event.

Then came the Superflo 12 Hours of Sebring, and suddenly sports car racing was now witnessing a phoenix-like resurrection. This was the first event of the newly founded American Le Mans Series (ALMS) run by PSCR. Again, a record field showed up (63 entries with 58 starters). Again, manufacturer interest was high as BMW debuted it's new V12 LMR and Audi debuted the R8R. Again, a record crowd showed up (early reports had ticket sales exceeding 40% over previous years).

The ALMS web site, which produced a live realaudio broadcast, experienced 1.6 million hits over the course of the race. True, hits are a misnomer to knowing how many actual people access the site, but 1.6 million in one day is a heck of a lot no matter how you slice it. Plus, ALMS has a network TV deal that surpasses that of the IRL.

Then, as if the competitors felt something special in the air, the race turned out to be the closest finish in the 47-year history of this storied event.

Though there were signs of a turnaround last year when the final event, the Petit Le Mans, the precursor to the ALMS, drew a record crowd at Road Atlanta, all is not rosy when looking in the crystal ball. Chevrolet is only interested in running their Corvettes in a few select events (they are not even going to make their Le Mans debut until 2000), and no word on what BMW and Audi plans are. Early indications from inside sources indicate that the field at the Lime Rock event, an USRRC race, will be much, much smaller than what was seen at the 36 Hours of Florida.

Dragging something out of the depths that sports car racing was in last year won't be easy. And, there are no indications the two sides are doing anything but pulling in separate directions. Let's just hope they don't try so hard this time, because the rays of hope are clearly shining through.

Copyright © 1999 by Roy Todd and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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