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The Exciting World of American Sports Car Racing

Updated on January 1, 2016
Racing Action from the 1999 Rolex 24 at Daytona
Racing Action from the 1999 Rolex 24 at Daytona

Introduction

My love for sports cars racing had an auspicious beginning. I was stationed aboard the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) based out of Mayport Florida (Jacksonville). While off duty I walked into the TV lounge and saw the 1999 24 Hours of Daytona playing on the television. I was like "Wow that race is at Daytona that is only 2 hours away. I really would like to see that race live." At the time I did not own a car or even have a driver’s license so I caught the local city bus to the downtown Greyhound station and bought a ticket to the southbound bus headed to Daytona. A couple of hours later I was in Daytona Beach, Florida. I had been there a year before, for the inaugural Pepsi 400 night race. I knew the bus station was a short distance from the speedway, so I walked from there to the track.

I arrived at Daytona International Speedway around 4pm and approached the ticket booth. The environment at the Rolex 24 was much more relaxed than the hustle and bustle of the Pepsi 400. There was no line at the ticket booth so I walked right up. At the time there was a special going on, in that you could get a general admission ticket for $10. The only stipulation was if you left the track any time after the special ended you would have to pay full admission to reenter. This seemed like a bargain to me. I thought I would watch the race for a few hours and then head back to Jacksonville.

I bought a ticket and entered the grandstands. I was amazed that the grandstands were nearly empty and I could sit wherever I wanted. The Pepsi 400 was a completely different experience in that there was strict seating assignments and you had to sit wherever was assigned on your ticket. As I walked around there was a variety of engine sounds, from the throaty V8’s of the Ford Riley & Scotts to the high pitched Ferrari 333 SP’s. I was in wonderland.

As I stated before the grandstands were nearly empty, so I choose a seat high above the start/finish line all the way at the top near the skyboxes. I looked in the windows and saw well dressed spectators drinking wine and eating fine food. I thought to myself that it would be nice to watch the race from in there, but knew I could not afford that. I settled down and took my seat and watched the race.

The hours passed by quickly and darkness soon came. I thought about leaving but was mesmerized by all the different types of cars racing at the same time. I thought it was the neatest thing watching the nimble prototypes blasting past the production based Porsches and BMW’s. I had no clue as to what was going on during the race or who was doing what, but I kept a watch on the scoring pylon. All I did know was there was a heated battle between the Ford Riley & Scotts and the Ferrari 333 SP’s.

As night fell the rain began to fall. I seriously considered leaving at this point, but the rain was never heavy. I simply sat underneath the overhang of the skyboxes and stayed dry. It did get kinda chilly that night so I pulled on by Florida Gators hoodie and stayed dry and warm. Around 11 pm I made the decision to stay at the track and watch the race until its 1pm conclusion. During the night I decided to take a nap and took off my hoodie and made a pillow and somehow fell asleep. I guess all those long nights working on a loud aircraft carrier in the Navy, had given me the ability to sleep through anything.

Daybreak came and the race was still going on. The Dyson Racing Team had taken the lead and held off the Doyle-Risi Ferrari team through brilliant tire strategy eventually winning the race by two laps. It was all over and I had just experienced the most thrilling event of my race spectating life. I was exhausted and my ears rang for two day following the event, but I was hooked and had become a lifelong fan of sports car racing.

Race winning MOMO Ferrari 333 SP team at Daytona in 1998

1904 Vanderbilt Cup race car roaring around corner on Long Island road.
1904 Vanderbilt Cup race car roaring around corner on Long Island road. | Source

Early History of Sports Car Racing

In the early days of automobile racing there were few differences between a sports car and a Grand Prix car. The two types of vehicles were nearly identical with fenders and two seats, one for the driver and the other for the riding mechanic. As technology advanced the two types of race cars became more and more specialized. Grand Prix cars began to evolve into high performance single seat racers lacking fenders and optimized for shorter sprint races, while their sports car brethren continued to resemble production based vehicles.

By the 1950’s sports car racing was second in importance only to World Championship Grand Prix racing with manufacturers investing large sums of money and technology into the cars. As the decade came to a close endurance racing cars had lost their close relationship to road-going sports cars with most major races being contested by dedicating racing cars. After the 1955 Le Mans disaster where 84 spectators were killed when a car crashed into the grandstands and an incident during the 1957 Mille Miglia open road endurance race where another 10 spectators were killed it was decided to limit the speed and power of sports cars. Sports cars were temporarily restricted and starting with the 1962 World Championship for Sports Cars was replaced with the International Championship for GT Manufacturers that pitted production Grand Touring racers against one another.

1950's SCCA race in Florida
1950's SCCA race in Florida

Sports Cars Come to America

Despite the loss of international prestige sports car racing had began to gain popularity in the United States although lacking any domestically produced sports cars. Vehicles were imported from Europe and most races featured MG and Porsche cars running in the smaller classes and Jaguar, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Allard, and Ferrari cars in the larger classes. There were however domestically produced hybrid race cars that began to appear by the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Cars that featured European chassis mated with large American built engines with the AC Cobra being the most famous of these.

Sports Car Club of America

The SCCA was founded in 1944 as a racing enthusiast club with its first race being held at Watkins Glen in 1948. By 1962 the SCCA had become a full blown automobile racing sanctioning body and dropped its amateur policy and began sanctioning professional races. It founded the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) in 1963, which was a professional championship for FIA Group 7 sports cars that ran both open-topped sports cars and GT cars. Shelby and Porsche dominated the Over- and Under-2 Liter classes, respectively. In 1968 the USRRC was abandoned in favor of the more successful Can-Am series, also run by the SCCA.

The FIA had given the SCCA the responsibility of managing the American rounds of its World Sports Car Championship held at Daytona, Sebring, Bridgehampton, and Watkins Glen. They were also involved in providing support for the United States Grand Prix such as providing logistical support and track marshaling staff. The Trans-Am Series for pony cars was started in 1966 and today uses SCCA GT-1 class regulations giving amateur drivers a chance to race professionally.

Current SCCA sanctioned series include Trans-Am, the Pirelli World Challenge for GT and touring cars, the Mazda MX-5 Cup, the F1600 and F2000 Championship Series and the Atlantic Championship Series. Club racing continues to play an important part in the SCCA where amateur drivers compete in races held on either dedicated race tracks or on temporary street circuits. They race in regional and national events that require a SCCA racing license. Another capacity that the SCCA operates under is providing course workers for various sanctioning bodies holding road and street circuit races throughout North America, including NASCAR, Indy Car, IMSA, and Formula One races.

SCCA Promotional Video

1967 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside
1967 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix at Riverside

The Can-Am Series

The Canadian-American Challenge Cup til this day remains one of the most spectacular and technologically advanced racing series to ever compete in North America. Founded in 1966 the series was started as a race series for FIA Group 7 sports racers that had unrestricted engine capacity and few other technical restrictions. For all practical intents and purposes this was an open competition class that permitted unlimited engine sizes. Teams could run naturally aspirated, turbo or supercharged engines and almost unrestricted aerodynamics. The only rules were that the car had to have a place for two seats and bodywork enclosing the wheels, and met basic safety standards, other than that anything went.

Group 7 Can-Am cars were designed for short sprint races as opposed to the longer endurance races. Prize and appearance money in this series was good compared to NASCAR or USAC and many of the day’s top drivers both national and international competed in the series. Manufacture support was excellent which would lead to the series eventual downfall as it became a spending contest and only the manufactures willing to invest the most would remain competitive. Towards the end technology had gotten out of hand with teams claiming cars capable of producing 1,500 horsepower in qualifying trim and running with outrageous wings, active downforce generation, lightweight space age materials, and ridiculously fast speeds. Can-Am was a victim of its own success.

Lola initially dominated the series in its early years, and then a period of domination followed with the McLaren Team. When the Porsche 917 came along with its 24 Hours of Le Mans race winning pedigree it proved to be unbeatable and doomed the Can-Am series competitive popularity. Can-Am continued to be a pioneer in racing technology and was at the cutting edge often times rivaling Formula One in circuit speeds and qualifying times.

The 1973 Energy Crisis effectively destroyed the Can-Am series as the cost of petrol drove the cost of transportation through the roof. Can-Am shuttered its doors after the 1974 season. In 1977 the series was revived but never regained its former glory as it was now overshadowed by CART and IMSA. Can-Am eventually closed for good at the conclusion of the 1987 season.

Can-Am Cars: 1966-1974 (Osprey Auto Champions)

IMSA

The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) was founded in 1969 by former SCCA executive director John Bishop and was largely financed by NASCAR president Bill France Sr. as a professional road racing series. The first IMSA race was an open wheel event held at Pocono Raceway featuring Formula Vee and Formula Ford racers in October of 1969. The then leading road racing sanctioning body SCCA was angered that the event was being held and threatened the track management at Pocono demanding them to block IMSA from racing there. Despite threats from the SCCA the race was held although IMSA had to pay an additional $10,000 in rental fees. There were a mere 328 spectators in attendance.

IMSA continued to soldier on despite minuscule crowds, but by the end of the 1970 season management realized that the single seat Formula type cars were incapable of attracting large crowds. They would lay the groundwork for the introduction of the FIA Group 2 and Group 4 cars to compete in a new series that featured cars under the same specs as those run in the international World Championship for Makes, which was an international championship sanctioned by the FIA.

The 1971 GT season introduced international endurance racing to North America, with Camel cigarettes becoming the series title sponsor in 1972. By 1973 the 12 hours of Sebring endurance race had gained international recognition by the FIA. Doubting the commitment of major manufacturers IMSA made rules changes to favor privateer teams although international manufactures continued to dominate the series. The newly formed Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category began in 1981 with rules similar to the vastly popular FIA Group C prototypes minus the fuel consumption restrictions of the international series.

Ownership of IMSA changed hands in 1987 to the owners of the IMSA Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. By 1996 the IMSA series changed ownership once again leading to the departure of many of the executive board members. With escalating cost and low car counts a breakaway series was formed by the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) in conjunction with the SCCA as an alternative to the IMSA GT Championship. After two seasons the USRRC ended in failure and was eventually taken over by the newly formed Grand American Road Racing Series which was financially supported and backed by NASCAR.

1980's IMSA Action

ALMS vs Grand-AM

The American Le Mans Series (ALMS)

In 1996 the new owners of IMSA changed the series name to the Professional Sports Car Racing series (PSCR) and by 1999 sold the organization to Braselton, Georgia based businessman Don Panoz. In partnership with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) the organizers of the world renowned 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race. The series ran its inaugural event the 1998 Petit Lemans held at Road Atlanta under the PSCR banner. For 1999, the series changed its name to the American Le Mans Series, and adopted the ACO's rulebook.

The ALMS saw quick success and became the dominate road racing series in North America. Its partnership with the ACO guaranteed ALMS teams entry into the prestigious 24 hours of Lemans race, which entry was by invitation only. The inaugural season consisted of eight races including the 12 hours of Sebring endurance race. In 2000 the schedule expanded to 12 races including two in Europe and one in Australia. The international events were soon abandoned and the series began to concentrate more on temporary street courses, many in conjunction with Indy Racing League events.

Using essentially the same rules as the ACO the ALMS ran three classes of race cars. These classes were the Prototypes, Grand Touring (GT), and GT-Challenge (GTC). The three classes were further divided into P1, P2, and P-Challenge for the prototypes and GT-Pro and GT-Amateur for the GT cars. Each car was assigned multiple drivers who drove in shifts or stints and all classes competed simultaneously running for overall and class victories during each race. The P1 class was primarily for factory backed teams while the P2 class was reserved for privateer teams. In GT-Pro drivers had to be professionals while in GT-Amateur professionals and amateurs both shared driving duties in each car.

The Grand American Road Racing Series (Grand-AM)

The Grand-AM series was the successor series of the USRRC and was established in 1999. Its premier series was the Rolex Sports Car Series and consisted of Prototypes and GT cars. The series centered around its marquee event the 24 hours of Daytona endurance race but also contested races throughout North America.

Prior to the 2003 season the Grand-AM series ran prototypes with similar rules and specifications as the cars that competed in the 24 hours of Lemans, but at the onset of the new season the new Daytona Prototypes were introduced. These were custom built cars specifically built to compete in the series which were a cost effective race car with carefully controlled technology to ensure close racing and approximate parity between bodies, engines, and chassis. This was a vast departure from the technologically superior cars competing at Lemans and with the ALMS. The GT classes also saw a simplification process allowing a variety of manufactures to enter the sport. Teams had the option of using production based vehicles or tube frame chassis which reduced the cost of building and repairing cars. Daytona Prototypes and GT cars ran together during races but on shorter tracks they would run in separate classes.

On September 5, 2012 it was announced that NASCAR holdings would purchase the Grand-AM racing series in an effort to streamline operations but would run its NASCAR operations and Grand-AM divisions as separate entities, but would share communications, research, and marketing resources

ALMS/Grand-AM Merger  Left to right: Ed Bennett, Jim France, Don Panoz and Scott Atherton
ALMS/Grand-AM Merger Left to right: Ed Bennett, Jim France, Don Panoz and Scott Atherton | Source

Merger

On September 5, 2012 the ALMS announced it would merge with the Grand-Am series to form the new United Sports Car Racing Series. For 16 years the two series were direct competitors with the Grand-Am series being billed as the quintessential American series, while the ALMS leaned more towards the international scene.

Most saw the merger as a positive thing for US road racing due to the fact that ALMS was beginning to suffer from smaller car counts in its premier LMP1 class as one of its leading manufactures Peugeot left international competition to focus primarily on events held in Europe. The other top competitor Audi only made a single annual appearance in North America and that was at the 12 hours of Sebring. Other than that the major international manufactures were largely absent from the American racing scene with US based privateer teams carrying the mantle for the ALMS. Grand-Am was the driving force behind the merger reminiscent of the CART/IRL merger of 2008 with the main difference being that ALMS was on solid financial footing while CART was not.

Each series would continue to run a separate schedule for the 2013 season before fully merging for the 2014 season. The new combined series would hold its first event at the 24 hours of Daytona, with IMSA being the sanctioning body for the new series.

ALMS fans and supports were disappointed that the premier international class the LMP1 would be eliminated in favor of the more cost effective albeit more low tech Daytona Prototypes. The ALMS LMP2 prototypes would be combined with the Daytona Prototypes in a single class, however rules changes would give the DP cars the upper hand in the class and most LMP2 teams withdrew from the series after the 2014 12 hours of Sebring.

Success

From a business and historical standpoint the merger has been a good thing for American sports car racing as the combined series races on the top road course and street circuits in the United States, including Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, Road America, Road Atlanta, Long Beach, and the Circuit of the Americas. No other series in the country races at such a superb collection of race tracks.

Despite grumblings from long time sports car racing fans the United Sports Car Series has been overall successful and heading into the future the series is becoming more aligned with the international racing scene with the introduction of GT3 specifications to its GT category, which should bring teams from the FIA World Endurance Championship to the American shores. Other changes include the phasing out of the current prototype classes with an entirely new prototype being introduced in 2018. It’s very exciting that officials from the FIA, ACO, IMSA, and World Endurance Championship have sat down and come up with plans for a new globally unified Prototype race car that can compete interchangeable throughout the entire world. This move should finally unite all of the world’s preeminent endurance races under one unified set of rules, something the world has not seen in over 20 years!

Tudor United Sports Car Series

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      David A. Warr 19 months ago

      A very good piece. Lots of history and will be great for the new enthusiast. I've lived through it all and the article is accurate.