Thursday, May 15, 2008
The arena of auto racing is dominated in the United States by the power, media glare and big budgets that revolve around the oval tracks, the pedal-to-the-metal speeds, fully blown stock cars and celebrities of Nascar.
What’s growling around the track this weekend at Laguna Seca is a more complex autoracing animal.
“None of these guys go ’round and ’round,” says Ed Nicholls, Mazda Laguna-Seca Raceway spokesman. “It’s constant turning, concentration, heat, speed.”
This weekend’s Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series (1:45pm Sat) features prototype and production-based sports cars that test the endurance of the driver and the smarts of the team as much as the horsepower of the car. “These guys do two to three Gs,” says Nicholls, “especially around the Andretti hairpin [turn 2]. And the corkscrew [turns 8 and 8a] is left, right, left – while dropping.”
While the Daytona prototype (DP) cars, born on the beaches of Daytona in the ’50s, are built strictly for racing, the production-based sports cars (GT, as in Gran Turismo), introduced to the states by World War II GIs from Europe, are close cousins to cars found in your Mazda or Porsche showroom.
Sports car racing fans savor the sophistication of the sport. In sports car racing, the manager, crew and the car become more important in relation to the driver than in the celebrity-filled Nascar world. In the Rolex series, there are two drivers per team and they tag-team somewhere near the middle of the 2-1/2-hour race. The goal isn’t top speed (though the DP cars can reach 170mph, and the GTs 155mph); average speed is key. That’s what attracted Rolex to the sport: the timing.
Their engines are more technologically advanced than Daytona or Nascar – these are Lexus engines, not Chevys. And many production sports car innovations were born on the sports car race circuit, like rear wings, dual-shift gearboxes and tire pressure sensors.
Sports car racing is less expensive than, say, Formula 1, where teams spend hundreds of millions to win races. (Increasing costs lead to the demise of sports car racing in the 1990s, when racing teams and spectators got priced out of the class.) Now there are rules in place that level the playing field and shift the focus to what the team does and not the number of engineers they can hire to modify and build their cars.
The weekend’s support races that revolve around the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car series (it’s like getting four different types of races in one) carry their own brand of cachet. Sunday’s Atlantic Championship (1pm; see schedule, this page) has long served as a testing ground for drivers who would later rise to the heights of the sport in other championship series like Indy and Formula 1.
The two Formula BMW Americas races (4:45pm/Sat and 2:30pm/Sun) are the most entry-level breeding ground for championship racing. These are teen drivers, hungry to graduate to the next level.
Sunday’s final race (3:30pm/Sun) is populated by the classic cars of the Historic Motor Sports Association (HMSA) that retain the mechanics of the period between 1974 and 1982. It’s a nostalgic and aesthetic appreciation race that was added when CHAMP pulled out of the weekend after it merged with Indy.
The complexities of sports car racing are easy enough to surmount, and doing so could unlock the “subtleties” of an event that tears through 250 miles of 11-point-turn laps. But the best way to get inside the action, says Nicholls, is to identify with a driver, then follow that car throughout the race.
For the main event Grand-Am Rolex series race, a good candidate may present itself in local contender Thomas Merrill of Salinas’ Merrill Farms, who Nicholls describes as “fearless.”
“I essentially grew up at Laguna Seca Raceway,” says Merrill, whose parents both raced Porsches. He raced go-carts at Salinas Valley Karters at Marina Airport from the age of 8.
Now 22 and racing professionally since 2005, he’s not widely recognized by the public, though “race people” at Laguna Seca know him. In his first year of racing, he set the track record at Laguna Seca, which still stands, for the car he was driving, an SCCA Formula Continental.
“I feel confident about what our team has put together,” says Merrill of their chances for winning. “We showed plenty of speed in our last event and this is my home track.”
But as in any race, there are others – like Monterey’s Cristiano DaMatta, Alex Gurney, Scott Pruett and 41 other teams – who would respectfully beg to differ.