IMSA to stage Supercars

Just two years ago Motor Sport proposed a 'Supercar GT' category of sports car racing, and we were able to detail a surprisingly wide variety of current, production sports cars which would be eligible. Now the International Motor Sports Association of America (IMSA) has announced just such a series for 1991, and director Mark Raffauf has no doubt that it's going to be a success.

With the backing of Bridgestone, IMSA will run a series of six Supercar Championship races next summer, each supporting a prestige Camel GT championship race and lasting about 45-50 minutes. Everything from the Ferrari Testarossa to the Porsche 944 will be eligible, but sensibly such models as the Ferrari F40 and the Porsche 959 have been excluded. The accent is on production, with a minimum run of 200 cars a year. There's a prize fund of $375,000, and a keen interest is reported from manufacturers and importers at the outset.

Every car buff's fantasy is about to become a reality, says Raffauf with a touch of public relations hyperbole. At Del Mar, California, where the exciting GTP finale was held in November, Raffauf told me that he had read and carefully noted the Motor Sport articles of January and February 1989 and had kept the proposal in mind since then. "They could be the future, we'll have to see," he says guardedly. "If we don't do this we'll never know."

The need to find an alternative to GT prototype sports cars is by no means as pressing in America as it is in Europe and the rest of the world. The Camel GT Championship is prospering well with Nissans, Jaguars, Toyotas, Spices and one or two Porsches, mostly powered by stockblock engines, and IMSA will guard this series jealously.

By careful use of weight penalties (handicapping, ballasting, equalizing, call it what you wish) IMSA can achieve near parity between a whole raft of makes and engine configurations, turbos and naturally aspirated, and uses induction air restrictors to take care of the rest. GTP can, and will, last as long as the spectators want it... and in America, spectator attendances and TV ratings are the two principle criteria.

Each type of sports car will be allocated a specific minimum weight, taking its standard performance into account, and no doubt these weights will be adjusted from time to time to ensure that there aren't any runaway winners. In the case of supercharged and turbocharged engines, the boost pressure must remain as standard, and a sealed gauge will be affixed to the intake manifolds to make sure there's no fiddling.

Engines must remain standard, except for what we call blueprinting, but catalytic converters must be removed and replaced by straight exhaust pipes. It will be alright, therefore, for these cars to make a lovely noise, even though many one-make championships tend to go the other way and stipulate standard exhaust systems, which rob the competition of one important element.

The Americans have a few potential winners themselves, such models as the Saleen-tuned Ford Mustang, the Callaway-tuned Chevrolet Corvette, the 'King of the Hill' Corvette ZR1, and the Pontiac Trans-Am turbo. From foreign parts will come the full current range of Porsches, Mercedes coupes, Ferrari Testarossas and 348s, the Jaguar XJR-Ss, BMW's coupes and hot saloons, and the new generation of excellent Japanese coupés including the Acura (Honda) NSX, the Infiniti (Nissan) Q45, the Nissan 300 ZX and the Lexus (Toyota) LS400.

There is, even in Europe, provision for these cars in a FISA group called N-GT, but there are no signs of activity among circuit owners, manufacturers or organizing clubs. The Motor Sport proposal came at a time when FISA was tightening its grip on the World Sports Prototype Championship, and a peace of sorts exists as we prepare for the new 3½-litre championship which comes into force on January 1.

We expect to see 10 good cars on the grid for the first race of the season: two each from Mercedes, Jaguar, Peugeot, Spice-Lamborghini and Brun-Judd, and with luck, another ten private entries including Spice-Cosworths, Cougar-Porsches, ALD and perhaps the odd Porsche 962C that won't lie down. As we have discussed before, that won't be half enough for the satisfaction of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest as it prepares for the 24 Hour of Le Mans, and that's when the real debate will begin.

Attention now focuses on public reaction to the new World Sportscar Championship. To a large extent FISA has driven away the middling sized crowds that came to places like Silverstone and Spa in the period 1986-1988, by dropping the British venue from the calendar in '89 and charging Formula 1 scale ticket prices, while excluding the public from the paddocks.

FISA, furthermore, disbanded the OSCAR organisation which was formed by the manufacturers, teams and sponsors in 1985 as a means of promoting the WSPC series, and then had the cheek to accuse manufacturers of not doing enough to promote their own championship.

I don't need to labour the point any more. We have to be very positive about the new World Sportscar Championship, and say that ten good cars on the grid is a few more than we've had before. Throughout the history of the Group C series since 1982 there have been two Rothmans Porsches out front, or two Silk Cut Jaguars, or two Sauber-Mercedes, and the racing has been admirable but not very exciting.

Sportscar racing needs a public resurgence in 1991. The importance of having a good crowd has been recognised, at last by FISA's management; then, major television companies will take sports car racing seriously.

I suspect that it will take a long time to bring back the crowds in real numbers and time we may not have. If FISA really is fattening up Mercedes, Peugeot, Toyota and Nissan for Grand Prix racing, as some cynics dare to suggest, they'll pull the plug on Group C as a World Championship at the end of 1991, once the Japanese have their engines ready. Mr Ecclestone has done it once, to the World Touring Car Championship, and judging by occasional interviews he's given on the subject, he wouldn't flinch from doing it again.

The subject of 'supercars', or N-GT, won't arise in Europe until June when we look at the grid for Le Mans. In return for a five year contract which guarantees Le Mans a place in the World Championship calendar, FISA had to concede to the ACO the right to go elsewhere for entries should the World Championship not offer enough (50). This year, at least, they'll be non-registered Group C cars, Porsches and Nissans, and perhaps IMSA GTP cars as well. But in future? What if there isn't a World Sportscar Championship? The time will come for production `supercar' sports GT models, without doubt.

There are bodies of opinion on both sides of the Atlantic that say the public wouldn't respond to 'supercar' racing. Even our friend 'Jabby' Crombac, the doyen of French motor sports journalists, can't see much merit in Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Jaguar XJR-Ss rushing down the Mulsanne Straight at 200 mph, and in America there is a surprising mirror of his views to the prospect of these cars on the banking at Daytona. The ACO, and IMSA, will listen to these opinions.

Personally though, I thought that the Chevrolet Corvettes that were once a feature of Le Mans were excellent value, real ground-shakers as they went by at speed. People didn't take more notice of them because they weren't racing anyone in particular, merely going quickly and hoping to get through the 24 hours.

But if there were six Corvettes up against six Ferraris and six Jaguars, might that not be a good spectacle? In like manner I have enjoyed, enormously, the sight of stripped out, noisy Corvettes and Camaros racing against Jack Roush Mustangs and Cougars at Daytona, even to the point of suggesting that they should be imported to Le Mans. The wheel will turn the full circle. Production-based Grand Touring cars will race again at Le Mans, and may even be the premier category one day. Perhaps it's appropriate, in today's climate, that the initiative should have been taken in America, and not by some European organisation that would be ridiculed and crushed by FISA as soon as the application went through the letter box at the Place de la Revolution.