IMSA in a pickle

It was an annus horribilis for sports car racing too. Following the predictable collapse of the Sportscar World Championship, the 10-car All-Japan Sports-Prototype Championship underwent drastic surgery in November and then — much less predictably — the IMSA organisation immersed itself in a political imbroglio and bobbed, leaderless, into the void that leads up to Christmas.

Those closest to the IMSA scene had been predicting trouble for months. Camel showed signs of wanting to withdraw from the sponsorship deal which has flourished since 1971, and IMSA chairman Mike Cone prepared his members for a smoke-free zone in 1994.

President Mark Raffauf, meanwhile, emphasised for the hundredth time that the IMSA organisation was not for sale, and neither would it merge with, or be taken over by the SCCA (a rumour that always amuses SCCA president Nick Craw!).

The real endurance races, Daytona and Sebring, enjoy full grids because of the presence of GTO ‘production’ cars which are, in reality, 200 mph space-frame lookalikes. Nothing wrong with that, though, the Jack Roush Ford Mustangs would grace any grid in Europe.

The real problem now is paper-thin grids in prospect for the sprint races, the main body of the championship, starting with the prestige event at Miami on February 21.

In America, as in Europe and in Japan, comes the realisation that you can’t have endurance racing without Porsches, or another such turnkey car.

Grids for the sprint races have dropped below 20. The races were shorter, designed for one driver; this was meant to cut down on costs, but the effect was to bar the wealthy amateurs who like to buy second drives, and to freeze out the professionals whose wages are often paid indirectly by these wealthy amateurs.

Smaller grids, smaller crowds, shorter races, less television, dissatisfied sponsors, unhappy team owners. It’s a familiar story, but not one that IMSA had confronted before. At Del Mar Mike Huling, formerly IMSA’s marketing director, called a breakaway breakfast meeting for team owners, but it became an inconclusive exchange of views.

The meeting did prompt IMSA to have its own emergency session, at Tampa in November. Cone didn’t call it a crisis meeting, of course, but invited competitors to air their views, to solve problems, “especially those that affect you as a competitor and your ongoing commitment to the Camel GT series. . . you will not find deaf ears or defensiveness from us,” he assured the team-owners in his closing paragraph.

It wasn’t just the general level of dissatisfaction that Cone had to face. Mazda announced its withdrawal from international sports car racing on October 26, and within 24 hours the American Mazda organisation pulled its quad-rotor RX-792P out of the Camel GT Championship.

On November 10, four days after Cone’s letter was posted, Nissan announced its withdrawal from the Camel GT series, to prepare for lndycar racing in ’94. At around this time Tony Dowe informed
IMSA that Jaguar wouldn’t have a ’93 programme either. The XJR-14 was just too heavily weighthandicapped.

No Porsches, no Nissans, no Jaguars, no Mazdas! This was IMSA’s worst scenario, and they couldn’t be sure that Dan Gurney would manage to keep Toyota in the series, to defend the well-earned 1992 title.

The terms of the emergent regulations, writing out the top cars after one more season, have deterred Acura (Honda) from moving up to the GTP class. The BF Goodrich-supported Comptech Acura team, equipped with Spices, won the Camel Lights titles for two years in succession and had virtually decided to go into GTP with the Allard J2X, designed and built in Basingstoke.

It now appears that the Allard passed its sell-by date before it ever reached a starting grid.

When the entrants arrived in Tampa on November 17 for the IMSA meeting, they were handed a press statement that had already been issued. IMSA announced that morning “a new World Sports Car concept which will make open-cockpit cars, with production based engines, the basic car of the Camel GT series, destined to replace the highly technical, complex prototypes that compete today.”

So much for the open debate! IMSA may well have reached the right conclusion, but handled the matter with uncharacteristic abruptness that alienated the members. The release was very unspecific about construction, power units, engine capacities, costs and so on, and didn’t even say when these cars would be introduced.

“World Sports Cars . . . you’d might as well call your new car Edsel,” says commentator Forrest Bond. The term has unfortunate connotations nowadays, but seems to infer a worldly status which errs on the side of optimism. The outline, certainly, has little in common with the ACO’s ‘Le Mans Prototypes’ — single seaters, for heaven’s sake! — which might become the standard-bearers.

On November 18 Cone and Raffauf fleshed out the concept a little, saying that the World Sports Cars would be introduced in 1994. “Camel GTP and Camel Lights will be eligible for competition alongside the World Sports Cars in 1994, but with a drastic reduction in their performance level. It is IMSA’s goal to have a full field, comprised only one class of World Sports Cars, for 1995.”

That didn’t please many people either. Spectators want to see close and exciting racing, involving top drivers in powerful, colourful cars. IMSA envisages cutting the performances savagely, and pruning the price of top cars from today’s $750,000 to something nearer to $150,000, but that may not be enough to impress the spectators or the television moguls.

Nor was Raffauf thrilled to learn that Cone intended to install “one of international racing’s most respected figures as chief executive officer.” Raffauf set off on an extended vacation in Borneo, expecting to return a few days before Christmas to take orders from a new boss.

Unfortunately the person concerned didn’t actually accept the job. He is indeed highly respected, but he is not installed at IMSA’s headquarters in Tampa and the post remained vacant.

The plan to introduce a standardised fuel was abandoned, along with another to favour the privately run teams with lower car weights; no one could be sure how to define a private team!

Within the vacuum, nobody at IMSA could be sure which rules will stick and which proposals will be quietly abandoned. There will be an awful lot of cracks to paper over when the competitors next meet in Florida at the end of January.

Stalled GT’s

The proposed FISA GT series is in a stall, suffering from a dire lack of management. President Max Mosley says that Bernie Ecclestone is dealing with the calendar, while in Paris Gerald Richard, the supposed co-ordinator, says dreamily that FISA is waiting for the ASNs (national authorities) to apply for dates.

“Perhaps the series will be discussed by the Plenary Commission on December 11,” says Richard. The fact is, no sign of direction or co-ordination is visible for this series, and a number of potential entrants are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the whole affair.

“There are people out there who want to run Porsches, Morgans, Ferraris, Lotuses, all sorts of things,” says one would-be entrant. “We want to prepare the cars, talk to sponsors and make a programme, but it’s almost impossible to get sense out of anyone.”

Maybe the BRDC will run a mini-series of GT races in 1993, possibly to the FISA regulations, and perhaps one of them will be part of an international series.

So much for sports car racing in 1993!