The United SportsCar Series arrives


A new era in American sports car racing arrives at Daytona next weekend. The Rolex 24 Hours is the opening round of this year’s 12-race Tudor United SportsCar championship, a merger of the Grand-Am and ALMS – competing series over the past 15 years.

All of us wish the best for the new series because, as everyone knows, American road racing needs some serious revitalization. The TUSC has a lot going for it, including a strong calendar of tracks featuring most of North America’s best road circuits and a large field of committed teams and competitors across four categories – Prototypes, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona.

But the new series faces a big challenge to attract more fans, more media and bigger TV numbers. Over the past decade American sports car racing and Indycar racing have sunk to new lows in terms of their overall media footprint or brand identity in popular culture and without any P1 cars – which have been written out of the TUSC rules – or any high profile factory teams or star drivers, the TUSC faces a difficult uphill challenge.

Of course, the most immediate conundrum has been finding a fair and equitable equivalency formula to increase the performance of the series’ marquee Daytona Prototypes and reduce the performance of the incoming LMP2 cars. Equivalency formulae are always problematic and the TUSC’s opening experiment continued through last week with more fiddling in the balance between power and downforce of the dissimilar DP and P2 prototypes.

Forced to change and develop their cars on the run over the winter, you can only expect some struggles with reliability at Daytona next weekend as the DP and P2 teams work with their new performance parameters.

Chip Ganassi’s two-car team is the perennial favourite at Daytona, having won seven Grand-Am championships since 2004 and five Rolex 24 wins over the last eight years. Ganassi’s operation has switched this year from BMW to Ford’s 3.5 litre EcoBoost engines and Chip’s pair of Riley-Fords will be driven at Daytona by Sage Karam/Jamie McMurray/Scott Pruett/Memo Rojas and Scott Dixon/Marino Franchitti/Tony Kanaan/Kyle Larson.

Also racing the new Ford engine is Mike Shank’s team, Rolex 24 winners in 2012. Shank’s drivers are 2012 winners AJ Allmendinger/Oswaldo Negri/John Pew/Justin Wilson.

Recent 24 Hours of Daytona winners
2013: Montoya/Kimball/Pruett/Rojas (Ganassi)
2012: Allmendinger/Negri/Pew/Wilson (Shank)
2011: Hand/Rahal/Pruett/Rojas (Ganassi)
2010: Barbosa/Borcheller/Dalziel/Rockenfeller (Action Express)
2009: Donohue/García/Law/Rice (Brumos)

Other potential winners include Action Express’s pair of Corvette DPs with the team’s lead car driven by Joao Barbosa/Sébastien Bourdais/Christian Fittipaldi/Burt Frisselle. There are four more Corvette DPs in the field, all with strong teams and drivers, including Wayne Taylor Racing and Gainsco, former champions both.

Among the 18 prototypes entered at Daytona is Greg Pickett’s Oreca-Nissan. Pickett’s team dominated the ALMS the past two years with Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr aboard an Acura HPD P1 car and Pickett has chosen an Oreca-Nissan package to race in the TUSC. Luhr and Graf will be joined at Daytona by Alex Brundle.

Also among the P2 prototypes are Extreme Speed’s pair of HPD-ARX-03bs driven by David Brabham/Ryan Dalziel/Scott Sharp and team patron Ed Brown/Anthony Lazzaro/Simon Pagenaud/Johannes van Overbeek. Two new Mazda prototypes, run by SpeedSource, will also make their debuts and the DeltaWing will make its first start at Daytona driven by Gabby Chaves/ Katherine Legge/Andy Meyrick/Alex Rossi.

There’s a strong GT field with six factory or factory-backed teams from Corvette, BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Viper/SRT. The GT class has been a feature of both the ALMS and Grand-Am in recent years and usually provides a fierce, unpredictable battle. All of the GT teams are well-funded with top class drivers and the category is sure to continue as one of the new series’ primary attractions.

The field of 67 cars for the Rolex 24 is completed by 29 GT Daytona entries, including a dozen Porsche 911s, eight Ferrari 458 Italias, five Audi R8 LMs, two Aston Martin V12 Vantages, one BMW Z4 and one Viper GT3-R. A very healthy mix for sure.

Like I said at the beginning, the TUSC enjoys plenty of wholly committed teams and drivers. If the people behind the new series can find a way over the coming years to reach a wider, deeper market, the makings are there for a great American sports car championship.

More from Gordon Kirby
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