The Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, with 10 different manufacturers and 17 separate models features the most diverse lineup of street car based racecars in the world. Driving them, are some of the most deranged, maniacal and talented drivers on the planet (emphasis on the deranged and maniacal). I am lucky enough to be one of those maniacs.
Grand Sport (GS) is the faster class, with cars like the Porsche 911, BMW M3, Chevy Camaro, Ford Mustang, Aston Martin Vantage and Nissan 370Z. Racing on the same track at the same time is the Street Tuner (ST) class, showcasing cars like the Porsche Cayman, BMW 328, Honda Civic Si, Audi S3, Hyundai Genesis and Mazda MX5. I've been racing here since 2006, bouncing between the two classes. In 2008, I came very close to winning the GS championship with BGB Motorsports in a 997 Porsche 911.
The on-track product is colossally entertaining. The racing is some of the closest and hardest fought in the world, so it's no surprise that the CTSC routinely brings in higher TV ratings than it's big brother, the bambi-legged, off-to-a-rough-start, Tudor United SportsCar Championship.
I know and love this series, but the format has remained largely unchanged since 1997 when the series debuted as the Motorola Cup. And instead of letting a great product go stale, I have some ideas. In this two part article, I offer up ten suggestions to keep the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and the Tudor United SportsCar Championship fresh and make them more interesting, more watchable and more fun for the fans and drivers.
Endurance racing is a team sport and that should apply to qualifying too. The WEC already uses a qualifying format similar to this and the timing and scoring software that IMSA uses is advanced enough to handle it. The current 15-minute qualifying sessions may need to be extended by 5 or 10 minutes to allow both drivers enough time to set a lap. In the Pro-Am classes, like GTD and PC, one of the amateur rated drivers must qualify. The amateur, often a "gentleman" driver who is funding the team now has extra incentive to raise his game during qualifying. Earning a pole alongside the team pro now becomes a major motivation and satisfaction, making the experience better for the gentleman driver. In a series that relies on those guys to fund many of the entries, it's important to capitalize on opportunities to improve the product for them. I file this one under "low hanging fruit." In fact, the next four suggestions are simple, easy and free to implement.
Qualifying on pole position is all about raw pace: giving it the beans, laying the smackdown and showing the rest of those chumps how it's done. But as racers we understand that grabbing pole position is an ego competition, mostly meaningless to the outcome of a 3, 6, 12 or 24 hour race. Qualifying on pole is good for the resume and makes the team feel good, but unlike Formula 1 it doesn't usually mean anything about the result of the race. So I say let's make pole worth more than a pat on the back, let's award a few championship points to the fastest pair of drivers. Since we've already fixed the qualifying format, both drivers would receive points and at the end of the year it could easily make the difference in a close championship fight.
That said, I believe in protecting the value of a race win. With a win being worth 35 points and 2nd place being worth 30, pole should be worth 3 points.
Less gas means more pit stops. Right now, many ST cars can go 70 minutes or longer on a tank of gas. In a 2 hour and 30 minute race (150 minutes), one full-course caution near the middle of the race is all that it takes in order to make it to the end one pit stop. If we take a few gallons away and bring the fuel window inside of 60 minutes, now the pit crew and strategist become even more important to win the race. This is less of an issue in GS, where the engines and bigger and thirstier, but taking away a few gallons from each team would make the single-stop race strategy impossible.
Cost: ~$200 per car for fuel displacement blocks
This year, at an un-named track, I witnessed something terrible. After going door-to-door for 2 and a half hours with the best drivers in the world, on national TV, I watched my friends walk off the podium of a professional car race carrying something that a little-leaguer would be embarrassed to put on his dresser. It was obvious that the week of the race, someone at the track realized that they needed trophies. So they ran down to the local bowling alley and engraved some generic plastic afterthoughts that belonged in a vending machine, not on a professional podium. That's gotta stop.
I don't mean to imply that any driver is ungrateful when he wins a trophy, especially at this level. Finishing on the podium and winning a race is a huge accomplishment and at no point during the race weekend do drivers think about the build quality of the trophy that they might get to hoist overhead if everything goes well. But maybe they should. A proper trophy is symbolic of a proper event.
Some tracks get it right. In 2008, we won the first professional race held at New Jersey Motorsports Park. The facility features two tracks and the one that we raced one is called "Thunderbolt." Sounds badass, right? In tribute, the track commissioned a local artist to create an incredible glass thunderbolt mated to a metal base. It measured 33-inches and weighed over 20lbs and it was totally badass.
NASCAR has "Miles the Monster" at Dover and they give the winner at Martinsville a fucking grandfather clock! Trophies are generally the responsibility of the racetracks that host the event, so I'd like to see them step up their game. Take some pride in creating unique and desirable trophies for drivers and fans to get excited about. It's a small investment and a simple way to make your event stand out from the others on the schedule.
Why stop at awarding points for pole? With two or three official practice sessions per event, we can eliminate sandbagging once-and-for-all by awarding championship points to the fastest car in each practice section. Now we really can "win" practice, like we always joke about! I'm proposing between a half point and a full point per session. Over the course of a 12 race season it could amount to between 15 and 30 points. The fastest cars in practice already go through tech inspection after each session, so logistically and operationally very little would need to change.
Over the past 3 seasons, championships in the Grand Am Rolex and Continental Tire series' have been decided by an average of 17 points. No team or driver would be willing to give up that many potential points by holding back their performance until race day.
About @JonLeeMiller (not the Jonny Lee Miller who was married to Angelina Jolie): Jon is a racing driver and coach who has competed in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge since 2006. He collects Hot Wheels and action figures and hopes to race at LeMans or appear as an extra in the new JJ Abrams Star Wars films. A University of Central Florida graduate, he now lives in California with his wife, Denise and their future pet dog, Mr. Pickles and recently adopted pet dog, Bob Barker.