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Mid-Ohio, The 99th Daytona-Prototype Race

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On: Thu, Jun 17, 2010 at 12:07PM | By: John Welch

Mid-Ohio, The 99th Daytona-Prototype Race

This weekend marks the 99th race for the ubiquitous Daytona Prototype. A chassis and rule system raced only within the confines of NASCAR-owned Grand-Am (this is not completely true; see update below,), this chassis has little in common with the serious, high-dollar prototypes being raced in the ALMS and the European Le Mans Series. Those teams are encouraged to experiment: Open cockpit, closed cockpit? Gas or Diesel? DOHC V8 or Turbo-Four? Staggered front wheels or all the same size? Even though there are constraints in Le Mans racing, air-restrictors, weight penalties, and the like, the rules regarding a Le Mans Prototype are wide open compared to a Daytona Prototype.

It isn't like there is some sort of cost-savings for a DP team when compared with LM-style cars. True, the average Daytona Prototype comes in around $500 grand fully dressed, which is significantly cheaper than the average Le Mans prototype, but not cheaper than all of them. You could get a Lola LMP2 coupe on track in an ALMS race for less, if you have proper sponsorship and crew. Plus, Grand-Am suffers from the same "Spec-Series" woes that plague the IZOD Indy Racing League. The well-heeled teams (Target/Telmex/Ganassi, I'm mean-muggin' you!) put their "spec" cars into wind tunnels and figure out new bits and pieces for their cars that end up leaving the smaller teams in the dust. Take a look at the smooth, production-quality roll of the Ganassi Riley’s rear fenders, then look over at a Riley from a a smaller team. Same "chassis," but the Ganassi fender is aero-tuned, where a smaller team's Riley (Mike Shank Racing, for instance) has the same blocky rear fenders that came with the original DP/Riley bodywork . . . in 2002! Whereas the Ganassi Riley can almost be considered its own chassis, the Mike Shank car is still, basically a World Sports Car from the late nineties, with an added roof. Don't even get me started on engines.

So, why even bother then? How did this happen and who cares about Grand-Am besides die-hard road-race crazies such as myself? Despite all of Grand-Am's competition issues, the racing is still fantastic. Absolutely, fender-to-fender, high-adrenalin fantastic. As far as the actual on-track product is concerned, Grand-Am is one of the closest, hard fought Championships in the world. There are some amazing drivers in the series, and though the cars aren't exactly "lookers," or technologically mind-numbing, they're still thoroughbred speed demons with appetites for asphalt and the tears of their fallen adversaries. Also, unlike most other televised racing series, the little guy still has a chance. I refer you to this year’s Rolex 24, where a new Porsche team, utilizing an unpopular and under-developed engine, smoked the Ganassi boys for the over-all victory. This sort of scenario hasn't played out at Le Mans since the nineties, when Mazda and, later, McLaren were able to take over-all wins with supposedly inferior machinery. In 2010, the only place you will find that sort of excitement is the Rolex Grand-Am Series, and the brief history of which can be found inside yonder post . . .

UPDATE: The Daytona Prototype is raced outside of the Rolex Series, though it is highly modified and designed for a different rulebook. Behold the MoonCraft Shi-Den MC/RT-16. The "RT" stands for "Riley Technologies", appropriate because this is essentially the same rolling chassis as the Ganassi Rileys. What is different? The bodywork is substantially altered, created by Japanese tuning firm MoonCraft (duh!). The Shin-Den's fenders feature more aero holes and slats, the coupe's roofline slightly sleeker and more aero-efficient.

The MC/RT-16 is powerd by a 4.5 liter Toyota V8, and competes in the Super GT (formnally JGTC,) GT300 Championship. Rated at 430 bhp, it is more powerful then most of it;s competition, but it is also slightly heavier. See the image gallery for pictures of what the DP's should look like, and there is a video of the car in motion inside the post . . .

Grand-Am Fast Facts, from Grand-Am's website:

GRAND-AM Road Racing has the largest sports car fan base in the United States, with nearly 20 million adults, and has also had the highest percentage growth of any major motorsports series on television over the past five years.

GRAND-AM sanctions the Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16 and the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. The Rolex Series and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge deliver professional sports car racing to key markets throughout North America, in addition to being televised in the U.S. and Canada on SPEED and distributed globally through ESPN International.

GRAND-AM Road Racing showcases emerging and legendary drivers from around the globe and thoroughbred racing machines from the industry's leading constructors and the world's top automobile manufacturers.

GRAND-AM was founded in 1999. The organization's first race was February 6, 2000, at Daytona International Speedway—the 38th Rolex 24 At Daytona.

What this description conveniently leaves out is why Grand-Am was formed. The American Le Mans Series was put together a year earlier by Dr. Don Panoz and, at the time, both series ran similar machinery. Jim France, brother to the much more out-spoken Bill France Jr., wanted to offer as many different racing disciplines as possible under the NASCAR banner. With the ACO-sanctioning of the ALMS, the United States Road Racing Championship was essentially dead in the water. That series was a boring joke anyway, featuring the ugly and antiquated Grandfather of the Daytona Prototype, the WSC (World Sports Car). These things were not attractive (okay, so the Ferrari 333SP was a bit of a looker, but you could still tell it was exactly the same car as the Ford engined ess-box next to it . . . ) With no promoter and no chassis rules to speak of, USRRC was a less than desirable proposition for many American sports-racing investors. Sort of like giving USF1 money; at the time there was no return on investment in sight.

Enter Jim France, the quite, stoic farm boy to Panoz's sophisticated Southern Doctor. Let me be clear- no France is a hillbilly. These people are savvy beyond savvy, and Grand-Am's television growth over the last five years proves it. France purchased the USRRC in 2000 and tucked it into the NASCAR fold, renaming the sanctioning body "Grand-Am" in the process.

The series operated under previous Le Mans rules for 2000 and 2001, even sharing sanctioning duties for some races with the Panoz's ALMS. That would not stand however, as France had a scheme in the works that would separate Grand-Am from it's rival and provide a revenue stream that led straight back to NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation . . . essentially directly into the France families coffers. Smart smart smart.

Having the foresight to predict that manufacturers were about to lose their stomachs for high-dollar racing was Jimmy's final act of brilliance regarding the formation of the Rolex Sports Car Series. France knew that Le Mans racing and Formula One were getting out of control with their spending, and he doubted that Americans cared enough about road-racing to know that they were viewing a technologically inferior product. He also knew that we Americans are born-and-bred sissies nowadays, and that selling his series on its relative safety would bring in more money, from Americans, then boasting about how advanced his rocket ship prototypes were. With all of this in mind, he and several trusted advisors set about making the WSC safer, cheaper, and more reliable.

Rule number one: all DPs must be closed-cockpit cars with significant fire and crash safety technologies baked in. The cockpit of a DP car is wide and awkward for a reason. The farther the driver is from roll cage supports, the transmission tunnel, etc., the less chance he is going to crack his skull in a hard collision. By limiting engine size and cylinder count to 5.0 liter V8s (there are several types of V8, as well as the Brumos Porsche team running a turbocharged flat-six) and eliminating traction control, the cars were effectively slowed to a safe, but still exciting pace.

Several chassis manufacturers threw their hats into the DP ring, the likes of Lola, Riley&Scott, Dallara, Coyote, Crawford, Doran, Multimatic. Engine suppliers were attracted to the rules set, as most of them produced a production engine that could slot right in without much change. A Pontiac/Chevy pushrod-actuated small-block could race side-by-side with double overhead cam designs from BMW and Ford. Porsche goes so far as to field two different kinds of engine—the aforementioned flat six and a customer-developed overhead cam V8 straight out of the Porsche Cayenne. To think, a truck motor winning endurance races like the Rolex 24. Not since the ORECA Vipers has that happened, and it couldn't happen anywhere outside of Grand-Am racing.

Tomorrow, the Rolex Series will run a two-hour, forty-five minute sprint race at Mid-Ohio International Raceway. This storied course has been in operation continually since WWII, and plays host several sports car events each year. This is the 99th race for the oft-ballyhooed Daytona Prototype, and the hundredth will be held at Daytona, the car's namesake.

The AutoShopper Blog will bring you on-site coverage from this race, as well as the Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400 later in the evening on Saturday, July 3rd. Look for all the original material your pretty little brain can handle, from images of the racing chaos to video of the cars dancing around the Daytona in-field course.

Here, Terry Borcheller disusses the first DP season, and how the cars stack up today. He captured the first championship for Daytona Prototypes, and won this year's Rolex 24. Knowledgeable, to say the least.

Naturally, I'll use any excuse to drag out the grainy footage we shot at said Rolex 24; this is one of the lesser viewed videos from the January race:
Finally, Round Five of the 2009 Super GT Series in Japan. The Shi-Den MC/RT-16 is prominently featured in this video, and it is worth watching for several other flamingly Japanese reasons. The racing action is top notch, a GT-R rubs fenders with a Lexus, two NSXs battle side by side, dive-bombing the corners at speeds that exceed the limits of grip even for dry tires. Good thing it's raining! Hilarious Japanese butcherings of English-language cliches. Around 2:20, look for "Side-oh bye Side-oh!"

Photo Gallery (click a thumbnail to enlarge)


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