Sports Car Racing

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Sports car racing has long been a popular sport in the United States. Although never gaining the fame of NASCAR racing or even open wheel racing in America, sports car racing has filled a niche in the American auto racing scene for the past century. Sports car drivers, both North American and international, are among the best-known drivers in the racing world. Drivers such as Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, and Bruce McLaren, are included in that group. Although most are not household names (Andretti being the exception), they are all synonymous with hard driving and have thrilled millions of American racing fans over the years.

What Is a Sports Car?

Sport cars are typically cars made up of two seats, often with a closed cockpit and bodywork that covers the wheels. These cars are designed for maximum speed not only on straightaways, but also through a series of corners and S-curves (two turns in a row that together form the shape of a letter S). Sports cars differ from the more popular stock cars in that stock cars are more like the typical American-built sedans and coupes that are seen on the road every day. Sports cars are often exotic looking, usually low-slung with a rounded body style, and they are frequently built outside of North America. Ferrari, Porsche, Lotus, and Jaguar are the best-known sports car automakers and are popular throughout the world. The cars have traditionally featured lightweight, aerodynamically tuned, and smooth-cornered bodies that surround the driver in a cocoon of protective roll bars. In the early years, the engine was placed in the front of the car, but by 2004, most sports cars were either mid-engine or rear-engine models. The new Daytona Prototype that was introduced to the Rolex Sports Car Series featured state-of-the-art sports car design, with a specially built, closed cockpit and, typically, a Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, Maserati, or BMW engine.

Sports Car Racetracks Sports car races are often run on permanent road courses (tracks that include straightaways and both left-and right-hand turns), on modified oval tracks that feature temporary corners and curves, and on oval tracks. Portland International Raceway (Portland, Oregon) and Watkins Glen, located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, are two examples of permanent road courses. There are many popular oval racetracks in the United States, including Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Florida) and the California Speedway (Fontana, California). Daytona International Speedway also adds a road course to its permanent oval track; the road course includes numerous left- and right-hand turns.

The History of Sports Car Racing

Early sports car racing traces its roots to Europe in the late nineteenth century. In essence, as soon as the automobiles were invented, people started racing them. Races were run from Paris to outlying towns in open wheeled cars at speeds that are a fraction of the speeds found in modern racing. Sports car racing was brought to America in 1904 with the introduction of the Vanderbilt Cup. Run on Long Island, New York, the Vanderbilt Cup was the leading international auto race of its time, and it sparked competition between U.S. and European auto manufacturers.

After World War II, sports car racing gained in popularity in the United States, as American fans had more free time at their disposal, with the U.S. work week reaching an all-time low of forty hours per week. Additionally, about that same time, the automobile began to be viewed as a nonessential item, one that could be used for leisure instead of just for work. Thus, the privately owned car allowed American families to travel together in a timely manner to participate in a leisure activity, in this case, viewing a sports car race. That new, postwar development is considered to be one of the major influences in the change of American leisure patterns.

Other external forces converged to create the opportunity for expanded sports car racing in the decades following World War II. These included the introduction of television to the mass market, an increase in leisure travel, increased marketing of auto racing events, and an increase in discretionary income. Sports car racing as a spectator sport was a relatively inexpensive, family oriented, leisure activity. Mom and dad could pile the kids into the car, drive to a local racetrack, have a picnic lunch, and enjoy a quality family experience for relatively low cost. As spectatorship grew, so did the potential for marketing to that family demographic, both on the racetrack and on television.

Sponsoring Organizations

The Sports Club Car of America (SCCA) is perhaps the most important—and one of the earliest—sanctioning body for sports car racing in the United States. The SCCA was founded in 1944 under the leadership of president Theodore F. Robertson. The idea of professional sports car racing was considered in the late 1950s, but the SCCA didn't sponsor its first professional race until 1963, when it held the United States Road Racing Championship at Daytona International Speedway. When John Bishop took over as SCCA president, he created the very popular and influential Can-Am and Trans-Am racing series.

The first Trans-Am race was held in March 1966 at Sebring, Florida, while the Can-Am (Canadian-American) series debuted in September 1966 at Mon Tremblant-St. Jovite, Canada. The Can-Am series became one of the more popular road course sports car series, and it held regular races from the mid 1960s until the mid-1980s, when the series was discontinued (there was a two-year hiatus from 1975 until 1977 due to the international energy crisis). The Can-Am series was run on road courses throughout Canada and the United States. Can-Am cars were open cockpit, closed body cars with two seats and two doors. Some of the greatest names in racing at that time—including Bruce McLaren, participated in the Can-Am series.

Amateur Racing In addition to its professional racing series, the SCCA also launched amateur club racing, which it continues to organize and promote. As of 2004, more than 8,000 licensed amateurs competed in approximately 300 road racing events annually. Drivers competed in twenty-four different vehicle classes, ranging from Showroom Stock—late model street cars with only minor modifications, primarily to improve safety—to pure racing vehicles, such as single-seat, open wheel formula cars and composite bodied road racing cars that ran in the Sports Racer Category. Major club racing events included the June Sprints, held at Road America in Wisconsin, the Rose Cup, held at Portland International Speedway in Oregon, and the Double National, held at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. The championship event for club racers in 2004 was known as the SCCA Valvoline Runoffs, That event, held annually in late September at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, attracted some 600 drivers competing in the twenty-four classes.

Beyond the SCCA In 2004, there were at least two other groups sponsoring popular road racing series—the Grand American Road Racing Association and the American Le Mans Series. Both organizations held several races annually. The Grand American Road Racing Association races were endurance races, with races that lasted twelve to twenty-four hours. Teams of two to three drivers took turns driving during a race, which increased the excitement for fans by providing more drivers and teams to support.

American Le Mans Series (ALMS) events were also endurance races, with some races lasting 1000 miles. The series features four classes of cars, all of which are on the track together competing in the same race. Legions of fans set up campers and tents in the infields and around the courses at ALMS races to watch their teams' cars as day turns to dusk and finally darkness falls. At night, the sports cars seem to take on an entirely new persona as sparks fly from the undersides of the cars and hot brake rotors glow in the dark.

The Future of Sports Car Racing

Two things guarantee that there will be regular changes to sports car racing. First, the technology used in the sports cars and developed by the organizing bodies and teams continues to evolve as market forces change. Technology is always evolving, and teams are constantly seeking any technological edge to make their sports car go faster and hug the turns more tightly. However, because of safety concerns, those same teams are forced to reduce the speed that their race cars carry down the straightaways and into the curves of American sports car racetracks. Thus, since maximum safe speeds may have been reached, teams may turn to using technology to improve gas mileage, meaning fewer stops for gas and thus better overall race times. Second, the organizations that hold the races continue to evolve as well. The companies that sponsor professional race cars must pay attention to market forces, which means they can pressure the sponsoring organizations and influence where and when sports car races are held. The globalization of major corporations has been felt as much in the world of sports car racing as in any leisure business.

See also: Auto Racing, Automobiles and Leisure, Drag Racing, Hot Rodding, Open Wheel Racing, Stock Car Racing


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Robert Burns