Friday, 4 February 2011

Daytona Rumblings

I have fond memories of Daytona, having first visited in 1990, as the guest of the BBC’s Andy Smith, to witness the TWR Jaguars overcome all kinds of drama to win. The morning after the race, Andy managed to fix an interview with Walkinshaw himself, and I shall never forget his first question to Tom: “that, Tom, was presumably not Plan A.” It was a great way to get him to open up, and having seen the momentous events at Le Mans eighteen months earlier, enabled me to get a better insight into the man and the way he ran his team. I’m not sure that his later exploits endeared him to me as much, but a great man, nevertheless.

I returned to Daytona the following year, and saw the last hurrah for the Joest Porsche 962 and again in 1992 to see the long-awaited 24-hour triumph for Don Devendorf’s Electramotive Nissan driven by Mashiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki – probably Japan’s greatest day in endurance racing, eclipsing Mazda’s win at Le Mans in 1991 and Masanori Sekiya’s win in 1995.

The timing of the 24 hours, at the start of the so-called Daytona SpeedWeeks in early February, and the location, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, made for a very pleasant break – either from New Jersey’s lingering winter (where I was at that time living) or from the dreary post-Christmas UK. In 1993 I returned again to Daytona, this time to see the ‘500’ – the climax of SpeedWeeks and a very different atmosphere, won by Dale Jarrett.

Although I’ve been to Florida several times since, the last time I visited ‘the World Center of Racing’ was in 1996, once more for the 24 hours, to see a win for the Oldsmobile-engined Riley & Scott Mk III in the hands of Wayne Taylor, Scott Speed and Jim Pace. Fifteen years is a long time, and towards the end of last year, there was a glimmer of hope that I might be invited back to the Rolex-sponsored event this year (in what capacity, I knew not, but the location and the time of year were very enticing).

So I felt a tinge of disappointment as the invitation came to nothing, and I consoled myself by taking my wife to see 'The King’s Speech' instead. On Sunday evening, I checked the results of Daytona, mainly to see how Brundle / Blundell had got on in the United Autosports entry, but with little other interest, I have to admit.

A few hours later, an email arrived from János Wimpffen, author of ‘Time and Two Seats’, collector of statistics and long-time sports car enthusiast. In it, he suggested that: “the cars are so narrowly drawn that … there is no technical, tactical, or even driving advantage. It’s all about show, nothing about finesse or technology. To call this a 24 hour race is a sham.” He finished with: “I love 24 Hour races and attend all those that are likely to be of quality. I've intentionally missed this one for several years and have missed nothing.”

Then I read Mark Cole’s piece on this week, and he was quite clearly enthralled. Having commentated on many 24 hour races, I know whereof he speaks though: having an action-packed race makes the commentating so much easier. But commentating on a Caterham race, which normally provides lots of overtaking, is much easier than commentating on a Formula 3 race, which will provide one overtaking move in the entire race if you’re lucky. This does not make Caterham racing more worthy than Formula 3, nor does it make the drivers concerned any better: it merely makes the task of finding something to say easier.

Matt James was at Daytona too, writing for Motorsport News, and described the race as “a truly epic spectacle,… tense, competitive, clean and spellbinding”. His problem was not filling the airwaves with the spoken word, but condensing all the race incidents into a double-page spread.

The fact that the Daytona 24 hour race provides wall-to-wall entertainment does not automatically make it worthy. It used to be the case that the race was held in the same high regard as the Le Mans 24 hours. Nowadays it is the Sebring 12-hours that is used as the barometer of form for Le Mans, and Daytona, with its specification prototypes is in quite a different ballpark. The philosophy, the very core of Le Mans Prototypes is different from the Daytona variety, and I am afraid that I side with János in believing that the DP’s just don’t cut it, although without question they are cheaper.

To go back to my email exchange with János; he brought up Umberto Eco’s concept of hyper-reality, a state manufactured, he said, “by companies to control markets, tastes and experiences”. And Eco’s examples quoted by János were of McDonalds and DisneyWorld. (Jim France might be honoured to be compared to such corporate power-houses, but no matter.)

János said: “Whether you go to a McDonalds in Cleveland or Nairobi, the food and ambience is identical. It's not great and it's not terrible, but it is entirely predictable. There is no challenge to it. Whereas if you go to a ma & pa diner in either city the food could be the best meal you've had or the worst. Same with going to Disney World. You will have a precisely measured amount of entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. Whereas if you went to the Himalayas, Amazon, or the Paris Metro, you could have a really fun and interesting time or you may die”.

I understood what he was driving at, but gave him my own version. I wrote back:

“Here's another 'mind picture' for you. Would anyone come to see a running race between me and Usain Bolt? Well, yes they would, because Bolt is a celebrity, and the fastest man on the planet. But after a few races, interest would wane. So what about we tie his legs together and make him carry a 200lb lump of lead in a rucksack? How about we get Keira Knightly to compete in a 3-way race (wearing her heels)? Slowly, you convert a pure race into pure entertainment.”

These are extreme points of view, but illustrate the problem facing both the ACO and Grand-Am as they strive to balance the purity of the sport with its entertainment value. What is important for both organisations to bear in mind as they do so, is that the reputations of their events can change. Don’t ignore the fact that drivers such as Le Mans winners Martin Brundle, Mark Blundell and Hurley Haywood, Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya, multiple NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and several former Formula 1 drivers all chose to take part. There is an increasing depth of quality in the driver entry at Daytona: a fact that should not be ignored.

The thing that worries me is that 'popular' does not usually imply 'quality'. The labels on the meats at my local butcher are a good example. In my recent conversation with Wolfgang Ullrich (to be released as soon as Audi has approved it) he often used words like 'prestige' and 'pinnacle'. I don't think that anyone would suggest that the current fad for reality TV shows represents the 'pinnacle' of television broadcast quality, although they are undoubtedly very popular.

Pandering to the shrill cries of the masses may win you support in the short term, but to be truly influential you must strive for excellence: in whatever field you choose to operate.

Let me know what you think. Leave me a comment below.


  1. I think popularity and quality are, indeed, two entirely different things. The very fact that people could get interested in men and women driving in circles around a course demonstrates that something does not have to be complicated at all for people to like it. It‘s a simple idea and as long as it makes people respond to it emotinally, they come to the races.

    In that light, I often find the argument of excellence, of one special racing category (or category of sport, for that matter) being the king‘s paramount pinnacle summit of everything a bit distracting, because on the one hand, that is often used to support the argument that a car company is getting engaged in a series supposedly offers vast possibilities for exploring different technical concepts – yet the way those kinds of championships are actually run and regulated, there is a tighter and tighter net of innovation being corrected so that the cars are brought closer together in terms of performance. That, then, can lead to car companies shunning other series, because there, the view that the chances of success are „unpredictable“.

    That‘s the point where I think it‘s more like actors trying to influence the script, the staging and the direction and less like an open sporting competiton – for which the fact that its outcome is not predictable might rather be considered a virtue, because in that case, it would actually be interesting to watch and be surprised by how it turns out.

    As another interesting example for a comparison between popularity and what‘s actually going on in terms of the decisions made that shape and influence the actual racing, I see the Nürburgring 24 hours. The phase during the 1990s when the race-winning car usually was a middle-class touring car probably was closer to the idea of having semi-amateurs compete in cars that the audience can easily relate to road cars, but the popularity of the race and the attendance saw a surge post 1999, when the organisers and rule-makers brought back and/or brought in much more spectacular GT and touring cars. Now, there are many world-class drivers of international reputation in this race – but a lot of possible performance differentiators are negated: the cars‘ weights and restrictors can be adjusted pretty much until the race actually takes place – and the fuel flow into the cars is being regulated at different flow speeds, creating the funny joke that in a time when everything is about „efficiency“ and environmental concerns this is an endurance race where a constructor who can construct an engine that uses less fuel than others takes the same time to refuel, such as not to create a situation where another manufacturer might complain that competitor XY is gaining a few seconds on them each stop. In terms of the quality of the race or the competition, those are significant things, but the more interesting thing for the organiser and promoters and the companies sponsoring and participating in the event apparently is something more trivial, as they‘re happy if more people turn up now than they did ten years ago.

  2. No doubt American racing has eaten itself alive trying to go for that 'Last corner, last lap lead change for the victory'.

    Little do the 'fringe' motorsport fans realise, the most exciting finishes stem from real races (that is, a range of intriguing events that build up to and sculpt the finish).

    NASCAR races (whilst I love NASCAR and all other forms of motorsport) today almost seem like 480 miles of lapping for the hell of it, and then the final caution with 3 laps to go where everyone hopes for a last corner pass for the win.

    Sadly - that is what the Daytona 24 seems like too! Obviously, it is a lot more complicated and difficult than how I'm putting it - but generally the series is going for that exciting result isn't it? The new rule of staying out under yellow and getting a lap back doesn't comply with the ruthless nature of a proper 24 hour race.

    Overall - I enjoyed the race - I would go to it - and if I was a driver with any talent I would love to drive in it! It's a motor race that goes for 24 hours right?!
    But it definately doesn't hold any of it's former prestige - or that of a Le Mans / Nurburgring / Spa.

    Having said all this - it would be a horrible time to be in charge of a series... Each has it's own way of trying to make it popular for the fans, good for the teams and drivers, good for the sponsors and most importantly safety (Do you leave the front splitter on the track or throw a safety car? Big call if you're responsible). It must be easy to give in to the entertainment side and forget the real reason everyone is here - to watch Racing Cars (Full Stop).

    ps - Congratulations to Brundle/Blundell - from what I've heard of Martin's thoughts - he was pleasantly surprised by the cars and enjoyed the month. Good for him!


  3. Well, the problem is: How do you want to transport Motorsport to the masses? Do they understand, what motorsport truly is? It is, in smaller classes, a team afford. But in higher classes, it becomes a matter of money. When you spend a lot of money, you normaly win. The ACO tries to get more competion with the "Balance of performance", NASCAR/Grand Am is doing it with a very restricted DP-Class.

    I just watched the excellent DVDs of the Le Mans Races 80-89. Who won? With the exception of Rondeau in 1980, the winners where: Joest Porsche, Porsche, Jaguar. The Aston Nimrods? No chance. On the other hand: Toyota spent millions in the 90s and never suceeded.

    I think, the BoP or the DP are there to make sure, that there a small teams, that may have an chance to win a race. Like last year, when Action Express won the 24H of Daytona with a little.

    The drama and the chance for a small team to win against "the big ones" are also part of motorsport. So the Grand Am may a little "staged" by the rules, but I like that way. If we woulsn`t have those roles, Ganassi would have won every race in the last three years.

  4. Great comments, all. I must admit I don't have a perfect solution, and indeed all suggestions have drawbacks of one shape or another.

    The point is, I suppose, that although one can wallow in the past (I frequently do), one has to accept that things change and that one cannot 'put the genie back into the bottle'.

    And that the direction that the world is going in is almost impossible to predict. I guess the thing that irritates me most is when those in charge - whether of motorsporting authorities or in any other arena - pontificate that things will be better under their control. So often it is the arrival of the future that catches them out.