BILL GATES' RACING REP STIFFED
by Larry Roberts
October 31, 1997
If you were into racing 35 years ago, you'll remember that the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) was the hottest series going. The competing vehicles were labeled Can Am cars; two-placed full-bodied, purpose-built sports racers powered by engines that put out as much as 1000 horses and piloted by world-class drivers.
Now it appears that the USRRC name is being resurrected and will again become the most dominant force in American sports car racing - and at the expense of Microsoft's Bill Gates and his banker-cum-racing impresario Andy Evans. Evans has used large chunks of Gates' money to buy a number of prestigious race tracks around the country as well as the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), one of the biggies among race sanctioning bodies. Evans changed the IMSA name to Professional SportsCar Racing (PSR) and immediately set about to become the leading force in American professional sports car competition.
It wouldn't have been difficult. IMSA was foundering with its World Sports Car (WSC) series featuring cars that, for all intents and purposes, were like the Indy Racing League (IRL) cars with full-fendered bodies. Its IMSA GT series was in equal trouble. There was a lack of cars, prize money and enthusiasm among the competing teams.
The American lynch-pin race for American sports car racing is the venerable 30-year-old 24 Hours of Daytona, held early in February and considered the cornerstone of pro sports car racing in America. Through his purchase of IMSA, Evans inherited the sanction for the Daytona endurance race and set about to make it international in scope and a North American counterpart of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France - same rules, same world-wide acceptance, same teams and drivers.
Then things began to go wrong. Evans lusted after the Trans Am series for highly modified American "Pony Cars" (Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, etc.) which had been run by the professional arm of the lackluster Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) since its days as a companion series to the aforementioned USRRC. Evans first offered to buy the entire SCCA Pro Racing organization (impossible without the direct consent of SCCA's 60,000 members) and failing this, he formed his own StockCar series whose rules perfectly paralleled those of the Trans Am. The intent was obviously to run the Trans Am out of business by offering more race dates and more prize money to cash-strapped Trans Am teams.
But along the way, Evans irritated some very powerful names in American racing - names like Bill France, owner of NASCAR, Roger Penske, the moving force behind the Championship Auto Racing Teams Indy-type series, Nick Craw, former head of the Peace Corps and current president of the SCCA, and Les Richter, the ex-Cal football great who has held almost every position in racing since he graduated in the early '50s. A couple of months ago these and several other titans of racing got together and within a few days, secured a title sponsor and front money for the flagging Trans Am, resurrected the USRRC as a sanctioning body for sports car racing, developed a USRRC 11-race season for Can Am sports racers whose specs match those for PSR WSC machines, and announced that the USRRC would be the sanctioning body for the 24 Hours of Daytona. Evans evidently forgot that the Daytona track has been owned by the France family since Day One and that it is Bill France who says who does what at the Florida track. France is also adamantly opposed to European factories getting a foothold in American sports car racing.
Those caught in the middle of these political machinations are the team owners and sponsors, including Rolex, who is the title sponsor for the Daytona race. None of them know exactly where or with whom they'll be racing in '98 - USRRC or PSR - but they need to know very quickly.
The only confident segment of the triangle is the spectators at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Most don't know or care who puts on the event as long as it's loud, flashy, has lots of fancy cars and it doesn't rain.
Even Bill Gates' money can't buy happy, enthusiastic spectators.