PONTIAC, BMW, HONDA SECRET CHAMPS
by Larry Roberts
December 12, 1997
There was a time long ago when the middle letters in the acronym NASCAR meant "Stock Car," which was how the cars came off the showroom floor. But that was in the '50s. NASCAR stock cars survived those ancient days, then slowly evolved into specially reconstructed versions of the cars the factory sold to the public. The NASCAR Winston Cup Ford Taurus doesn't have much relation to the street version, except for the Ford oval moniker on the hood. Rather, it is rear-wheel driven, powered by a 350+ cid V8 and devoid of MacPherson strut suspension. It's a ground-up race car and even the body is an ersatz four-door sedan with the painted-on rear door outlines. But that's not unfair, because the NASCAR Winston Cup Chevy Monte Carlos are built the same way. The drivers are the stars, the way they drive is the entertainment and it's become the most phenomenal money-making extravaganza in racing history. All the cars could very well be identical under the skin and no one (including me) would really care. The show's great and we spectators love it, though to get involved, big money is necessary.
But there is a less expensive racing venue in which the cars have to stay almost stock and are modified only for safety. The cars are run under the banner of the Professional SportsCar Racing (PSR) and the series is called the Speedvision Cup for Stock SportsCars. It was inherited by the PSR when it bought out the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) in '96 and according to PSR owner Andy Evans, it's the only PSR series that makes money for the organization via sponsorship money and entry fees.
The mechanics are simple: set up four classes, select foreign and domestic sports cars that have the same off-the-shelf performance potential, write technical rules that keep the cars competitive within those four classes, arrange the events on an endurance-race basis (two or more drivers per car per event) and stand back. They're featured as warm-up races for the PSR main attraction, the Exxon World SportsCar (WSC) championship and ran in conjunction with the WSC in nine of the 11 WSC meets in '97.
The top class, Grand Sports, is closely contested and encompasses cars made by seven manufacturers. The Pontiac Firebird Formula won that championship, but the racing is so close, four other marques made it into the winner's circle during the year. The six-cylinder BMW 328is took the second-level Sports class, the Honda Prelude Si was next down the ladder winning the Touring class, while its little brother, Honda Del Sol Si took the honors in the Compact class.
But while the winning marques are names well-known to the public, those of the drivers are not - even to racing enthusiasts. John Heinricy, Jeff McMillin, Greg Loebel and Joe Danaher were all champions in their respective classes, but the racing of stock cars isn't spectacular enough to make it onto ESPN or even the series sponsor, Speedvision.
But maybe in the long run, it's in the best interest of the sport that races for strictly stock vehicles are relegated to unheralded warm-up events not publicized or highly promoted. It's a good way for tomorrow's stars to prove their qualities by racing in events where the cars are evenly matched and a championship usually is won on talent, rather than vast sums of sponsorship money. In formula car racing, driver talent will surface in Formula Ford 2000 or the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship. In sports cars, that same quality of talent will show in the PSR Speedvision Cup for Stock SportsCars, but the latter has one attraction that the single-seaters lack: brand loyalty.
If spectators want to root for "their" car and claim bragging rights for "their" Pontiac Firebird Formula or Honda Del Sol, they'll need go no further than the PSR Stock SportsCar event results.
Even the NASCAR Winston Cup series can't make that boast.