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Motorsports

TOYOTA, MERCEDES, NISSAN EYE A NEW SERIES

by Larry Roberts

July 03, 1998

Recently,the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race was won by a factory-produced and entered Porsche with cars made by Toyota, Nissan, Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz and others in the running and equally capable of winning the race.

But there was a time not long ago that the Le Mans race in France was close to a household word in this country. Decades ago the Ford factory battled it out with Ferrari and Jaguar, as well as Porsche and others for the coveted world sports car championship.

Unfortunately, big league professional sports car racing has fallen on hard times in North America and it's gotten to the point that there's almost as many contestants and their support people at races like the Sebring event and other American long distance competitions as there are spectators. The Sports Car Club of America Pro Racing (SCCA) organizers and their antagonists at Professional Sports Car Racing (PSCR) have had a year-long ongoing battle over who will officially sanction what races here and as a consequence, pro sports car racing in America is on the brink of collapse.

But if you're a dyed-in-the-wool fan of sports-racing cars (as opposed to the open-wheel single-seaters as seen in the Indy Racing League races and the Championship Auto Racing Teams series for Champ Cars), hope seems to be on the horizon and the cavalry is being lead by entrepreneur Don Panoz.

Panoz is the millionaire who a couple of years ago burst on the racing scene with his own team of world-class Ford-powered sports- racers at the persuasion of his adult son. The senior Panoz liked what the saw (a challenge) and in quick order bought the Road America road circuit in Atlanta and began the struggle for bring order out of chaos.

His Panoz race cars have been heavy-hitters in the international world of endurance racing (a very big deal in Europe) and on the strength of this as well as his seemingly endless supply of money, he has gone into a joint venture with the Automobile Club de l'Quest (the organizers of the 24 hour event in France) to create the "American Le Mans" series for prototype sports cars as well as their even faster counterparts, the GT1 (Grand Touring class one) machines that are usually fielded by motorsports-conscious auto makers.

The American Le Mans series is planned for 1999 and hopefully will encompass 11 races on this continent each year and run for its own championship. One track is locked in (Road Atlanta is a sure-thing since Panoz owns it) and other tracks like California's Laguna Seca, Mosport in Canada, Lime Rock in Connecticut and a dozen others around the North American continent have been contacted. Most are now past the "casual conversation" stage with Panoz and his enthusiastic event management team.

One indicator of the hard-ball approach that Panoz is taking to the political battle raging over professional sports car racing is a section titled Sanctioning Body in his latest press release on the American Le Man Series. "(Panoz is) currently seeking unification of U.S. sports car sanctioning between Sports Car (PSCR) and the SCCA.... If not unified, all American Competition Committee of the United States (ACCUS) member clubs will be solicited." In other words, if the two warring clubs don't get it together, Panoz will look to NASCAR, IRL, CART or some other sanctioning organization to pick up the American Le Mans Series.

And if Panoz takes a page from the NASCAR marketing book, he'll make his series' drivers high-profile, popular, likable and most of all, accessible to the public at large.

When this happens, I'm sure that all the auto makers here, in Japan and in Europe as well as potential corporate sponsors will be quite happy to line up teams on the American Le Mans starting grids.