GM returns in Force in Grand-Am
The phrase "General Motors is back" has been getting a lot of use in racing circles over the past week, and as GM road racing boss Mark Kent shared with SPEED.com, it applies to more than open-wheel competition.
While IndyCar fans have Chevrolet's return to look forward to in 2012, followers of the GRAND-AM Rolex Series will only have to wait until January to see GM's homecoming in the Daytona Prototype and Grand Touring categories.
As one of the original auto manufacturers to embrace the Daytona Prototype concept, General Motors earned six manufacturers' championships from 2004-2008. With the venerable small-block V8 engine at the heart of its efforts, GM used the Rolex Series as the cornerstone for promoting its Pontiac brand through road racing, earning four DP titles with its engines and two GT titles using GTO- and GXP-bodied cars built by Pratt & Miller.
The financial collapse of 2008 forced GM to re-think its motorsports programs, and while facing bankruptcy, the Pontiac brand was wound down along with GM's Rolex Series activities for 2009. The auto giant maintained a small presence for 2010, supplying Chevy-badged engines for two-time DP champions GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing and allocating its factory drivers to GT teams on an as-needed basis.
With GM now posting a healthy profit, Kent says that one of GM Racing's first orders of business was to re-establish their footing in GRAND-AM.
"Before we went through bankruptcy, GRAND-AM was a very strong series for Pontiac to compete in and to demonstrate their performance attributes," he said. "Unfortunately, as we went through bankruptcy, we just did not have the money for another division to step in and pick up where Pontiac left off. So our presence dropped off tremendously for the last year or more. Now, as we're looking across our racing landscape and have some more resources available to us, we're strategically looking where to place our resources and we think GRAND-AM is a great venue to rebuild.
"In Rolex GT, it's an opportunity for us to showcase the legendary Camaro and, in DP, we're able to showcase the legendary Chevy small-block engine. There are a lot of reasons to be there, and we're looking to build some momentum to getting back to the level where we were a couple years ago where we had three or four strong teams running in each of the classes."
GM's first step was to try and swell the ranks of quality teams to use its DP engine after watching as the 2010 season was dominated by privateer BMWs and Fords built by Roush Yates Engines. The Stallings team underwent a change in engine builders in 2010 after suffering poor reliability for the first half of the season, moving to the veteran NASCAR tuners at Earnhardt Childress Racing.
Under ECR's care, the GAINSCO-sponsored program made a major leap forward, which piqued the interest of a number of DP teams in the paddock. For 2011, GM's roster of Chevy V8 users has expanded to include two of the most prominent teams in the series as Wayne Taylor Racing and Spirit of Daytona Racing have secured the hearty 5.0L motors for their respective campaigns.
WTR relied on Ford to power their Dallara chassis before making the switch to Chevy, and SDR was one of two teams to use the Porsche Cayenne V8 prior to securing Chevys for their Coyote chassis.
Coupled with the Riley chassis used by Stallings, GM has its motors in three of the four DP chassis used in competition, and while each of the three teams currently fields a single-car entry, the possibility for one of those teams to add a second Chevy-powered car has been rumored for some time.
Changes to GM's DP engine have also been in the works for 2011, according to Kent.
"We're very excited about next year. We finished the season strong with ECR building the Stallings engine but we felt there was still a need to do more," he said. "We looked at our basic engine architecture and, partly because of the rules we continued to use our original [DP] engine. Going into next year, we're modernizing our small-block engine by using a production block that is currently being made instead of using one that has been obsolete for some time. We're looking at going to individual intake runners to keep up with the competition; that's something, per the rules, we weren't previously allowed to do. We're working to make a more contemporary, product-relevant engine that is as good as where we left off in 2010, and should be better able to fight with the BMWs and Fords head-to-head and hopefully result in wins and championships for us."
Beyond adding new DP teams and updating their engine, GM will make its considerable technical and engineering resources available to its teams in lieu of sponsorship dollars. Rather than spend large sums to bankroll a factory team, Kent says the new and more frugal GM Racing would be more likely to give its partners access to its vast engineering resources.
"First, I believe that the days of writing big checks, anywhere, are behind us. That was motorsports three or four years ago. Look across the three or four major [North American] racing series, and everyone has had to tighten their belts. Basically, when GM went through our bankruptcy, we had to look through our promotional activities, whether it was motorsports or it was NFL or other areas, and we went through all those and the motorsports programs were right at the top of our ROI (return on investment) calculations.
"The problem we faced with some of the series was that we did not have enough money to invest in all of them, so we had to drop our involvements down to just a few core series. The negative there with GRAND-AM is that there was a lot of technology transfer that happened that benefitted our road car division. We always felt there was a benefit to being in GRAND-AM. What we need to do is make sure our spending level in the series is at the right level to continue to show a very strong return on investment for our involvement."
As GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing prepares to enter its seventh season with GM power, team owner Bob Stallings says GM's recommitment to the Rolex Series is coming at just the right time.
"We're very, very excited that General Motors and Chevrolet have renewed their energy and commitment to GRAND-AM. There's no question that their vitality and engagement with the Rolex Series is a blessing for a lot of us, including the GAINSCO team. We credit our relationship with GM as a major part of the two championships we've won in the series. There's no doubt that the relationship between GM, ECR and our team will produce a more competitive package next year. Other manufacturers have stepped up so [GM's] timing is perfect. I don't think we'll have the kind of superiority that the [Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates] team had in 2010, but I really do think we'll be extremely competitive."
Chevy's Rolex GT activities next year will look similar to those in 2010, with two Camaros fielded by Stevenson Motorsports and a single Camaro entry for Autohaus Motorsports leading their efforts. It's also possible a fourth Camaro could join GM's Rolex GT fold for 2011.
With as many as eight Rolex GT Mazdas vying for the manufacturers’ championship in 2010, it will take a near-flawless performance by the handful of Camaros if they hope to overcome the RX-8 onslaught in 2011. Making the task even more challenging is the fact that the Camaros utilize some of the oldest chassis in the GT category.
Currently dressed in its third unique set of bodywork, the Camaros—which started life as Pontiac GTO.Rs—aren’t nearly as fresh or new as some of the Mazdas, Porsches and Corvettes in the field. Kent still hopes their ground-pounding Camaros have enough life left in them to battle for the GT crown next year.
“I would say that there is the potential to win, and that’s one of our guiding principles,” Kent explained. “We don’t go racing unless we can race to win, so we believe that we can still be on the top step of the podium, but yes, the chassis is somewhat dated. But the learning hasn’t stopped and the improvement to the cars hasn’t stopped from the moment we initially entered GRAND-AM. It will be very hard, but we proved that we could be competitive this year, and with some changes to the rules for the car, I think we closed the 2010 in a very strong position with the Camaros. We’re hopeful that this will carry over to next year and we’ll be able to contend for more wins.”
While its somewhat aged GT cars will be pressed into service again in 2011, Kent says a modest youth movement is afoot amongst GM’s driver ranks. GM Racing is believed to have recently tested a trio of American drivers—Gunnar Jeanette, Guy Cosmo and Tommy Milner—with a possible interest of adding more domestic talent to its lineup.
It is also rumored that Jordan Taylor, one of the breakout stars of the 2010 Rolex GT season, is a candidate to join GM Racing next year. The 19-year-old son of WTR owner Wayne Taylor drove a Camaro for Autohaus Motorsports alongside factory driver Johnny O’Connell at the season finale, fueling speculation that the teenager was on GM’s radar for 2011.
Kent wouldn’t be drawn on the exact drivers they’ve targeted for next season, but he did confirm that some form of change can be expected.
“The overall goal we’re trying to do is to strengthen our teams next year: The best chassis, the best engines and the best bodies,” he said. “Part of that is also making sure they have the best drivers possible, and knowing that our competition has done so, I think what you’re going to see is some new, younger faces in the GRAND-AM series next year, and I also think you’re going to see some crossover from the veteran drivers in other series to coach some of these younger drivers, but it will make for more powerful teams next year.”
With the recent absence of an official GM presence in the Rolex GT class, support was lent to some of the leading privateers who entered Corvettes, but with the factory now formally committed to its Camaro programs, Kent says his team will focus its resources solely on the factory programs.
“We feel we have a real good promotional platform with the Corvette in the series, so we are trying to make that the place where we focus those marketing resources. For GRAND-AM, we’ll be focused on the Camaro for 2011 and beyond.”
The only area of GM’s GRAND-AM plans that are wholly unknown centers on the amount of advertising and activation that will come from their enhanced DP and GT involvement. GM usually assigns some level of marketing dollars to promote its factory racing programs, and with their return to the Rolex Series, Stallings anticipates it will help to raise the overall profile of GRAND-AM and its teams.
“If Chevrolet and GM are dedicated to advertising the series and their teams, we would expect to be a direct beneficiary of that, for sure. They are incredibly serious about everything they do on and off the track, which is a blessing for all those who work with General Motors." Grand-Am