Bob Varsha returns to his roots
The eyes of the motor sports world are squarely on Daytona International Speedway this weekend as the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona kicks of a new season of sports car racing live on SPEED & SPEED.com, starting Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
|Bob Varsha, the best motorsports announcer in the USA, relegated to Grand-Am|
This weekend also represents veteran motor sports announcer Bob Varsha's first race back as a full-time sports car announcer, where he first cut his teeth more than 25 years ago. He recently sat down and chatted about returning to his on-air roots, sports car racing in general and what he expects in this year’s Rolex 24.
Here is what he had to say:
SPEED: Your return to announce sports car racing starts with the Rolex 24 – what are you expecting for this weekend?
Bob Varsha: The Rolex was the first major racing event I covered when I began my career back in the early 1980s. So, sports car racing really has been in my blood – and it’s great to come back to - I am really looking forward to this year’s event.
I think the whole sport is energized by the fact that Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series have decided to come together, consolidating the class structure and giving everybody a place to race against everyone else. I think it will be really good for the sport, in general. We still have one (Rolex 24 at Daytona) to run under Grand-Am rules and we have a terrific field with lots of Daytona Prototypes, a tremendous number of GT cars and the introduction of the new GX class.
The driver lineup is the best I’ve ever seen which may be the most underappreciated aspect of the Rolex 24, the tremendous number of topline drivers from every form of motor sport that shows up for this thing. Parallel to that is an opportunity for a competent driver at the lower levels of the sport – amateurs who may run against Sports Car Club of America competition – to race against their heroes. With all the stars of NASCAR, IndyCar and sports car racing, this is really exciting as well, although there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility on their shoulders to behave appropriately. I think it’s a great sidebar story in the race itself.
SPEED: What do the sports car racing regulars think about the influx of drivers from NASCAR & IndyCar?
Varsha: The series regulars in Grand-Am have every right to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this is our territory,’ but they don’t. They are proud to be among their peers from the other forms of motor sport and they like it, they are competitors. They want to race against the best and the Rolex attracts those people. It’s a great time of year. The other series drivers don’t have as much going on and there’s an appreciation among the NASCAR & Indy Car drivers that the Rolex 24 is really a race they need on their resume. Just ask Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger from last year’s winning crew at Michael Shank Racing, they were just over the moon about winning that race. They want to come back and try to win it again – which tells you something about the esteem these drivers hold this race.
SPEED: Sports car racing – at least in North America – is currently going through a lot of changes right now. What are your thoughts on that?
Varsha: Sports car racing has traditionally been the province of the enthusiast. The joke goes; the stars of stock car racing are the drivers, where the stars of the show in sports car racing are the cars. I don’t think anybody would argue with that, so it’s important we maintain a diverse mechanical lineup with as many of the major worldwide brands as possible being involved. Give them the continuity to race, receiving the return on investment they need from racing. In the end, it is a business.
Having said that, bringing the two series together (Grand-Am & ALMS) has to be done very carefully, insuring that everybody has the opportunity to race in a cost-effective way, so they don’t get run over by deep-pocketed manufacturers which have very firm goals to win races. Sports car racing needs those wealthy enthusiasts who want to come out for a chance to win.
SPEED: How has the merger played out so far?
Varsha: I think what the Grand-Am and the ALMS have done is reasonable. You’re not going to be able to please everybody, but it’s clear that something has to be done to bring the two series together. We’ve seen other examples in racing where a house divided against itself cannot stand. The IndyCar split… these sorts of things are unhealthy.
Based on the one big announcement that was made at the (Rolex 24 at Daytona) test, I think they are going about it in a reasonable way, trying to be inclusive and creating a playing field where lots of different stakeholders can come to the table. I think that’s critical in terms of car count, good on-track performance and television appeal - all the things that go into making a successful series.
I think they are following the right method as well. Everybody wants to see hi-tech racing, but the truth is there aren’t too many people who can compete in the LMP1 class. It’s dominated by manufacturers and that’s kind of antithetical to what sports car racing has been about here in the United States. We welcome the manufacturers, and we hope they follow the Porsche model and bring high tech to the table in an accessible way, so a guy that has a budget can go out and get the latest, assemble a team of top-quality drivers and mechanics, then go out to compete and win.
SPEED: Do you have any predictions for this weekend?
Varsha: Based on testing, where everybody was claiming the other guy was sandbagging, it’s a little hard to predict. But from what we saw, I think the defending champions from Michael Shank Racing have a very good chance of coming back and doing something historical, which is to win back-to-back Rolex 24s. I think Michael Shanks’ team has a real-good opportunity to do that.
On the GT side, I expect we may see the best racing of all, with Porsche against Ferrari, going up against Audi. Everybody has gotten stronger with a huge field and a tremendous driver line up, the GTs is every bit as good as the Daytona Prototype field in terms of driver quality. Porsche led the test, but who knows, the Ferraris and Audis came into the race last year with few in number and early in their development curve. Now, we have seven Ferraris and five Audis in the GT field with terrific driver line ups. The cars have been sorted, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of those classic battles from years ago when the manufacturers all came to the table at Daytona.
2013 Rolex 24 at Daytona SPEED Coverage Schedule – Daytona International Speedway
(All Times Eastern; Schedule Subject To Change)
Friday, Jan. 25
Continental Tire Presents: The 24 Hours of Daytona 8 p.m. – 9 p.m. (Replay)
Saturday, Jan. 26
Rolex 24 at Daytona 3 p.m. – 11 p.m. (SPEED; Live)
Rolex 24 at Daytona 11 p.m. – 9 a.m. (SPEED.com; Live)
Sunday, Jan. 27
Rolex 24 at Daytona 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. (SPEED; Live)