BUSINESS IS GOOD.
That's a -- if not the -- Big Headline to come out of last weekend's Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, which I attended for the first time since 1991. It was, as usual, the start of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar series. Unofficially, and with all due respect to the Chili Bowl, it signals to most the real beginning of the American motorsports season.
I've been a sports car fan from my earliest days as a racing fan. The Shelby Cobras, original Ford GTs and various Jim Hall Chaparrals will always remain among my favorites. I'm not sure anything, however, will top the Porsche 962 turned-out in Lowenbrau colors as driven and fielded by my dear friend Al Holbert.
This gathering of international racing elite, as appropriate, brought thoughts of Dan Gurney to all. Scott Pruett raced his last and exits as America's greatest sports car driver and a true gentleman. IMSA and Daytona played the Fernando Alonso card much as Indy did last year and it must be said Fernando was kind -- even generous -- with his time to the media.
As has been the case with the various sanctioning organizations over the decades, though, the cars (right or wrong) took the spotlight. Although I personally find the large stability fins to ruin the look (Mazda the worst), IMSA clearly appears to be on the right track with its DPi class. It's going to be a huge story to see if the Lords of Le Mans grasp this and embrace the formula. Daytona saw the formal debut of the two Acuras as fielded by none other than Roger Penske (an original sports car-er himself), Mazda's partnership with Joest, Year 2 of Cadillac plus Nissan.
To repeat one of my strongest-held beliefs, to be successful, IMSA needs a robust Prototype class. Endurance racing without Prototypes would be like an NHRA event without nitro cars. It looks to be in a positive mode.
I found Rolex to be impressive in positioning its event sponsorship, which included strategic placement of the classic gold-face public clocks, and a very nice media reception. One disappointment was to not observe such from WeatherTech, which clearly needs a Jim Chapman.
In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's election as POTUS, former motorsports marketer and now McLaren boss Zak Brown offered an opinion that Trump represented a headwind for those seeking sponsorship at a major level. Given the historic rise in the U.S. stock markets, less regulation, the tax cut legislation and improved consumer confidence, I asked Brown for an updated analysis. He said he had been at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland a few days earlier.
"Commercially, the world seems to be in a pretty good place," he said. "Companies are doing well. People are bullish. Everyone I talk to, I ask, 'How's business?' They go, 'Business is pretty good.' You're not seeing the layoffs like before. You can have a great, booming sport that people want to sponsor, but if the world's 2008 again . . .
"Everything is bullish. Companies are happy. Earnings are good. It's a good environment.
"The Trump stuff, some people tend to laugh it off a bit in Europe. But, in general, people see America is getting stronger and the world sees that as a good thing.
"People are bullish on the world economy. It has its issues in certain parts of the world. Comparing to 2008, no matter what was going on, people weren't spending money. People are starting to spend money."
I spent 20-some minutes talking with Penske in his trackside office Friday morning. He told me his team has seen increased interest from sponsors. He said IMSA has "really stepped-up its game" with more manufacturer participation. I had not been to Daytona since the $400 million "rising" project, so Joie Chitwood III, International Speedway Corp. chief operating officer, kindly and proudly took me on a private tour. Quite Amazing. Yes, it really is the first and only motorsports stadium. The guest relations staff -- save for one punk kid and a security officer -- were the best trained and most courteous I've ever encountered.
ISC is now completing its $178 million renovation of ISM Raceway (Phoenix). My antenna picked up a signal that a sponsorship announcement for Scott Dixon's IndyCar is forthcoming. So a lot of the "smart money" (I'm afraid of jinxing it) seems bullish on the Business of Racing. At least in some series.
As one who has lived through many of these cycles, I'm thinking it would be nice to wind-down my time during good times. I don't have a specific timeframe in mind. The Rolex 24 was one step in that direction. God willing, May will be my 40th Indy 500, and that might be a good number on which to stop. I'd like to see the modernized Phoenix oval unveiled. We will see how this story unfolds because I, myself, don't know the final chapter.
The 24 holds a memorable place for me. As I've noted several times before, I was on the 1990 Castrol Jaguar team, which finished 1-2 in what was then the SunBank 24. I was up for 39 hours straight as we worked Davy Jones hard with interviews after the checkered flag. It was good to see friends after a long stretch, people who come together at marque events, including a recovering Gordon Kirby (whose new book on Wally Dallenbach, Steward of the Sport, will be out in May), Nigel Roebuck, Andrew Marriott, David Phillips, J.J. O'Malley and Steven Cole Smith. And, of course, DPi co-winner Christian Fittipaldi.
The 24 at night is a magnificent sight. The change in atmosphere in the pits and garage after the long night turns to Sunday morning is quite something. Crew fatigue sets in among those teams who had overnight problems. Adrenaline fuels those still in contention. You can see it. You can feel it.
It's special to me to say I was able to go to victory lane at Daytona in 1990. And, now, thanks to PR pros like Daytona's Andrew Booth and IMSA's Nate Siebens who went above and beyond to be welcoming and accommodate my limitations, it's special to say I experienced one more Rolex 24.
P.S. -- I Tweeted a number of news items and observations and photos from Daytona. Take a look @SpinDoctor500 .
[ more soon . . . ]