Tag Archives: Bill Oursler

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In The Old Days When Life Was Simple

HDK 4904

At the age of seventy I find myself thinking and talking like my parents before me, which something I swore I would never do, but have done nevertheless. In short I find I’ve become an “old fart” who is not necessarily willing to accept the world as it is today. Clearly then I need to get out of the rut I find myself in, for the world has changed and I need to deal with it as it is, not as it was.

So what has any of this to do with sports car racing?

Just like the genetically engineered foods we now eat, my sport – pardon me, our sport – has been engineered to produce the results its organizers want to see rather than letting chance and nature dictate the final random outcomes of the past. Yes, there remains the element of chance, but it has been reduced substantially by maneuvering the regulations so that there will be no boring finishes.

For those of you who are non believers I would suggest you examine the NASCAR’s Grand American Rolex championship whose scriptures seem etched in sand because they appear to change on a moment’s notice, as was the case in last month’s season opening Rolex 24. There, in the name of equalizing performance, the officials decided to reduce what they saw as a perceived advantage the Corvette Daytona Prototypes enjoyed over their rivals, only to give the Chevrolet sports racers some of it back when it became obvious they –the officials – had been a bit over zealous in their approach.

I’m not for such actions, but I recognize why they are taken. After all, racing – at least here in the United States – is more entertainment than it is sport. Yet, in this case the changes were made in a matter of days, not years or months, but in days. Moreover, there will be further performance balancing changes for the next two Rolex rounds, after which the Grand-Am will review things again.

Even in the relatively low tech Grand-Am universe, this imposes unnecessary costs on the participants, just as it does when Formula One and others make regulatory revisions throughout the season in an effort to enliven the show. It is as if the rules makers want to wipe out their mistakes on an ongoing basis rather than trying to get things right in the first place. Indeed, about the only other comparable such situation is in the mortgage industry with its variable rate loans, and we all know what they’ve led to.

But, those in charge of the Grand-Am haven’t stopped at performance balancing. At Daytona, they instituted new full course yellow flag regulations that made it easy for those who had lost laps to make them up. In fact the loosening of the scriptures was such that one of those prototypes that was in a position to win in the final stages had been as far as seven laps in arrears – not once, but twice.

No one can argue that the Grand-Am’s actions made the Rolex 24 far more exciting than it otherwise might have been. But, is that what the sports car fan wants? Certainly the NASCAR spectator does. However, I’m not sure that certainty applies equally to the world of road racing.

In my day, what sports car spectators seemed to desire the most was to watch excellence and to dream about that excellence. Consider the 1973 Can-Am where Mark Donohue and his 240 mile-an-hour turbocharged Porsche 917/30 dominated the proceedings. Despite the lack of close competition, the 1973 Can-Am was the most successful season at the gate in the history of the series; something that can not be said about its subsequent years when the turbo Porsches were not present, leaving in their place equally matched, but largely uninspiring lower performing substitutes in their place.

With Grand-Am and its NASCAR approach to the sport about to take over the North American sports car scene in 2014, there are many worried about the future. And, in my mind, they have more than a little justification for having those concerns. Not only did the Can-Am fade away into history after its competitive playing field was leveled, but in the decade since the Grand-Am debuted its techno restricted Daytona Prototypes, it has not been particularly popular with its intended audience.

It appears that even now there is a desire for excellence rather than engineered mediocrity. And that gives this “old fart” hope for the future.

Bill Oursler, February 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Sebring 2012 – The Old Gal Wasn’t What She Used To Be

When I was studying military history as a young college student back in the 1960’s, my professor told me that if someone asked why I was doing so, I should immediately change the subject. In retrospect, it was both sage and non sage advice.

 
History, which is truly important (“those who don’t learn the lessons from it are doomed to repeat them over and over again”), gets no respect. Indeed, for the most part it is ignored in a world preoccupied by the present in a near total self indulgent way. And, perhaps even more sadly, when those among us decide to pay attention, they tend to do with such superficiality that they might as well not have bothered in the first place.

 
All this was brought home to me at Sebring this year. Aside from the fact that its duality as both the season opener for the American Le Mans and the new World Endurance Championship caused it to be possibly the most confusing, difficult to follow long distance event of all time, it marked the 60th anniversary  of the first ever 12-Hour in 1952. And, while Sebring has Ken Breslauer as both its press officer and “historian in residence,” the folks at the top all too often pay only lip service to his knowledge and talents.

 
As an example, despite Breslauer’s efforts, Sebring has yet to put a proper museum together to celebrate its legacy, or even to explore a working relationship with the Collier Museum, one of the finest collections of significant race cars anywhere, that is located in nearby Naples, Florida.

 
A second example, was the non presence, at the luncheon celebrating the occasion, of my friend Luigi Chinetti, Jr., who lives barely 100 miles from the track, and who, with his father, a three-time Le Mans winner, played a significant role through their Ferrari North American Racing Team, in Sebring’s past.(Among other things, NART fielded the first Ferrari 250 GTO to race at the 1962 12-Hour, the car winning its class and finishing second overall behind a NART entered prototype.)

 
There are others who weren’t part of the tributes to the now more than six decade existence of Sebring’s famous affair. However, Chinetti would have brought a unique perspective to the happenings this March on the aging circuit, having grown up in and around the race and the sport. For Chinetti, like so many others, the past was a better place to be: a time when humans, rather than computers were the keys to design excellence and design individuality. Yet, just as is the case with other aspects of life, respect for and an understanding of history does not mean we should live in the past, and as I noted learn from its lessons to make the present and the future better.

 
Over time motorsport in general has made tremendous strides in safety and efficiency while not forgetting the inherent excitement any speed contest generates. Love them, or hate them today’s prototypes are the ultimate in ground bound racing technology, and as such are truly unforgettable. It is that factor, which was present in spades at the 12-hour among the prototype categories, as well as in the production GT entries, that will keep the interest of the fans.

 
What history does is to polish the tradition that this new wave of racers are carrying on, and thereby enhance their importance. I may be an old fart, but that 250 GTO which Chinetti and his dad put on the 12-hour grid 40 years ago, now is worth well over 25 million dollars: not bad for an obsolete race car that, along with its almost equally valuable contemporaries that some would so casually dismiss as part of the dustbin of racing’s past.

 

Hopefully as people decide to explore history, I will be relieved of the necessity of having to change the subject when I’m asked why I’m a historian. And, that, as far as I’m concerned can only be a good thing.

Bill Oursler March 2012

To Dance Or Not To Dance

Image being invited to the dance, and then, after preparing for the occasion, finding out that the invitation had been withdrawn. That, in effect, is the situation facing the competitors who run in the all-Porsche GTC category of the American Le Mans Series, who at this point won’t be allowed to participate next March in the ALMS’ Sebring 12-Hour 2012 season opener.

And, while there may not be much sympathy for these well off “gentlemen” drivers and their “rent a ride” car owners, in the larger picture the issue highlights the problems caused when one’s fate, in this case that of the ALMS, is determined not by one’s self, but by others. At the heart of all of this is the fact that Sebring will be a “dual” event which will not only be the opening round of the Panoz-owned series, but also the inaugural race of the highly anticipated FIA World Endurance Championship.

As it stands now, the GTC division will be excluded from the 12 Hours, whose entry list will be restricted to 60 cars, approximately half of which will be foreign visitors not running the full ALMS schedule, and who may or may not return for the Petit Le Mans finale. Indeed, adding insult to injury, it appears entirely likely the GTC clan will cut out of that affair was well.

Should things not change the GTC Porsche folks will be denied the chance to showcase themselves in the two most important 2012 rounds of the ALMS tour, something which could cripple their funding, both in terms of sponsorship and driver rental fees. About this time, you may be wondering why anyone should care other than those involved themselves. After all, the 911 GT3 Cup cars are patently slow moving obstacles to the rest of the rest of the ALMS field; moving chicanes that can cause unwanted accidents with their far quicker brethren.

Despite this, the fact remains that the GTC Porsches, along with the spec LMPC prototypes have saved the ALMS, which before they appeared had grids of only 25 or less, an unsustainable figure for a major league championship. Perhaps equally important are how the ties between the ALMS and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organizers of Le Mans have shaped the series in the past and continue shape today.

For whatever reasons, when Panoz decided to create his series, he decided to do so in partnership with the ACO, leasing the technical regulations for the 24 Hour classic, and thus, in effect importing the Le Mans legacy to America. In the main, that decision has served him well, and the ALMS.

However, there have been problems in trying to formulate a season long championship around rules meant to govern a single event, particularly since that event and its ALMS offspring operate on different continents and in vastly different circumstances. The biggest of the problems over the years has been the size of the ALMS fields, which the better part of a decade had been too small for comfort.

That changed when the series introduced its two “spec” categories: the LMPC prototypes using French-built chassis powered by small block Chevrolet V-8s, and the Porsche-only GTC class. Now the ACO and the FIA are demanding that the Porsches stay home for Sebring, claiming that they do not fit the regulations proposed for the new FIA WEC.

The problem is that being denied access to the ALMS’ most important event has left many of the GTC contingent re-thinking their plans for 2012. As TRG boss Kevin Buckler puts it, “If they don’t let us race at the 12-Hour, I won’t run the series”, something echoed by the more cautious Alex Job. As he puts it, “I haven’t made any final decisions yet. But, given my need to serve my sponsors, I’m thinking along the same lines as Kevin.”

Given that between them, Job and Buckler had plans to enter no less than five GTC-spec 911 GT3 Cup cars, and given the fact that the class size in 2011 ranged between five and ten of the Porsches, their withdrawal could have a significant impact on the rest of the ALMS’ 2012 season. And, therein can be found the heart of the dilemma facing the ALMS.

While Sebring, with its dual status could be a major success story, what happens to the ALMS after the 30 foreign entries go home?

Clearly the prestige of its association with Le Mans, and the prestige of serving as the debut venue for the long awaited World Championship are of great benefit in establishing a new level of credibility for the ALMS. But, one has to ask: “At what price?”

No one believes that if the GTC community stays away for the rest of 2012 that the ALMS will automatically be doomed. However, it could be hurt at a time when self inflicted wounds do not lead the way to a better future. The ALMS and the ACO have a new agreement in place that gives the Americans much more freedom to chart their own course. Now is the time for them to use that freedom, something Buckler sums up with clarity when he says, “Keep in mind that the first world in the ALMS logo is the word ‘American.’ What we need is more American teams, not less.”

Buckler would not describe himself as a “prophet,” but in this case he’s right.

Bill Oursler, October 2011

911 Heaven

OK, before we get started I have a financial interest in this book. Showing rare taste and perspicacity the authors of this fine tome bought (and paid for!) some images from me. Of course the really good stuff comes from elsewhere but I am very pleased to be part of this book.

So my interests disclosed, I can now talk about this new volume. OK, the first question is do we need another Porsche history, another 911 book? Surprisingly the answer after reading this book is yes.

The authors, Michael Keyser and Bill Oursler (who also contributes on DDC) are Porsche experts of long standing. Michael raced a 911 with great success during the 70’s including a win at the Sebring 12 Hours. To most of the sportscar fans these days he is best known for his book “A French Kiss With Death”, the definitive story of Steve McQueen and his film “Le Mans”.

Bill Oursler is, well he is Bill. Anyone who has been receiving end one of his long phone calls knows about the passion, deep knowledge and understanding of all things Porsche. I doubt if he can even recall the number of books, let alone articles that he written over the past 40 years.

As to the subject matter, the competition history of the Porsche 911 in all its mutations and evolutions give a very broad canvas on which to paint a compelling picture.

Engraved Slip Case

 

The first thing that strikes you when you pick up the book is the quality of the production that oouzes out. The engraved slip case is typical of the high standards of reproduction that match the quality of the content.

Barth & Singer

 

The Forewords are written by two figures who have been central to the story of the 911 in competition, Jürgen Barth and Norbert Singer. This is supplemented by the story of Michael and his relationship with the Porsche 911, from 1966 to the present day.

Boost Control

 

The content follows on in a chronological order. I especially enjoyed the sections dealing with the early years. The opening double page spread showing Eberhard Mahle completely sideways on the Rossfield Hillclimb back in 1966 makes you imagine that you can hear the throttle, full on, no lifting. Another favourite is the chapter on the customer developments of the 935, which grew more radical with the evolutions of the “Moby Dick” concept.

Four Wheel Drive

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 959 programme is also covered with the various developments both on and off road as are the GT1 projects.

Wallpaper

The final chapters look at the recent 911 GT3-R Hybrid and another of my favourite pieces, 911 In Posters that are extremely evocative.

So if you are a 911 nut, this book is for you. Well written, well illustrated and well produced it has a place on any Porsche bookshelf.

Only 2,250 copies have been printed, so get your order in soon.

HERE

John Brooks, October 2011

The Joys Of Being “MODERN”

As we get older we tend to ponder the past more. And, if we’re ancient, we tend to do so while at the same time decrying the present. It is a ritual that has been passed down through time, generation after generation. And, one suspects, it will remain a tradition long after we have gone to our final reward. Yet, when it comes to present day motorsport, I can’t help but believe that perhaps, just perhaps, there is at least some justification for wanting to look and head “backwards.”
Real life has increasingly become ever more complicated, so why should we put up with a similar increase in complication when it comes to our pastimes, such as motorsport? The other weekend I made a serious attempt to watch the opening 2011 Formula One race, a series controlled by regulations so complex that I’m not sure if the participants themselves understood them.
In previous years I have jokingly said that to view an F-! event you needed to have your lawyer by your side to explain what was happening. Now it seems clear you ought to add a race engineer. For me, it’s all bit too much, so I’ll probably give up on Bernie’s show and grab a refreshing nap instead.
Still, this blog is for those of us who care about cars with fenders and more than one seat. And, although the rules for sports cars may not be as incomprehensible as those of Formula One, trying to sort out the differences between the ever growing numbers of sports car racing categories is straining on my limited number of tired old brain cells. Indeed, it is as if those creating this burgeoning population of befendered divisions have adopted the same “more is better” syndrome that tax men around the globe use when writing their codes.
At Sebring there were no less than six different categories on the starting grid: three for the prototypes and three for the production set. And, unless one had a guide, the only distinction the average person could make between them was the pumpkin seed shapes of the sports racers as opposed to the road going outlines of their lesser performing assembly line based counterparts. Trying to sort out one class from another within those broad parameters was much akin to trying to successfully complete a Sunday newspaper crossword puzzle, an impossible task for all but the few geniuses among us.
The regulators may be happy with what they’ve wrought, as most likely the manufacturers and the participants are, because in today’s scriptures there’s something to keep everyone happy – everyone that is except the fans. Sport, even motorsport, is about winning, and to have winners, obviously you have to have losers. That is how games are supposed to be played.
In many ways, while F-1 has made getting to that end overly complicated, those in charge of the sportscar universe appear to have not attempted to dilute the object of the exercise itself. In that same vain, and for all of its faults, of which there are many, the NASCAR owned Grand Am Rolex championship has not catered to the idea of making every member of the masses a winner. The Rolex has only two classes: the prototypes and the GT cars, and therefore just two chances for victory. All the rest must deal with disappointment.
There is a chance in the current climate for sportscar racing to climb out of the gutter it has so long resided in. Doing so, however, will require a re-think about how many winners can fit on the head of a very small pin. For the sports car community the, at least in terms of a salable class structure, less is far better than more.
Bill Oursler, April 2011

The Death of a Friend

Bill Oursler considers the final edition of National Speed Sport News.

As I’ve grown older, my routines have become more set. On Mondays, for example, I typically get up early, grab a cup of coffee and begin to write a race report for National Speed Sport News, as I did right after Sebring. It is now a week later, and that report will be my last for NSSN. It is not that I am departing from the publication with which I have been associated since 1975, but rather that NSSN itself has departed.

The issue featuring my Sebring report was the final one in a history that stretches back to 1934. The reasons for the demise of this famous racing newspaper are at once both complicated and simple. The most important and fundamental one of course is the internet, the immediacy of which no print medium can match.

When I began reporting for NSSN, it not only covered events, but the business of motorsport as well. Back then a several day old story was still new and unknown until it arrived on a subscriber’s doorstep. Today, it’s “old hat” after just a few hours. In terms of delivery, the printed newspaper is an old fashioned train trying to compete again a high speed airplane. In short it is a race it can’t win, and because it can’t, advertisers increasingly have put their money elsewhere. The result is that the lifeblood of the print media industry has been sucked out of its veins, leaving it to die.

That is the simple part. The more complicated is the fact that that motorsport’s fan base is getting older. The younger generations have different interests, their love of the automobile dimmed to some degree by the perception that it is bad for the environment in its present form. Indeed, in the new world of the immediate, perception more often than not overcomes reality because reality often requires more than a few minutes to understand.

I will miss National Speed Sport News. I will miss working for it. Moreover, I will feel sorry for Chris Economaki and his family who which built it into the powerhouse it was in the sport. Most all of though, I will bemoan the fact that its loss represents an era in which simplicity has triumphed over the search for understanding the complex universe in which we live.

Bill Oursler, March 2011

 

Bump and Grind

Bill Oursler has sat down to consider the events that unfolded in the Central Highlands of Florida last week, here are some of his observations. John Brooks, March 2011.

So what did we learn from this year’s annual Sebring 12-Hour? The answer is not much that we already didn’t know. At Sebring both the slower 2011 prototypes and their 2010 spec predecessors, now hobbled by the rules so they don’t outshine the lesser performing 2011 models were present. And, in looking at the results, if the outcome of the venerable Central Florida affair suggested anything, it was that perhaps, at least at this stage, it might have been better if newer cars had been left home.

And, for those who might need further convincing that the new generation prototypes are ready. there is the fact that the fourth home 2010 bred Audi turbo diesel R15+ had spent more than a little time in the paddock. It was being repaired from its tangle with the second Factory 908 (which eventually struggled across the line in eighth) and lapped as quickly as 2011-spec 908 in front of it, once it returned to the track.


Now, if all of this doesn’t send the ACO boys reaching for the headache powder, perhaps the second place performance of the gasoline powered Highcroft Racing ARX-01e will.

Delivered to Highcroft less than a week before the start, with its paint figuratively still soft to the touch, it ran like a freight train, fighting for the lead for much of the way. Maybe, the ACO will solve the Highcroft Acura issue by simply not inviting it to come over this June; although, given the current Japanese disaster, that might seem like hitting someone when they’re flat on their back. (One never needs bad press, you know.)

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: motorsport in general, and the people in charge of Le Mans in particular, never seem to understand when they have a good thing going. In the last several years the current formula has worked out well, if not perfectly (keep in mind that the gasoline contingent could have used a little more help towards getting an even playing field with the diesels). More importantly, the ACO might likewise want to recognize that manufacturer participation is at best problematical, less centered around winning, than the strength of car sales and the amount of black ink those sales generate.

Differing, and constantly changing agendas over the years, have done little to make sportscar racing’s future a secure one. Stability, on the other hand, has. In a time of economic problems, forcing the sports car racing community to continually spend money appears to this writer to be somewhat stupid. In my view, the ACO ought to keep its fingers off the keys of its word processors and let stability, and the close racing it tends to create, reign and leave the advanced technology avenue to Formula One which now requires the presence of  lawyers and engineers to explain the rules to its fan base.

Bill Oursler, March 2011