Racing beat

| October 30, 2006

Sports cars on road courses are looking to build up a strong following among American race fans.

Road Racing Heaven
The Barber Motorsports Park near Leeds, Ala., hosts the Porsche 250 each year, a Grand American Road Racing event that provides a different kind of competition.

“NASCAR is terrific, and it’s become the most popular form of motorsports in the world,” said Andy Hall, spokesperson for the Rolex Sports Car Series. “But road racing in the United States is starting to catch on, too. It’s an alternative to NASCAR.”

The 740-acre Barber Motorsports Park looks part Gotham City, part Disney World, and the track – 2.3-miles with 16 turns – is already being dubbed by some as the finest road course on the globe.

“I’ve had a fortunate life in that I’ve taken my passion and been able to make a living within that passion,” said Roger Edmondson, president of the Grand American Road Racing Association. “I’ve been to road courses all over North America and all over the world, and I can tell you this facility is clearly going to be the spiritual home of road racing throughout the world.”

George Barber, who made his fortune in the dairy industry, sank $52 million of his own money into the park, and the investment shows. When visitors enter the complex, they first see the museum itself, which consists of four floors in the back, three in the front and covers 141,000 square feet. Drive toward the track, and, aside from pristine grass and bushes that border the entrance, there are several sculptures – some calling to mind Gothic art, other pieces done in the shapes of insects.

Jim France, the vice-chairman of NASCAR, came up with the idea of the Grand American Road Racing Series – a series that has been an integral part of the Barber Motorsports Park since it opened in 2003.

“I think Jim’s idea of the Grand American series is similar to what his dad, ‘Big’ Bill France, was thinking about when he got some people together in 1947 and started talking about forming NASCAR,” Edmondson said. “What I think fans will find different here is the variety of vehicles we’ll have competing. It’ll be like having Nextel Cup, Busch Series and Craftsman Trucks all racing together at the same time.”

“We have two main categories of cars in our Rolex Series,” Edmondson explained. “First are the Daytona Prototypes, which are cars built specifically for racing. Then there is the Grand Touring category, which are cars designed and sold by manufacturers solely for racing use.

“In the Grand-Am Cup, the cars are actually vehicles that can be bought and driven on the street, but have been modified for racing.”

A Daytona Prototype competes against vehicles manufactured by Audi, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Porsche and Toyota.

Grand-Am Cup features the BMW M3, Ford Mustang, BMW Z4, Mazda RX-8, Mini Cooper and Porsche Boxter.

The main series features such familiar names as former Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. and Christian Fittipaldi, as well as “Big” Bill France’s grandson, J.C. France, and road course veteran Hurley Haywood.

NASCAR stars such as Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte will also occasionally race in the series, as well as Indy Car “It Girl” Danica Patrick.


What Would Tom Cruise Think?
Recently in Irwindale, Calif., a driver by the name of Kenton Gray strapped himself into a late model car sponsored by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s bestseller, Dianetics. The hood of the car says Dianetics, and also features artwork similar to the book’s cover.

Supposedly it’s part of Scientology’s “Ignite Your Potential” campaign, and Gray is happy to spread the word.

“Dianetics is a book that helped me in many ways since I first read it many years ago,” Gray said in a statement released to the Associated Press. “It helped me get better control over the obstacles I had to get through to reach goals I was passionate about.”

Scientology has become a lightning rod in recent years, thanks to followers Tom Cruise and actors John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.

Morgan Shepherd, a Cup and Busch irregular, has competed the past few years in the Victory in Jesus Racing Ministries car. NASCAR had to approve the message of the car, which eventually featured the phrase “Racing With Jesus” on the hood.

“When you get into philosophies and morals, that’s a slippery slope,” NASCAR director of communications Jim Hunter told AP. “But we do understand that NASCAR has broad national appeal, and we reach millions of people every week. Not all of our fans agree with some sponsorships, but they do understand that it is imperative for our cars to have sponsors in order to succeed.

“Obviously, philosophically, everyone has different opinions.”

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