All in the Family

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

Growing up in Daytona Beach, the home of NASCAR, J. C. France was exposed to motorsports from the time he was born. The son of Jim France, the executive vice president and secretary of NASCAR, and grandson of NASCAR’s founder, “Big” Bill France, J.C. was able to get up close and personal with the sport’s greats at an early age.

It stands to reason he would want to become a driver himself. What may seem odd to those who don’t know him is that France chose to step outside the world of NASCAR to make a name for himself in racing.

“Obviously, my family has a lot of NASCAR and Winston Cup history,” says France. “But you have to figure I grew up in Daytona, and Daytona has a lot of racing history outside of NASCAR. I’d watch two stock car races a year there, but sports cars came through three times a year, and that’s what really interested me.”

France and teammate Hurley Haywood have been leading the points in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series, which will spend the remainder of the 2003 season traveling to the likes of New York, Virginia, Florida and Quebec. Last year France competed in the Grand-Am Cup Series but has thrived since moving up to Grand American’s premiere circuit. He and Haywood started out with a second place finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and they have won the last two events at Miami and Phoenix. France drives the Porsche FABCAR Daytona Prototype sponsored by Brumos Racing.

“When I was growing up, I idolized Hurley Haywood,” France says. “And now to be teammates with him is the thrill of a lifetime. My life-long goal was to race in the 24 Hours of Daytona, and now I’ve been able to do that. Hopefully, there’ll be better things to come.”
France, 38, began racing in junior high school, starting out with flat track motorcycles. He then moved on to motocross and eventually found a niche in karting. Last season he competed in the Skip Barber Racing Series Grand-Am Cup ST 1 Class, and he is now part of road racing’s big leagues.

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Driver J.C. France, grandson of the founder of NASCAR, found sports cars more interesting than stock cars when he was growing up in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Haywood, a road racing legend who has won both the 24 Hours of LeMans as well as the 24 Hours of Daytona, says road racing events can be hard work, especially at venues with as many as 16 turns.

“It’s very busy,” Haywood says before a recent race on a tough ciruit. “It’s going to be a real battle out there. It’s also going to be physically pretty difficult because you don’t get any rest on this racetrack.You’re always shifting. You’re shifting six gears up and down all the time. It’s going to be a rough one, but the track is great, so it’s also going to be a lot of fun.”

The construction of Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., is another example of Grand American’s long-term commitment to grow into a major motor sport. Jim France is part owner of the circuit and is modeling Grand American after NASCAR.

“The way NASCAR was conceived and grew is a proven formula, so Dad and the people involved in Grand American are on the right track,” J.C. France says. “I think if people will come out and watch us they’ll see that we put on a pretty good show. I think the main key is to build more prototypes and keep growing, and eventually more and more fans will come.”

New Stock Car Series

When it comes to stock car racing, NASCAR is the 600-pound gorilla. Now a billion-dollar industry, the sport of speed with Southern roots has become the most popular form of motorsports in the United States, and its potential for growth seems almost limitless. While Winston Cup provides the highest level of competition, the Busch and Craftsman Truck series have developed their own fanatical followings. The sanctioning body’s touring series are also moneymakers.

A new organization called TRAC is set to debut in 2004, featuring a stock car team concept. Already the circuit has signed a television deal with ESPN, although it has no teams, no drivers and no corporate sponsors – and the debut season is a mere seven months away. Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough is serving as TRAC spokesman, but to date he is one of the organization’s few “big name” members.

One new league that isn’t interested in taking on the big boys is the Stock Car Championship Series. The SCCS began in 2002 with a limited schedule, and there are only eight races on the slate this year. So far, the league is strictly an East Coast operation.

Still, organizers – and competitors – have high hopes that it can carve out its own niche.
“I think it’s a good series,” says Chris Mitchum, the 2002 SCCS champion. “Most of us guys came up racing ovals, but this series lets us race stock cars on road courses, which makes for a different kind of race.”

Organizers hope the SCCS can bring stock car and road racing fans together with something of a hybrid series. While the machines themselves are familiar to NASCAR supporters – Chevrolet Monte Carlos, Ford Tauruses, Dodge Intrepids and Pontiac Grand Prixs – the starting grid usually consists of approximately 15 cars, and qualifying races are held, mimicking the time trial method used in Europe.

“We raced some ovals in 2002, but this year we went strictly to the road courses,” Mitchum says. “Last year we went to Atlanta and Charlotte for regular oval racing, but this year the series swapped those places with places like Barber’s and Watkins Glen.”

For the most part, races last an hour or less and actually have a time limit. “You don’t just turn left, you also turn right, and you end up having as many as 15 or 16 turns to deal with.
“I think it puts the race more in the hands of the driver than the equipment, and that’s what I like about the series.”

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