One of the most interesting choices made by the new United SportsCar Racing series could have a bit of clarity coming for those wanting to know which drivers will be allowed to race in specific USCR classes.
The ACO's driver rating system, one that classifies driver eligibility based on age and experience, is used to filter drivers in and out of certain classes by assigning either Platinum, Gold, Silver or Bronze status. Through its IMSA sanctioning arm, the American Le Mans Series applied the ratings system to its drivers soon after it was announced, and with the ALMS paddock and Rolex Series paddocks set to combine next year under the USCR banner, Grand-Am drivers will now undergo the same rating process.
Once the Rolex Series drivers are given their Bronze/Silver/Gold/Platinum designation, a clearer picture should emerge on where they can compete starting next January at Daytona. The responsibility for assigning those ratings has fallen to one person, USCR competition and technical regulation VP Scot Elkins, and with the system having come under fire for some of the choices that have been made in the ALMS, Elkins told RACER he will widen the review and designation process with a ratings panel he's currently forming.
“We're going to increase our abilities in a better way next year,” he said. “Up until now, on the IMSA side, I've been doing the ratings myself because I wanted the responsibility, I didn't want to have a problem. We're going to create a driver rating committee that is going to involve guys that aren't necessarily from IMSA to try to get some feedback. And it's one of those deals where, for example if we have five guys on the panel, three guys think a driver's a Gold, two guys think he's a Silver, we have a majority and we can work through that and create that process.”
In IMSA, Elkins has been met with requests from professional drivers – those with Gold or Platinum ratings, to be downgraded to open up eligibility and income opportunities in classes where non-pros are required, and the same attempts to game the system will surely continue as the ratings process is carried out with the USCR. By using a panel, he hopes to use multiple viewpoints to arrive at the right decision for all of his drivers.
“For me, I think it needs to be an interesting mix of folks: me, the race director, maybe somebody that works in journalism, maybe a driver himself; we're still refining it,” he continued. “But it's something that we need to work through that will help us get a broader scope of how we apply those ratings. And I think that's a better approach than we had before. Selfishly for me, the IMSA model was – call it whatever you want – it made more sense for me to be the guy responsible.”
Grasping the USCR driver ratings vs. class eligibility matrix is among the more mundane aspects involved with the new series, but its continued use will have a direct influence on the employment opportunities for a number of drivers in the paddock.
Teams competing in the Prototype class (P2 and DP) and GT Le Mans (ALMS GT) are free to hire drivers with any designation – a change from the current P2 regulations that require a Silver (non-pro) driver or lower to be in the lineup.
For the P2 Prototype entrants, this should come as a welcome development, giving them the freedom to have an all-pro driver roster. But for some of those Silver-rated drivers who found employment in the P2 class through 2013, their days could be numbered as most prototype teams with the means to hire drivers will seek faster options.
Teams in GT Daytona (Rolex GT) will be required to go in the opposite direction, moving from zero restrictions on driver lineup to the mandatory use of only one Gold or Platinum pilot – effectively limiting each GTD team to one pro.
Although some GTD teams currently use a pro/am driver pairing, teams with two pros would be faced with releasing one driver and find a Bronze- or Silver-rated driver to continue.
The PC class (LMPC) will maintain the same pro/am driver requirement it currently uses, but for the enterprising pros, and in looking at the situation as a whole, being classified as a Silver-rated driver is clearly the way to go as it opens the door to racing in every USCR category.
The “precious metal” rating system is vitally important to its European creators, but why bother using it for a domestic championship where many of the teams, cars and drivers have no association with the 24 Hours of Le Mans or other ACO/FIA events?
"Everybody has an opinion on it,” Elkins remarked. “And I said a number of times that the driver classifications is one of the hardest things I've done in my motorsports career. Everybody comes up with an example of how it doesn't work, or a driver who isn't classified correctly in their opinion. But we're going to use it going forward because it's what the worldwide basis is.”
Rather than strictly adhere to the global standard, Elkins says he's entertaining the idea of applying USCR-specific ratings to suit the needs of the paddock.
“Any ALMS driver gets rated by us and that applies worldwide,” he explained. “Same way the other guys do. But we could look to make the ratings more class-specific depending on what our [USCR] drivers are looking to do. The good part is that the difference is we don't have to follow the gold, the metal system, at all.
“It's just the one we picked up because it, in conjunction with our partners at the ACO, it helps the FIA, and it just made sense for the time being. But I think there's the opportunity to make it better. That's what we always try to do. We're always trying to make things better.”
Elkins will start the classification process for Rolex Series drivers in the next week or so, and confirmed he will take the financial impact of how rating a driver Gold or above, or Silver or below, would have on the individual.
“That's the one thing I've always said,” he added. “I don't want to be the guy responsible for taking food off somebody's table. I don't want to be that guy. So I think by improving it we can do that. And it's only going to apply to certain classes. That's the thing. The class that it's going to apply to, typically, they're all set up as pro-am anyway. We just have to make sure the guys in a pro-am class have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field.”