Last week's announcement of the intention to create a North American DTM championship by Grand-Am and ITR (organizers of the DTM series) was met with both optimism and skepticism. It felt more like an engagement party than a wedding announcement which left industry insiders, fans and sports car entrants holding more questions than answers.
Most people have expressed enthusiasm for the cool but costly silhouette series, but how it would fit into the new United SportsCar Racing championship that launches next January? How many auto manufacturers are ready to step up and commit? And will the series ever come to fruition?
With the help of Grand-Am CEO Ed Bennett, a number of marques and a bit of our own analysis, here's RACER's tour through the many topics swirling around the announcement.
The DTM/ITR announcement has drawn the ire of many for what's perceived as an unnecessary distraction with unification between the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am right around the corner. In reality, Grand-Am has been trying to bring a domestic DTM championship to life for far longer than any of its other initiatives.
Looking at the timeline behind the Grand-Am and DTM discussions, it dates back to 2010 and came from a period where the Rolex Series produced great racing – it always has great racing – but its cars and overall product were less than captivating.
The wide greenhouses on the second-generation Daytona Prototypes kept waves of sports car fans at bay, and in recognizing the need for a boost in interest and energy, Grand-Am's leadership looked east for a solution that would amplify its events without having to revamp the Rolex Series. It also saw the potential to bring more manufacturers into its fold.
WHY THE DTM?
One of the running questions has centered on the somewhat odd desire by Grand-Am to bring a niche European road racing series to the USA as an addition to its endurance racing properties.
It would certainly add an element of intrigue to the Rolex Series, but with its limited reach, a DTM race packaged into DP/GT weekends wouldn't do much to budge the needle on ticket sales.
To be fair, Grand-Am already has a strong lineup during its events – especially when the Continental Tire Series opens and the Rolex Series closes, and adding the DTM to the schedule wouldn't hurt. Its sprint race format would be a nice change to the endurance races, and offers the kind of immediacy to its schedule that nearly three hours of Rolex Series racing simply cannot match.
NEW MODELS, NEW DOLLARS
An American DTM championship also offers Grand-Am the possibility of engaging new and existing Rolex Series manufacturers at a much higher financial level. The DTM is wickedly expensive and thrives on manufacturer dollars. At present, Grand-Am is loaded with manufacturer involvement, but the financial returns are limited due to the independent nature of how teams and manufacturers operate.
It would be easy and predictable to blame Grand-Am and its parent company NASCAR for simply going after big dollars through creating its own DTM championship, but it's just smart business on their part.
The Rolex DP rules prohibit serious manufacturer involvements like the eight-figure Audi and Toyota factory programs in the FIA WEC series, and in Rolex GT, there's light manufacturer involvement and more will be coming when the united series kicks off, but even those budgets from Corvette Racing and BMW pale in comparison to what a season of DTM racing costs.
Plus, the majority of those dollars go into their respective teams, with a small percentage increasing the bottom line of the sanctioning body.
GLOBALIZATION IS IMPORTANT…AND PROFITABLE
Of the lone wolf championships and sanctioning bodies throughout the world, three big names come to mind and they just happen to be the ones trying to globalize the DTM. And why does the ITR want to see DTM series on as many continents as possible? Control and cash.
ITR, with its new just-order-it-from-the-catalog DTM formula, has become a bit of a powerhouse in recent years. Japan's Super GT series signed on to adopt the new DTM regulations for its top-tier GT500 class starting in 2014 and NASCAR, possibly the most self-contained racing organization on the planet, has targeted 2015 for an eight-race American DTM championship.
Put the three together, and any manufacturer that aligns itself with the 2014 DTM regulations can compete in European, Asian and North American markets with a single model. For the ITR, its desire to expand its product to new regions comes with the blessing of the FIA, and also comes with the potential for significant income generation. There are plenty of major racing series that race internationally, but at present, the ITR is the only one following the Starbucks model by trying to setup international franchises.
Think of it as bringing a European Trans-Am series to America, minus the tubeframe-and-V8 simplicity that made Trans-Am so popular here for so long.
The DTM has always been driven by manufacturer participation and funding. For where it's at today, it's the sole domain of manufacturers, with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz bringing the championship to life. Without their checkbooks, the series collapses.
With a recent move to use as many spec components as possible, the three German marques essentially buy all of the equipment, pay to have the non-spec items like engines and bodywork created and distributed, hire most of the teams, hire and place factory drivers within those teams and sponsor the cars and/or help with B2B arrangements. There are some privateers, and independent sponsors, but don't bother visiting Craigslist.de because access to cars and equipment only comes with factory approval.
It's counter to just about everything the Rolex Series is built upon. DP or GT teams purchase and run everything themselves, with the exception of leasing engines in the case of DP, and the majority of entrants are true independents.
Establishing an American DTM series under the European model – one where the factories call all the shots – might not be received favorably, but Ed Bennett says the American concept has yet to be finalized.
“The manufacturers, they make commitments on the front end so that you know that you can have a good proper grid of cars for each result, and not worry about that part,” he notes. “You could have works teams [but] I also think that the factories can have alliances with privateer individual teams and work out a relationship. It's kind of what they do in the DTM – they're not all factory teams, although each manufacturer makes a commitment to put x number of cars on the grid for every event. I think they have some works program teams and I think they have some teams where they're manufacturer backed, but yet operated by individuals.”
COSTS MORE THAN SPRINT CUP?
We've spoken a lot about costs in a general sense so far, and although Grand-Am does not have a fixed number in place to show prospective manufacturers and teams, if it's anything like what the DTM costs Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz incur each year, getting an American version of the series off the ground could be impossible.
My conversations with a few DTM insiders have put the annual outlay at 50 million euros (about $64m) or more per manufacturer. That's vastly more than any manufacturer spends in Sprint Cup...
Knowing the current financial landscape in America, and how tight sponsorship dollars and factory marketing budgets have become, Grand-Am would need to bring the buy-in costs down to a much more realistic level.
SO WHAT IS THAT LEVEL?
Would a new manufacturer be able to secure something in the $5-8 million range for an American DTM program that comes with a large viewing audience? Probably. Would those dollars become available if the series lived on cable TV – a place that already generates a reliable but modest Nielsen rating for endurance racing? Probably not.
Keep in mind that despite the silly costs the DTM is Germany's one and only major championship. It's their NASCAR, just like the V8 Supercars own the auto racing airwaves Australia. When they race, a significant portion of the country tunes in.
To get a Chevy, Dodge or Ford to enter a domestic DTM series, the price point has to match the value it would return. And it would almost have to be a bargain, frankly.
The only way I see the U.S. DTM championship coming to life is if the three German marques currently involved with the series push their American subsidiaries to fund the endeavor. With Audi of America, BMW of North America and Mercedes-Benz USA coming out of pocket, it has a chance.
WHO'S INTEREST, WHO'S COMMITTED?
Plenty are interested, but at the time of the announcement, there were no takers. Here's a sampling of manufacturer input over the past month on the proposed American DTM championship:
Jamie Allison, director, Ford North America Motorsports: “We're very familiar with this plan. So through our relationship with Grand-Am, we've already had the meetings with the DTM folks. But at the Ford Motor Company, we're focused on our current programs. It's really a declaration of intent. There's not a lot of specific details to provide specific comment on. Certainly, it's an exciting form of racing – the current brands that already race there, I think it's a natural opportunity for them to race there and expand beyond Europe. At this time, we feel production-based racing is a foundational criteria.”
Beth Paretta, director, SRT brand and motorsports marketing and operations, Chrysler Group: “There's some very interesting things about it – the fact that the specs should be the same across multiple markets. If you're looking at a global racing platform or something like that, there's a lot of good in there on paper. It's interesting to see that there's other manufacturers that are looking to get on board and that's wonderful. Like anything I think we'll keep an eye on it, and if there's anything that would be a suitable fit for a brand within our portfolio, then we would consider it. But I'm still in the information-gathering phase.”
Mark Kent, director, GM Racing: “I think at this point we're in the listen, learn and evaluate stage. We have had some very high level discussions with Grand-Am about DTM. It basically was them telling us what they were doing. What we basically told them was we constantly evaluate the competitive landscape for opportunities to showcase our products, and as soon as we learn more about the DTM series and the format and what the commitment is for the manufacturer and what opportunities it offers us to demonstrate our products, we'll take it under consideration for future participation. But, again, at this point, it's way too early for us to comment on any plans or commitments to participate.”
Roger Griffiths, technical director, Honda Performance Development: “There are the plans by Honda in the Super GT500 category, but nothing we have heard about in America. With our IndyCar engine program, sports car programs and other programs in the works, we have plenty to concern ourselves with already.”
John Doonan, motorsports manager, Mazda North America: “Competing in the new DTM series isn't likely for Mazda.”
Wolfgang Ullrich, director, Audi Sport: “I can just say that the American market is very important for Audi. The DTM is a high level touring car series that's been very successful in Europe at present. We have the intention to cooperate with other motorsport authorities internationally to find a way to run these cars based on this new technical rulebook in other countries as well.”
Jens Marquardt, director, BMW Motorsport: “Of course we remain interested in an internationalization of the DTM. We are involved in good discussions with all parties. However, we must all take it one step at a time. Then we can work together to draw up the next stage of the plan. In short: yes to internationalization – but not at any price.”
Toto Wolff, director, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport: “For Mercedes-Benz, the U.S. represents the biggest market area worldwide. We are particularly delighted about the long-term cooperation deal between DTM and Grand-Am/IMSA. Thanks to the technical basis agreed upon, we will be offered the opportunity to use our DTM cars to also demonstrate the competitiveness of our brand on U.S./North American racetracks, in the future.”
The lack of form commitments isn't a guarantee some of these manufacturers won't sign on for the 2015 season. Without the exact costs to forecast what a multi-year commitment would require, it would be foolish for any marque to cast their lot with the American DTM championship. Once Grand-Am has those figures to share and a suggested TV package to support the investment, there could be movement.
ROBBING PETER TO PAY PAUL?
The DTM hopes Allison, Paretta and Kent will bring America's Big 3 into the new U.S. series, but for that to happen, it would likely involve axing other racing programs to free up a budget to build and race DTM cars.
Using General Motors as an example, it's involved in everything from IndyCar to NASCAR to Grand-Am to ALMS to SCCA World Challenge to the NHRA. Where does the extra budget come from to race in the DTM? And what would it get from the DTM that its popular Corvette Racing ALMS/Le Mans program doesn't deliver? Or its curvy Corvette Daytona Prototypes? Or the rumbling Cadillacs in World Challenge GT?
I'm not saying a trip into the DTM hold no interest for GM, but if it's going to add a fourth sports car program to its plate, how could they justify the funds for something that costs more than its ALMS/DP/WCGT programs combined?
GM uses its Corvette Racing program and its IndyCar engine program for heavy tech transfer, so R&D dollars wouldn't be available for anything in the DTM. It uses marketing dollars for everything else, so without cutting a bunch of series to free up the budget, we're still left with a question of how money appears to green light a DTM effort from a giant like GM.
Without big ratings to show the bean counters, it's hard to see where new factory dollars emerge to support this series.
“We'd also have to look at what that means to our overall racing portfolio,” said Kent. “We can't be everything to everybody so we need to look at each one of our series and our involvement in those series and to figure out: is that the best place for that brand in which for us to participate?”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO USCR AND ITS TEAMS?
I've spoken with a few veteran sports car entrants about the American DTM announcement, and so far, the support for it has been limited. In a general sense, the feeling I've gotten has been one of teams wanting to see Grand-Am place its full focus on the USCR, and not a potential support series with no guarantee of ever happening.
“I have no idea what they're doing,” said one owner. “How does it fit into our lives here, and who benefits from it?”
In theory, the DTM project should not hinder any of the work or planning required to launch the USCR in 2014, but if we're going strictly by appearances, the 2015 DTM series does look like a distraction that's coming at exactly the wrong time.
There is, however, one point another owner made…in deference to the cash windfall that could come from the American DTM series.
“If I'm one of the teams chosen to run a factory program for a manufacturer, it's the best thing that's ever happened to me,” he said. “Ever.”
WHY NOT GLOBAL GT?
The FIA and the ACO have been busy for some time working on the creation of a new GT specification that, like the DTM, would apply globally.
A look through recent GT categories – GT1, GT2, GT3 and GT4, in particular – reveals a tangled mess, and with custom classes and rules like you'll find in Rolex GT, manufacturers have wasted an awful lot of money building GTs to fit the criteria of specific sports car fiefdoms.
That problem will soon be solved, giving production-based GT entrants some very encouraging news and opportunities. It means that if Corvette Racing builds its new C7.R to the global spec, it can be sold and raced almost anywhere. Same for Audi, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, Nissan, Porsche and the other marques who've been loyal to FIA/ACO-sanctioned series.
With competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans serving as the Holy Grail of promotional opportunities, and the longstanding desire for manufacturers to showcase their road cars in racing trim, the FIA/ACO could have the antidote to ITR's global expansion plans with the DTM.
WHY NOT PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE?
If we're talking about the need and demand for an excellent sprint race series, America already has one in the SCCA Pirelli World Challenge.
The production-based PWC has GT3-esque Audi R8s, Nissan GTRs and Cadillac CTS-V.Rs among its top-tier GT class and tiny Fiat Abarths and Mazda2s in its slowest class, and at its core, the 45-minute sprint races offer up the same kind of entertainment Grand-Am wants to create with its own DTM series at a fraction of the cost.
Depending on the car, a new team can purchase a turnkey GT machine and race it across the nine events for well under a million dollars. Every race is aired on the NBC Sports Network. It features standing starts, turbos, V8s and great mechanical diversity throughout the field.
Real cars, short, fiercely competitive races and a loyal fan base…I can't say if the American DTM series will materialize, but if I'm Grand-Am, partnering with the PWC starting in 2014 would be an incredibly smart move.
Look for any manufacturer agreements to include a healthy expenditure on television. If enough money can be generated to secure races on a network, there's no reason an American DTM series couldn't flourish. Other than NASCAR and occasionally IndyCar, live motor racing has become the domain of cable television, but as I mentioned, DTM manufacturers won't commit to spending tens of millions per year in exchange for a steady stream of 0.4 Nielsen ratings.
Despite the excellent set, broadcast team and overall production quality, Formula 1's move to NBCSN has yet to crack a 0.2. I'm sure that number will continue to increase as viewers learn to look for F1 on its new cable home, but if the world's most popular form of racing is only drawing a few hundred thousand viewers per race, where would the relatively unknown DTM fall on the awareness radar?
“America already has a silhouette series – NASCAR – and you'd be hard-pressed to come up with something new, a new silhouette series that's going to be any more popular than that,” said HPD's Griffiths. “You'd have to have the most amazing television package and be able to attract the biggest names in the sport to even hope to come close to what NASCAR delivers with that style of racing.”
SO THE AMERICAN DTM SERIES COULD CHANGE INDYCAR?
In a word, no.
My old pal and Racecar Engineering colleague Sam Collins wrote an op-ed piece last week that suggested the U.S. DTM series could impact the IndyCar Series. With new DTM engines of a similar size and power level coming for 2014, DTM and Super GT500 marques, according to Sam, might find more value by racing DTM cars in the States, and could even look to use their 2.0-liter turbos to race in IndyCar. Sam's longstanding distaste for Indy cars makes such hypothesis easy to pen, but it's attachment to reality is incredibly thin.
Three manufacturers have built engines for IndyCar's 2.2-liter turbo formula, and all have opted for V6s. Inline-4s, due to their lack of torsional rigidity as stressed chassis members, and need to produce more power per cylinder than a V6, were not adopted by Chevy, Honda or Lotus.
The DTM's 2.0-liter turbos are not being designed to carry chassis loads, making their use in an IndyCar pure fantasy.
WITH EVERYTHING WE'VE COVERED, WILL A US DTM SERIES HAPPEN?
I'll give you a firm maybe with a heaping ration of hope and dash of doubt.
Until Grand-Am produces the projected financials to participate in the series, it's hard to give a definitive answer. Based on what it costs the manufactures to run in the DTM right now, there's no way a U.S. series could be launched or sustained unless the costs were brought down to a sub-$10 million figure.
There's a big wild card, however, in what the three German manufacturers choose to do for 2015.
It looks like it would make zero financial sense, but if Audi, which continues to set sales records in North America, wanted to pony up the funds to put five or six cars on the grid, it's likely the other two brands would follow. Whether any of the Super GT500 manufacturers would want to spend money on racing those cars in America is another wildcard that could raise or ruin the series' chances.
The real concern is how to engage the Chevys, Chryslers and Fords – the ones that are already stretched thin financially, and in our conversations with their representatives, none were chomping at the bit to commit.
A U.S. DTM series sounds like a blast; I'd love to see it happen and hope that it does. If Grand-Am can work budgetary miracles and lock in a TV package that manufacturers will want to fund, its future begins to brighten.
If the dollars don't make sense or the TV package is less than stellar, American sports car fans will have the USCR and PWC to enjoy without interruption.
We'll see what materializes for 2015, but even if a domestic DTM series falls through, there's no reason to be concerned. Until it begins to look and feel like the ill-fated USF1 project, I'll keep an open mind and support Grand-Am's desire to try something that's a little bit adventurous and outside its character.