It's the main question sports car racing fans, team owners, manufacturers and sponsors have been asking since the new United SportsCar Racing series was announced last September: where will the USCR races be held?
Rather than continue to wait for that crucial piece of information to be released, RACER went on a fact-finding mission and, through a variety of trusted channels – who mainly spoke on condition that they weren't quoted! – and narrowed down next year's calendar.
Negotiations between the NASCAR-owned organization and approximately 20 North American tracks have taken place with varying degrees of interest and urgency, and with the series aiming for between 10 and 12 events on the 2014 schedule, the list of likely USCR hosts has been significantly reduced this week. Sanctioning agreements have been sent to the finalists, and while some of those offers could be rejected – especially with a reported 25 percent increase in sanction fees from 2013 to 2014 – a clear picture of where the unified ALMS/Grand-Am championship will be contested is starting to emerge.
To start, a few of the keystone events have been known for quite some time. The USCR series season-opener takes place on Jan. 25-26 at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The 12 Hours of Sebring is set for March 15, and the 10-hour/1000-mile Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta has been confirmed without a specific date. Those road racing tracks, all owned or leased by NASCAR, are expected to continue as the three endurance fixtures for the USCR.
Two additional trips to NASCAR-owned tracks, Watkins Glen and Kansas, would have a schedule that is stacked with in-house solutions, leaving a number of sports car sanctuaries to fight over the remaining five to seven dates. The Glen is said to be a guarantee, and the six-turn Kansas “roval” circuit, an undeniably odd addition to the 2013 Rolex Series schedule, continues to be mentioned as an event that carries the continued interest of the France family. Kansas, like Watkins Glen and the other properties within the International Speedway Corporation portfolio, falls under the purview of ISC CEO Lesa France Kennedy, who is credited with bringing the Rolex Series to the 2.6-mile Kansas circuit.
The Toyota Grand Prix at Long Beach has a history with the ALMS and Grand-Am on its storied street circuit, and one of two scenarios could take place during the mid-April date. Paddock space is the most serious limitation for the USCR, which is expected to have far more entries than real estate to house them within the SoCal circuit.
The concept of a GT-only race at Long Beach – one that utilizes just the GT Le Mans cars (a.k.a. ALMS GT), is the plan that has made the rounds for feedback, but a split Saturday/Sunday sports car presence, with GT LM one day, followed by a LMP2/Daytona Prototype race the next, is also said to be on the table. With the vital Los Angeles market desired by all the manufacturers involved in the USCR, at least one race will take place in support of the headlining IndyCar Series event.
A five-hour drive from Long Beach to race the following weekend in Monterey is also expected. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca currently hosts separate ALMS and Grand-Am rounds, and with Mazda holding interests in both series, the USCR is currently expected to make a single SoCal-to-NorCal swing through the West Coast during its inaugural season.
Grand-Am founder Jim France worked to bring the series to Indianapolis and also to Detroit, and both rounds are considered a lock for 2014.
Changes to the IMS event could be on the horizon as the series has been less than enthused about the compact nature of its single-day inclusion in the Brickyard 400 event, leading to speculation that a standalone event could host a USCR race with an all-inclusive roster of its support series.
Road America has expressed an interest in holding a combined IndyCar Series and USCR event next year, and while the open-wheel portion of such a weekend is by no means a guarantee, RACER is told sports cars will continue to race at the beloved Wisconsin road course.
Grand-Am was a featured event at the hugely impressive Circuit of The Americas facility earlier this year, and the USCR is said to be a top priority for COTA's 2014 calendar. Although the Rolex Series race in Austin struggled to fill the grandstands, a change to its date and presence as a solo attraction could be in the works.
The ALMS will debut at COTA in September this year as part of an FIA World Endurance Championship double-header, giving the track owners, USCR management and the FIA an option to return next year with a combined USCR/WEC weekend that would likely draw a more significant domestic and international crowd.
With 11 races mentioned so far, four more tracks are reportedly under consideration for the 12th event, provided it is approved. Lime Rock, which has been a sports car racing staple for decades, had offered to make numerous upgrades to its aging facility, but the Skip Barber-owned organization is said to be bracing itself for bad news. A standalone race for just the GT class from USCR has been mentioned as an option, and the possibility of hosting the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge as a headliner is also considered as a Plan B.
The Baltimore street race currently hosts a combo IndyCar/ALMS event and is sponsored by SRT, which competes with its factory Viper team in the soon-to-be USCR GT LM class. Promoted by Michael Andretti's Andretti Sports Marketing team, which has become a major player in race event management, Baltimore is said to be one of the stronger alternative candidates for inclusion by the USCR.
VIR is rumored to have an iron-clad contract with the ALMS for 2014, but the daunting track, which is located rather far from any major metros, has received minimal support for keeping its place on the schedule.
Mid-Ohio has been the site of countless sports car races over the years, and has a relationship with both series (although the ALMS was dropped for 2013). The track is perfect for the USCR and has a solid crowd that always turns up, but it has not been cited as a must-have event.
Canada's Mosport – Canadian Tires Motorsports Park, site of this weekend's ALMS race – would be a natural choice for a USCR round. With the Rolex Series' race at Montreal disappearing this year, the ALMS is the only major sports car series to race north of the border, but Mosport facility has rarely been mentioned in backroom conversations about the 2014 USCR calendar. Canada has always loved sports car racing; the question for 2014 is whether the USCR shares those feelings.
The one proviso to keep in mind is that other than the NASCAR-controlled USCR events, sanctioning agreements are still being reviewed and possibly revised. Based on the results of those negotiations, some of the surefire circuits could yet step away from the table, allowing others to fill the void. New contractual requirements for circuits to invest six-figure sums in promoting their USCR events has driven the price well beyond what it took to host an ALMS or Rolex Series event this year, and that hike, while seemingly in the best interest of growing the sport, could make a few tracks waver when time comes to sign off on their USCR deals.
It's hard to fault the USCR for wanting to lock its tracks into heavy promotional spending, but the simple truth is that in the current economic climate, such financial demands could also reduce the final number of events that are held.
On a related topic, representatives of several teams that will comprise the new-look USCR series have told this author that with the necessary additional costs to modify cars and equipment, it will be a struggle to find sufficient sponsorship to cover the costs of attending anything beyond 10 races in 2014. That's a further quandary for USCR management when setting the schedule.
The Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, which has often been Grand-Am's most popular product according to the Nielsen TV ratings, is said to be on tap for having up to 10 of its events run in conjunction with the USCR. As referenced with Lime Rock, the tin-top series is being viewed as a stop-gap option that could be used as a marquee attraction for a handful of tracks that do not come away with USCR agreements.
So, while it's too early to begin booking one's travel to USCR races, the list below is as close to accurate as possible while contract reviews and discussions are taking place. RACER will provide updates as and when any substantive changes come to light. In the meantime, this is how things stand:
NASCAR/ISC events that are going to happen:
1: Daytona, Rolex 24
NASCAR/ISC event also said to be happening:
2: Sebring, 12 Hour
3: Watkins Glen
4: Road Atlanta (Petit Le Mans)
Non-NASCAR/ISC events that are very likely to happen:
6: Long Beach
7: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
9: IMS road course
10: Road America
11: Circuit of The Americas
Might happen if a 12th race is added, or if other tracks drop out:
13: Lime Rock