Recently at Connecticut's Lime Rock Park race track, a new racing series was born. You may believe we need another racing series like we need another "Rocky" movie and you may be right.
Except this is no ordinary series, and if you were on hand, or if you caught the series debut on ESPN 2, you know the truth. The North American Touring Car Championship --- disturbingly given the phonetic acronym "Nazi" by some members of the press -- started its season at the beginning of Spring on the Eastern Seaboard . And so far it looks as exciting as the European versions from which it took its cues.
The idea is simple: take the best four-door import and domestic sedans sold in the country, limit the engine displacement to two liters, allow a few select modifications -- such as 19-inch wheels and slick tires, sequential-shift racing transmissions and selected tweaks to the essentially stock blocks -- and send them around the country with Indy Car and SCCA championships.
The cars develop some 300 horsepower, which on a street car is nothing truly spectacular, except that they are small and light. Power to weight is incredible. And, apparently, they're a blast to drive.
"These cars are really a lot of fun to drive," veteran IndyCar driver and North American Touring Car Championship contender Dominic Dobson said. "IndyCars were a lot of fun to drive too. But not always. I remember times when driving an Indy Car was definitely not fun. But these things are really fun."
The formula in Europe for the European Touring Car, the British Touring Car, the German Touring Car and the Italian Touring Car Championships has been extremely successful. There, the racing has been tighter than even our NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Average races last a half an hour or so, with multiple lead changes and lots of bumping and passing. In Europe, there are always two races per event weekend and the North American Touring Championship is exactly the same. Two races and lots of bumping.
The first race at Lime rock had Dobson's teammate David Donohue (son of racing great Mark Donohue) win, while Dobson won the second race the next day; at Detroit, Dobson won the second race again and now leads the championship.
When I asked him about the depth of talent in the series he pointed out that more drivers are coming forward pretty quickly now, not just because the series look like a viable one, but because, like the various European touring car championships, this is a great place for old drivers to "retire."
In Europe, ex-Grand Prix favorite Alesandro Nannini has done well in the Italian Touring car Championship, Klaus Ludwig has been successful in Germany, ex-World Champion Alan Jones competed in Australia, and now, rumors suggest that Mario Andretti and Danny Sullivan may race here. His son Jeff has just joined the series.
Said Dobson,"That's one of the things that the IndyCar organizers like about this series. It could become a home for old Indy drivers who leave IndyCar but still want to race."
So far the series has not been given much play in the press -- not as much as it might. But, like NASCAR, it seems to be managed with the fans in mind. The drivers are accessible, the racing is tight, aggressive driving is the rule, and the cars look like they do on the showroom floors -- just that they're capable of going a heck of a lot faster.
Okay, so maybe we can use just one more racing series.