“Welcome to the biggest and greatest sports car event in North America.” It was a moment that got a groan out of a couple of people in the grandstands and a snort from a lot of people on Twitter. The sun was beating down on an exhausted crowd as they waited for the World Endurance Championship race to start. It was hot, almost unbearably so, and so many of us were just waiting for the sun to go down. And yet, there was that statement. “Welcome to the biggest and greatest sports car event in North America.” Other races swiftly ran through my mind: the Rolex 24 Hours or the 12 Hours of Sebring, to name just a couple. But here we were, at the Circuit of the Americas just outside of Austin, TX, and had just been told that the Lone Star Le Mans outshines any other sports car race in North America.
To be fair, Lone Star Le Mans does host two of the world’s premier sports car racing series: the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as a host of support races. It’s an incredible weekend that culminates in a day of superb racing; a weekend that adds up to nearly sixteen hours of racing. It was also the last weekend this would be the case, and I wonder if, next year, anyone will be claiming Lone Star Le Mans or the Six Hours of COTA is the biggest and greatest sports car event in North America. I somehow doubt it.
I went into the COTA weekend with the knowledge it would be the last year for IMSA and WEC to come together to put on an amazing show for sports car racing fans and local residents who decided to brave the heat to see some incredible machinery. It was my second year at Lone Star Le Mans, and after discovering I had somehow managed to forget how hot it gets in Austin, I was thrilled to see the WEC cars up close and to return to the familiarity of the IMSA paddock. My intention was to write about the differences and similarities of the series, commemorating what ended up being a failed attempt at bringing these two series together.
Instead, by Saturday I had decided to go a different route. I wanted to experience the two series separately, similar to how we’ll be experiencing them next year. I wanted to take off my IMSA hat during WEC activities and forget about WEC during IMSA activities. In the end, I think I was trying to make up my mind about coming back to the mouth of hell (assuming the mouth of hell is hot) for next year’s WEC race. It ended up being a comparison of the two series.
A couple of things before I really get into my comparison, though. For one, Circuit of the Americas really stepped up their game this year. Last year was unbearably hot and there wasn’t a drop of water or bit of food to be found in the paddock. This made every hike over to concessions really rough, and you had to be careful to time your water consumption perfectly. This year, there was a great taco truck in the IMSA paddocks (some of the best chicken tacos I’ve ever had) and water everywhere. They had cisterns set up in various points with cool water, so that you could refill your water bottles, and the concessions were varied and pretty incredible. For the food truck capital of North America, they decided to really step it up this year. While the circuit has a lot to improve on (better signage in terms of shuttle service as well as either misters or more shade in the grandstands), they really impressed me with what was changed from last year.
Second, I think American racing fans are very different from European racing fans. We were not raised on a steady diet of F1 and sports car racing, and thus we view the sport a little differently. This is pretty obvious in what we expect from racing events. In Europe, accessibility is limited, and you’re lucky if you get a paddock pass, much less a pass onto a pre-grid or pit walk. In North America, sports car racing fans are used to being able to walk up to their favorite drivers and their cars, get pictures, have conversations, and overall really experience the race track. I’m not going to say either of these is wrong, but I will say that the best way to develop new fans is to really engage them. But I also don’t want to come across as the annoying, entitled American here.
Third, a huge thank you to everyone at IMSA, WEC, and COTA for making this event so absolutely fantastic and memorable. We had a great time, and if it weren’t for the heat, I probably would be declaring this one of the best races of the season.
Thanks to @IMSA for being, hands down, the most fan friendly racing series out there. It's impossible to have a bad experience at a race.
— Katie Mech (@YourRacingBelle) September 18, 2016
Anyway, I was asked by a fan at COTA which racing series was my favorite. This made me pause because that’s like choosing my favorite child (or at least I assume so), but my answer actually came out pretty easily, “For the racing, it’s WEC. For the experience, it’s IMSA.” And if nothing else, that statement sums up exactly how the weekend went. I truly think WEC has some of the best racing on the planet, and very rarely does that racing disappoint. The cars are incredible, the drivers legendary, and the racing itself will always leave you breathless. But, when you spend money to come to a race, great racing can’t the one thing that justifies the expense. After all, the race itself is such a small portion of a three day weekend.
I’ve said it before that IMSA is worth every penny. The fan experience is amazing and there is always something going on, even when the cars aren’t on track. I love watching kids walk up to the cars, their eyes wide and their mouths hanging open, and I love it even more when a driver comes up to talk to them. In that instant, a fan for life has been created, and they’ll never forget it. One of my favorite moments was right before the IMSA grid walk, just before the race, when a little boy clapped his hands excitedly every time a car came roaring past to take their place on the grid. He was so excited, you could see it in his eyes, and when his dad told him they were going to go look at the cars, his little squeal was just about the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. I like to imagine the grid walk was the highlight of his day, and I hope he enjoyed looking at all the cars.
And that’s not the only chance he would have gotten to see his favorite cars. IMSA has a completely open paddock, where you can walk up and down from rig to rig to see the crews working on the cars, to watch the cars be rolled out to tech, or to just see the car in all of its gross post-race glory. If you don’t get to see a driver in an open paddock or grid walk situation, then there’s the autograph session. There are constant opportunities to really experience the racing world, and I think that helps to create fans. Not just create fans out of the young kids whose parents have brought them, but also of the curious local resident who had nothing better to do on a Saturday. I am fully convinced that IMSA doesn’t just want to keep the current fans happy, they also want to continue the elusive search for the likely racing fan.
WEC, quite simply, isn’t like that. Going from the IMSA paddock to the WEC paddock is a bit of a culture shock. As one fan put it, “The most accessible place in this paddock is the Patron tent.” I do want to say that this may change with a WEC-only race next September, but this is how it is now. In Europe, there are several pit walks during a race weekend that allow you to walk up and down pit lane in order to see your favorite cars up close. While this is nothing like the open paddock of the IMSA series, it is a nice way to see these incredible cars. In Europe, the autograph sessions are set up in front of garages, drivers at tables, ready to sign and take pictures. While it isn’t the access we may be used to here, it is decent access. When WEC comes to COTA, that doesn’t happen. The one pit walk was scheduled was then changed so that you were on pit road, trying desperately to take pictures around IMSA pit stalls of cars that were hidden in shadows. The autograph session was on the front straight, behind barriers. The drivers walked on the other side of these barriers, quickly signing autographs and moving on. If you weren’t along the barrier, you weren’t getting your autograph, much less meeting your favorite drivers. Instead of being interested in devleoping new fans, WEC almost seems concerned with just keeping the ones they already have, purely by the racing itself.
I think WEC, as well as most European series, view racing very differently than a lot of American racing fans. There’s something mysterious and heroic about the cars and their drivers, something out of touch. We see it a lot in F1, that same sort of pedestal to which fans can never get close. Drivers aren’t expected to be overly friendly with fans (though I do have to say if you did get a chance to catch a WEC driver, they were extremely friendly), because they’re supposed to be superheroes. The cars don’t need to be seen, except for on track, because they are the Batmobile, mysterious and epic. In North America, the drivers are so eager to get out there and talk to fans. You can get to know them and their crews. They start to recognize the people who are around a lot, the people who cheer for them, and that develops a camaraderie that adds to the experience. In the quiet moments, when there isn’t action on track, you can still be learning about the sport, still be living vicariously through those who work in it.
Again, I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong. I do find, invariably, that when a European fan comes to an American race, they are almost always astonished by the level of accessibility and tend to actually enjoy it a lot more. But maybe I’m coming off as the entitled American here. Maybe I should just enjoy coming to race weekends because of the race itself. People go to football games for the football, right? Sure. But race weekends are several days long. There should be an experience to it. I love meeting up with my racing friends, and I do go to races with my best friend, but I also sometimes go by myself. When that happens, I have to depend on my surroundings for a great experience. I can’t imagine going to a race by myself where I can’t watch the cars being worked on or where I may not get to talk to my favorite drivers, if even for a second. I’m not sure how much I can walk around a track, waiting for a race, in three days.
This may be different in other places, maybe WEC provides a fantastic fan experience elsewhere, but when I think about next year, when IMSA goes to COTA in May and WEC returns in September, I have to consider which race I would rather attend. WEC has fantastic racing that never disappoints, but right now, IMSA provides the kind of experience I really believe will make new fans. It’s hot in September in Austin, and you have to give a reason for people to stick around in that heat. Will there be support races? If not, how do you keep fans engaged? Is there a solid value in putting fans behind garages they can’t look into, where they might possibly run into a favorite driver? I saw how the lack of accessibility played out with fans when, after the IMSA race, I heard several people ask, “Which one is World Endurance Championship? Where are they?” These were people who were cheering loudly each lap during the previous race, but they had no idea what the other headlining series entailed.
I’m a firm believer that racing has to be an all senses involved kind of experience. To further grow the sport, I really think series need to re-examine their offerings to the potential fans out there. Maybe in Europe and Asia, this isn’t a problem. But in North America, despite rising attendance numbers at races like Daytona and Sebring, we’re still trying to recover that love of this sport. And I think we can do it. I do think there is potential out there for more passionate racing fans. We just have to give them something other than a six hour race about which to be passionate.
So will Lone Star Le Mans change its name next year? Will someone still step forward and say it’s the greatest and biggest racing event in North America? With WEC and IMSA separated, I’m not sure anyone can claim that with a straight face. But it will be interesting to see how WEC provides that kind of epic experience to fans and curious locals alike.