Ever noticed how long it takes you to realize that something is missing, as opposed to how long it takes you to realize the presence of something new? There’s a real difference in the way our brains process those two different situations, mostly because our eyes aren’t nearly as good as we think they are and the brain spends a lot of time filling in our visual picture based on spotty information. For a good illustration of this, think back to the last time you thought you saw a certain kind of car in the distance, only to realize that it was a completely different model a few moments later. In the instant of your realization, you might have seen everything from the taillights to the roofline change right before your eyes. That’s not an illusion—that’s your brain painting in what it expects to see from the newly identified vehicle.
I mention this so I don’t sound quite as stupid for walking up and down the paddock at last weekend’s Roar Before the 24 a full ten times before I realized what was missing: the ST-class touring-car racers. The moment I realized they were gone, it felt like a physical punch in the gut. I ran my first "pro" race a decade ago in the ST class of what was then called the Grand-Am Koni Challenge, which later became Continental Tire Challenge and is now called IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. Note that the only word to stick it out through all three iterations is "Challenge." That’s because it can be a real challenge for the "spanks" to pay their bills.
I was a "spank" in Koni Challenge, you see. It’s possible you’ve never heard that phrase, because the oh-so-polished announcer crews for IMSA and other forms of racing like to use the phrase "gentleman driver." Within the paddock, however, the term is "spanks," in contrast with the pros who are paid to race. Well, sometimes they’re paid to race. More often than you’d suspect, they are not paid anything beyond expenses, if anything at all.
Not all spanks are created equal. In my case, I had a credit balance with the parent company of the race team, so I didn’t actually pay anything—I just agreed to cancel the debt I was owed. Other spanks simply pay a fee roughly equal to their percentage of the team’s operating costs. Then you have the "super-spanks" who pay their bill all of the expenses of their teammate, a salary for that teammate. The sports-car racing business absolutely, positively runs on spanks.
Spanks are everywhere in American "pro" racing. Some of the names that you hear repeated over and over again as series champions, even in prototypes? They’re spanks. The showoff in your PCA chapter with the Rolex watch? Spank. The suspiciously omnipresent young "star racers" who appear on everybody’s YouTube channel and straight-to-cancellation Top Gear ripoffs? Total, complete, utter, check-writing, Paypal-sending spanks. That's not to say being a spank makes you un-talented or precludes your chance of success. Everybody knows that Lance Stroll, the Williams F1 driver, is a spank—but did you know that Eddie Jordan brought Michael Schumacher on board early in his career because he came with significant third-party funding?
There’s no shame in the spank game. We are everywhere. We win races, we set lap records, we take home championships. Sometimes we beat the data of our "pro" teammates. Or we get in a first-place GS-class Continental Tire Challenge car halfway through a race, bring it home in 13th place at the end after thoroughly and completely embarrassing ourselves for 90 minutes, then accuse the pro of sabotaging the brakes during the pitstop. True story.
The most important thing for you to understand about spanks is that we are customers. Which means that we want to get the most for our money. Virtually nobody will pay to drive around in a last-place car. Virtually nobody will pay to drive a car that turns wicked lap times in the hands of a pro with a thousand hours behind its wheel, but which humiliates and embarrasses spanks who often get just a single 20-minute practice session before each race.
Worse than all of that, however—worse than the slow cars, the dangerous cars, the scary cars, and the cars that give us a painful shock when we plug our helmet cords into the ungrounded radio—is the car that breaks. Being a spank can cost real money—we're talking between $35,000 and $75,000 a weekend for driver fees in the GS class of the Michelin Pilot Challenge. Add in flights, hotels, meals, family travel, and motorcoach expenses—and, more often than not, a $4200 custom OMP suit with all the logos and a $2000 carbon-fiber helmet. Imagine spending all of that, only to find out that the car suffered a major failure during Friday practice, or burned up its wiring harness in qualifying. That spank will be angry.
Teams that can’t field both of their cars all the way through every pro-racing weekend usually close up shop in a big hurry. This isn’t bargain-basement endurance racing, where fixing the thing is part of the fun. This is a situation where an investment banker or surgeon shows up with an entourage of ten people to watch him play Steve McQueen at LeMans, at a total cost often exceeding $100,000. When everybody shows up and there's nothing to watch? That's the fertile soil in which breach-of-control lawsuits grow and flourish.
The obvious solution to these problems? Build, and race, a reliable car. Which was no trouble in 1995, but today’s street cars are extremely difficult to successfully prep and run. Consider my 2013 Accord, which I ran in World Challenge last year and might run in SRO TC America this year. It was converted inside a Honda factory by Honda employees who had access to every single bit of information ever created during the car’s conception and design—but the dashboard still looks like a Christmas tree and it will occasionally just turn off and require a full reboot, like a Windows 95 computer. And that’s a $31,000 family car. How much tougher is it to build a racer out of a $250,000 exotic?
While the spanks and their teams have been wrestling with cars that turn off for no reason and lose their ABS in the middle of wet races, the sanctioning bodies have been contemplating a different issue: how to equalize, regulate, and penalize cars that are built one at a time in small shops across the country. As counterintuitive as this sounds, the various pro series don’t really have a lot of time to scrutinize each competitor every single weekend. It’s not like they use a NASCAR template on my Honda. I could have built the whole thing in 13/14ths scale and they’d probably never catch me. Something needed to change.
Which is how I found myself standing in the paddock at the Roar, mourning the recently-deceased ST class of converted street cars. It’s been replaced by TCR, which is a fully-homologated class of factory-built race cars designed to resemble each other more than they resemble the street cars on which they're nominally based. At the same time, the cars in the GS class, which used to a be a strange brew of factory racers like the Ford FR500 and home-builds from established race shops, now draws exclusively from factory-built FIA GT4-class racers assembled by McLaren, Audi, Ford and other major players.
If you go to an IMSA race this year, you won’t find any converted street cars. If you attend one of the SRO races, like the Blancpain GT series, you’ll note that pretty much every racer in the paddock is campaigning a factory-built car. There’s a reason for this: nearly everybody loves this new system. The factories like selling the cars, the teams love the reduced maintenance, and the pros like the relatively benign nature of customer-focused equipment like the Mustang GT4 and McLaren 570GT4.
Most importantly, the spanks love it. They love knowing that they are going to get solid value for their money. They love knowing that they have a fighting chance against the rest of the field, since the cars in each class are equalized at the factory. And they love the fact that they will probably never spend a weekend staring at the backs of their hands because some hand-fabricated motor mount exploded and the tech who built it quit the team six months ago.
I can’t argue with any of the above. And I can attest that it’s virtually impossible for a one-off converted street car like my Honda to compete on equal terms with factory-built racers like the ones made by BMW or Porsche. But I think we will all be worse off when the last home-brew racer disappears from professional competition. It will mark yet another progression in our despicable cultural slouch from "do-it-yourself" to "one-click shopping." Tomorrow’s race mechanics, like today’s dealership mechanics, will largely focus on reading a diagnostic screen and swapping some parts. When the TC America class closes up shop in 2021, it will mark the end of shop-built or home-built pro racing in the United States. Trust me, and your brain, on this one: you might not notice right away, but you’ll eventually miss it when it’s gone.