Monday, January 10, 2011

Will SCCA Trans-Am Ever Return to its Former Glory?

John Marine | 1/10/2011 04:26:00 AM | |
BLOG NOTE: This blog post concerns SCCA Trans-Am Racing; NOT the Pontiac Firebird/Trans-Am. If you are looking for blog posts on the Pontiac Firebird/Trans-Am, this blog post is NOT about the Firebird/Trans-Am.

I first followed Trans-Am in 1999- WAY beyond the real "former glory" many people associate with the series that has been around since 1966. For starters, Trans-Am was a showcase of American muscle through road racing. It was one of few series that really lived up to "win on Sunday, sell on Monday." You probably wanted your own road-going version of the cars raced in this series whether you were into Trans-Am or even NASCAR. The real heyday of Trans-Am was in the 1960s and 1970s. I wished I have followed the history of Trans-Am much more to really know what I am talking about. But sadly, I got into Trans-Am in the late-1990s. I got into Trans-Am when some of the big names were Brian Simo and Paul Gentilozzi. I got into Trans-Am as the cars appeared more like NASCAR-type tube stock cars, but with functioning tail lights, and with some cars having either stock car-like lip spoilers or GT-style wings. As Trans-Am was starting to fade away in 2005 with a lack of participants, it was revived as the Muscle Milk SCCA Trans-Am Series in 2009. The deal is doing pretty nicely with a few seasons wrapped up since the revival. The real question now is- will Trans-Am return to its former glory? I'll offer my own ideas in this blog post.

--- Trans-Am... As I Got Into It ---
Here are some pictures of Trans-Am racing to set the mood.

vintage Trans-Am racing
^ from: - Old-school Trans-Am racing as most fans remember...

...and here is Trans-Am around the time I was introduced to it:

modern Trans-Am racing
^ from: (best I could find) - ...and Trans-Am as I was introduced to this series. This is Paul Gentilozzi in his black and blue Jaguar XKR leading the pack in this 2001 race.

It was about 1999. I was watching The Nashville Network (before it became "The National Network" and before it eventually became Spike TV). I wished I had Speedvision to see a majority of Trans-Am racing. I was looking for almost anything besides NASCAR on TV for my racing fix. One series that crossed my path was Trans-Am. While the Trans-Am cars appeared more like NASCAR stock cars, these Trans-Am cars road race. I LOVE watching Trans-Am! You got these wide-body racing machines with sweet-sounding engines roaring loudly on road courses and street courses. If there was something to really love about these cars, it was the fact that these machines, despite various aerodynamic tweaks, resemble their road-going counterparts than NASCAR does by leaps and bounds. You can take a look at any Trans-Am car and not have to try too hard to envision its road-going counterpart.

The fact that I like to think of these cars as GT1-style cars made me appreciate them even more. In fact, anything even resembling sportscar racing or sportscar racing machines would be cars and racing series I would latch onto. One time, I remember when Cinjo Racing campaigned a Dodge Viper in Trans-Am raced by Tommy Archer. This was the series that introduced me to a number of drivers. I was introduced to names like the following: Brian Simo, Lou Gigliotti, Paul Fix, Tony Ave, and Tomy Drissi, among many others.

Maybe the moment I remember best was in 2001 at Road America. The race was coming to an end as heavy rain was pouring. Next thing you know it- over 12 cars spin out in multiple parts of the track and off the track as the rain came down! The race was obviously red flagged afterwards.

--- Trans-Am... By Cars ---
Let's talk about the cars now.

With its roots on grassroots racing, the more modern Trans-Am cars were much more unlike their road-going counterparts. These are tubeframe racing cars which, unlike NASCAR, are not based on templates and much more closely resemble their road-going cars than a NASCAR stock car. I will show you an example of a modern Trans-Am car and talk about some of the things that make up a modern Trans-Am race car:

modern Trans-Am race car
^ from: - Jaguar XKR Trans-Am Race Car. This specific car is the car raced by Rocketsports. I will use this picture of this car to talk about what is different about today's Trans-Am cars compared to Trans-Am cars of the past.

This is the Rocketsports Jaguar XKR in the mid-2000s. Trans-Am cars are modified for downforce, though not as extremely modified for downforce like in DTM. The Jaguar XKR (at the time) can easily be made out based on the car's overall appearance. While the cars have headlights, they are decal headlights. They do, however, have functional brake lights. You climb into these cars as you would a stock car. So no functioning doors on these cars. When I got into Trans-Am in 1999, some cars had NASCAR-like lip spoilers while some had GT-style wings. This car above obviously has a GT wing to it. Another difference between these cars and stock cars- REAL side-view mirrors. Here was one thing I didn't know about Trans-Am cars- they weigh about 2700 lbs. compared to the 3400 lb. NASCAR stock cars. Of course, Trans-Am is all about road racing.

I remember in 2002 when a Jaguar XKR Trans-Am race car had functional lights fitted on it for it to go racing around Daytona. The #3 Rocketsports Jaguar XKR featured the tandem of Paul Gentilozzi, Scott Pruett, Michael Lauer, and Brian Simo. The car finished 5th overall and 1st in GTS. Of course, this was the final year of traditional sportscar racing around Daytona until the Daytona Prototypes help form this track in recent times.

Did Non-American or Non-Muscle Cars Spell the End for Trans-Am?

It was mostly muscle cars that really gave the series its personality back then. Flash forward to 1999 or so, and look at some of the cars that were campaigned:

* Pontiac Grand Prix (yes- there was one that raced in Trans-Am in 1999 or so!)
* Dodge Viper

Panoz Esperante Trans-Am
^ from: - Panoz Esperante Trans-Am car in 2001.

Qvale Mangusta Trans-Am
^ from: - Qvale (formerly De Tomaso) Mangusta.

But even before then, there have been makes like Nissan and Audi that have competed in this series in Trans-Am's history.

Would Today's Modern Retro be Great for Trans-Am?

Are you kidding me? Absolutely! You're talking about some modern muscle cars that would look great as modern Trans-Am race cars. Think about cars like the latest Camaro and the reborn Challenger- two modern muscle cars that just ooze cool. You can even go with the latest Ford Mustang and make that into a Trans-Am car. Even back in 1999, a Pontiac Grand Prix was campaigned to race in this series, though the Grand Prix is either FWD or 4WD.

What Would be Great to See as Trans-Am Race Cars?

In today's Trans-Am, though, one of the most unique entries is a three-rotor Mazda RX-7 raced by Glen Jung. A company has to be intrigued enough to race in such series in order to field entries. What makes most racing series unique is some of the unique cars you see. So what if a few different car companies want to field some cars into Trans-Am? This is a dream list for me:

* Cadillac CTS
Imagine Caddy fielding its own Trans-Am car with their CTS.

* Nissan 370Z
Nissan raced in Trans-Am before, so imagine a Trans-Am version of this car.

* Infiniti G37 Coupe
I could see the G37 coupe as a Trans-Am racing machine. If a 370Z doesn't seem like a good car, maybe the G37 coupe could take its place.

* [the 2nd Generation] Volvo S60 or Volvo S70
The new Volvo S60 is a hot-looking car. Though it's a sedan, it would be a pretty cool car to see get some Trans-Am treatment if someone was willing to make a Trans-Am racing car out of it. The Volvo S70 may be a better alternative as far as coupes are concerned.

* Hyundai Genesis Coupe
Don't fancy Japanese muscle? How about some Korean muscle? A Genesis in the field would be interesting to see race in Trans-Am if there was ever a Trans-Am racing variant of this car.

These are only a few cars to truly represent what cars would be interesting to see race in Trans-Am. After all, anything is possible even if an FD Mazda can share the same grid with Corvettes and Jaguars!

Make sure you are reading the full blog post. I am trying to improve the performance of my blog by featuring a Jump Break. Read on after the break to see more of what I have to offer for you if you are not reading the full blog post. Or of course, disregard this paragraph if you are reading the full blog post.

--- Trans-Am... in Videos ---
I looked around on YouTube to give you an idea of classic Trans-Am vs. more modern Trans-Am racing. If you want to view these videos, you are free to. I put these videos in just for you for educational purposes. So here are some videos I've found to showcase Trans-Am from how most people remember the glory days, and then for more modern types like myself.

This first video features the 1969 Trans-Am season with a race at Donnybrooke Speedway. Look at all the beautiful cars in this video, including one of my all-time favorite race cars, the Sunoco Camaro:

Trans-Am Races: 1980s.

Let's pay a visit to the '80s now. This was a race in 1987 (I was four years old when this race occurred). A big difference in car styles and names have occurred between the previous video in 1969 compared to this 1987 race. In fact, sixteen years have passed. The cars are more like NASCAR stock cars. But rather than cars based on economy cars, these are based on sports cars. This was a race aired on USA Sports (WARNING: Only audible on the right-side speaker):

And yes- Dave Despain, Bob Varsha, and David Hobbs lend their voices to this race... and all sound the same then as they do now!

Trans-Am: 1990s to mid-2000s.

This video gives you a peek of Trans-Am cars in 1992. The cars were styled a lot more like stock cars while still being bold and brawny in design. The cars all nicely resemble their road-going cars at the time. For example, take note of the Camaros. The Camaros look very much like cars you'd see on the road at the time of this race.

I tried to find videos of Trans-Am between 1999 and the mid-2000s, but I was unable to find any for you. I deeply apologize. This was the time I got into Trans-Am. And so unfortunately, there are no videos to show you regarding Trans-Am racing in this key time for me as a racing fan. It represents a key period in the evolution the cars and in new cars that I wanted to express in the video.

Trans-Am: Today's Trans-Am.

And now... Trans-Am since the 2009 season. This is a look at what Trans-Am is like today. Take a look at the evolution of the Trans-Am cars by watching this video. I wanted to find something along the lines of TV coverage, but this is the best I could find in terms of showing you cars and some of the different names. This was at Watkins Glen in a video uploaded in 2009:

Trick GT wings, even more aerodynamic bodies, and many more makes and cars represent today's Trans-Am. With no muscle cars or pony or anything, the focus went more towards sports cars. Many of these cars are mostly carry-over cars from the early 2000s in Trans-Am. The cars still sound absolutely sweet. As far as car sounds are concerned, Trans-Am race cars sound every bit as glorious as an Australian V8 Supercar. There is even a sweet engine roar for Mazda fans, as three-rotor power is provided by a Mazda RX-7 that races in this series!

Trans-Am: Bonus Video!

Here is a bonus video offering you an idea of what the rotary-powered Mazda (that gives up about 300 horsepower to the other cars) sounds like:

Because rotary engines lack torque, this car won't perform as well in racing action on long and fast tracks against the other non-rotary cars.. The racer of this Mazda Trans-Am car is Florida's Glen Jung, representing Rotary X-treme Team and Mazdaspeed. How about some rotary love? :D

Hopefully, these videos have given you some insight on what has changed over time with Trans-Am.

--- Can Trans-Am Return to its Former Glory? ---
Regardless of whatever motorsport you are talking about in the United States, everyone is looking up at NASCAR. NASCAR has always been the 800-pound gorilla that dominates the greater market share of motorsports on American television. The road racing equivalent of NASCAR (in terms of popularity and relevance) is Trans-Am. That's with all due respect to series like the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Road Racing Association. Trans-Am is as much of "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" as NASCAR. A serious spark would be needed to help Trans-Am return to great relevance. Part of that spark can start by most American sports cars making new cars to compete in the series. Having the Mustang and Challenger in NASCAR's Nationwide Series is a plus for helping NASCAR fans get excited for these two cars. However, the Mustang and Challenger (with all due respect) belong in Trans-Am. Maybe these two cars are in NASCAR Nationwide since Trans-Am just isn't as relevant as it used to be. Why spend your money marketing your cars in a series that just isn't as relevant as NASCAR?

Trans-Am is doing nicely relaunching as the Muscle Milk SCCA Trans-Am Series. If Trans-Am is to return to a level of great respectability, it will need to have some things to give it some life. Look at the IndyCar Series, for example. The Indy Racing League was quite boring even in the days of the IRL/Champ Car split. One of the biggest sparks to this series (besides the "IndyCar Series" namesake starting in 2003) was Danica Patrick. Her appearance and racing ability raised the profile of the IndyCar Series as far as getting people to watch and care about IndyCar Series racing. If something can provide a spark to Trans-Am the magnitude of what Danica Patrick did for the IndyCar Series, it could go a long way for the long-term future of Trans-Am.

How could Trans-Am get started? Well, I think there are a number of issues...

  1. Young Talent and More Talent
    No sport is ever complete without quality talent. If people aren't racing or don't feel intrigued enough to compete, then they WON'T compete in the series. Solid talent is needed along with some series veterans and past Trans-Am racers to keep things great.
  2. Solid Promoting and Marketing
    Who is going to remember anything about Trans-Am if you don't market it in an attention-grabbing and convincing way? You have to consider old-school fans of Trans-Am along with trying to educate new fans. Can you do all of this in an acceptable and convincing way? Also, can a television deal be set up so people can see these cars in action? The likely big-name TV deal that can be generated would likely be Versus.
  3. More Involvement from Manufacturers
    Trans-Am versions of the Mustang and Challenger would be great. To me, this is a golden opportunity with the modern muscle car. The new Mustang (which I don't like as much as I do the 2005 Mustangs), the reborn Camaro, and the new Challenger all resemble old-school muscle reborn for the 21st Century. Why not capitalize on this and come along with some Trans-Am racing versions of these cars? I think this is a golden opportunity to showcase these cars. However, none of these are present. Even in Trans-Am as I was following it in 1999 and in the 2000s, I even remember seeing Camaros and Corvettes represented for Chevrolet.
  4. Invite More Cars from More Companies?
    Can you possibly add more kinds of cars to diversify the field a bit? I mentioned some cars that I wouldn't mind seeing Trans-Am racing variants of, including non-American cars. They would mostly have to be automobiles people know about. Imagine a spark that would rise if a Trans-Am Nissan 370Z raced in this series along with a V8 engine. If Toyota could build V8s to compete in NASCAR's top series, imagine if Nissan built a compliant V8 to compete. Also imagine if other companies made their own entries. Think of the Hyundai Genesis (coupe) competing in the series alongside the American cars. Variety is the spice of life!

These are just a few thoughts of mine. Of course, they are not the best (then again, who said that my views are the best?). I am just speaking as a fan of Trans-Am racing.

--- Trans-Am: Surpassed By... the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge? ---
Founded as the Motorola Cup and nowadays known as the Continental Tires Sports Car Challenge, this series has represented what Trans-Am used to be with production-based cars. Some people feel that Trans-Am's demise was due to them trying to be more like NASCAR with tubeframe chassis and cars way beyond the performance of their road-going counterparts. Even this series has the Camaro and Mustang models. This series has a bit more attention than Trans-Am, but it isn't like there are a lot of commercials featuring these cars like how you see commercials featuring racing cars from various other series (like NASCAR, IndyCar, or the ALMS). Some feel that today's Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge is what Trans-Am used to be.

So some people would probably say that the Trans-Am Series is a victim of its own success in trying to branch out the way that it did.

--- SCCA Trans-Am's New Classes ---
The previous section was on moving forward and if former glory can be re-established. Announced back in September 2010, Trans-Am will now be a three-class series. The premier series will still be Trans-Am. The two new classes are TA2 and TA3. Both series are based on SCCA regulations for respective SCCA classes. The TA2 models are models eligible for GT2 or GTA (stock cars from the former American Speed Association) in SCCA Club Racing. They are tubeframe chassis cars boasting engines of 2.5 liters of displacement (or more) from either Inline-4 or Inline-6 engines, and the class also includes GTA stock cars with V8 engines. The TA3 models are tubeframe race cars based on SCCA GT-3 specifications and have engines with less than 2.5 liters.

This is the first time multiple classes of SCCA Trans-Am has been offered since 1979.

I hope you have enjoyed my efforts to chat about Trans-Am and if today's Trans-Am could possibly return to the glory and attention it has gotten in the past.

Are you a fan of today's Trans-Am? Show it! Here are some ways to get social with the Trans-Am series:

* SCCA Trans-Am Official Home Page
* SCCA Trans-Am Facebook Fan Page
* Follow Trans-Am on Twitter!

Now it's time for you to get social with ME! :) Thank you for reading!

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