Touring sedans turn to racing
THE UMBRELLA GIRLS were at the starting grid by each race car.
When the World Touring Car Championship descended on Sonoma last weekend for its first-ever North American appearance, no one really knew quite what to expect.
First of all there were the cars – touring cars – as the name implies. You could walk into a showroom in various parts of the world and drive off in a version of what appears on the racetrack.
So, Americans could relate since Detroit has two makes in the game – Ford and Chevy. But, on the other hand, there wasn’t a bellowing, V-8-powered pony car in the field. No Shelby Mustang GT500s or Camaro ZL1s. No, we’re talking Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus – two cars with front-wheel drive and minimum macho sex-appeal.
Standing next to the track while they whiz by, you don’t even need to wear earplugs. Do that at a NASCAR race and you’d be deaf in the first 20 laps.
Which brings up the second problem. The WTCC series features pairs of sprint races that last all of 13 laps. They’re over in less than 20 minutes. Some people stand in line for a Bud Light longer than that. Go to the bathroom during the race and before you’re done the checkered flag has dropped.
Finally, all the drivers have foreign names, they come from at least 14 different countries and you’ve never heard of any of them.
So what’s to like?
It turns out, a lot.
First of all, even though all the cars have virtually identical four-cylinder engines, those little power plants pump out plenty of horsepower, enough to generate average lap speeds of more than 80 miles an hour and top speeds comfortably over 100.
Second, the modifications made to bodies and chassis turn these little “touring sedans” into ferocious racing machines, and when a little Chevy Cruze can consistently outrun a BMW (“the ultimate driving machine”) you know something special is going on. But if Bimmers are your brand, there are plenty of those in the race to cheer for, along with the Spanish Seat Leon and an occasional Volvo and Honda Civic.
So while the WTCC doesn’t indulge in motoring marathons like most Americans are accustomed to watching (you could take a nap during NASCAR and still see most of the race) what you get instead is a series of highly intense sprints in which just about every corner is contested, contact is routine and body parts litter the track. And because the cars are so evenly matched, the competition is fierce and lap times differ by only a very few seconds.
Of course, filling a weekend with just 40 minutes of racing would be a hard sell, so the WTCC events are the filling of a racecar sandwich that, at Sonoma Raceway, included lots of qualifying and three other racing series, including the bigger, louder and more powerful Trofeo Maserati Grand Turismo race with, among other things, celebrity heartthrob and serious racing driver Patrick Dempsey, who wheeled his own car around the track.
There was also an open-wheel formula car race – the Auto GP Championship series, an outgrowth of Formula 3000 with single-seat cars almost as fast as Indy racers – and the US Touring Car Championship series, with a slightly more eclectic mix of Hondas, Minis, BMWs, Volvos, Mazdas, Acuras and other assorted makes.
And then there are the umbrella girls, a couple dozen lovely young women in shrink-wrapped, mid-thigh dresses with dazzling smiles and the sole mission of decorating the starting grid at intervals spaced by the length of each racecar.
It somehow felt stereotypically Italian to watch these ladies pose patiently in front of each car until the engines were fired, and then see them march off in a synchronized column, a few unsteadily in their 6-inch heels.
For the record, the Chevy Cruzes came in first in each of the two Sunday sprint races, with drivers Yvan Muller of France, and Robert Huff of Great Britain splitting the wins and sharing a lead in championship points with three races to go. Patrick Dempsey did not win the Maserati race, but drove ably and without incident.
Unlike NASCAR and Indycar races in which teams arrive in elaborate 18-wheel semi rigs, WTCC teams package cars and equipment in shipping containers because the races are scattered all over the world. From Sonoma, the series will take a transportation break for a month, then resume racing in Japan, China and Macau.
They are due back in Sonoma next year in what is understood to be an unfolding experiment. Sunday’s gate was estimated as high as 15,000, not NASCAR numbers, to be sure, but not bad for a couple of sprint races with four-cylinder road rockets.