Introducing a brand-new kind of race car was a huge gamble for Grand-Am in 2003, but four years later it looked like the risk had paid off. Rolex Series fields were at their fullest everywhere except the Daytona 24 and the premier class, the Daytona Prototypes, were growing in number.

Introducing a brand-new kind of race car was a huge gamble for Grand-Am in 2003, but four years later it looked like the risk had paid off. Rolex Series fields were at their fullest everywhere except the Daytona 24 and the premier class, the Daytona Prototypes, were growing in number.

Then the financial bubble burst.

Without too lengthy a dissertation: Banks loaned money to anyone with a face, while credit card issuers (mostly by the same irresponsible financial institutions, so not surprisingly they piggybacked on the trendy doomed-for-failure model) gave gaudy spending limits to people who couldn’t afford it. Wages stayed stagnant during this time, so imagine the utter shock when all of the sudden no one was paying their loans back.

Pop.

Companies suspended certain marketing initiatives, the Wall Street gamblers saw snake eyes come up on the table and once–exorbitant trust funds were wiped out. No sport suffered like auto racing, and no circuit was impacted as severely as the Grand–Am Rolex Series.

Car counts dropped, teams downsized, moved to different series or left the sport entirely. The 2006 Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen boasted 25 DPs – a number in the premier class unfathomable to sports car fans even during the sport’s salad days. Last year’s six-hour race had 27 total entries – 10 DPs, 17 Grand Touring cars.

Excluding the Daytona 24, which always draws a massive field, this year’s fields have averaged 27 cars per race in six events. Despite that, there are signs that things are turning back around.

“I see it making a lot of progress. We are seeing a lot of car manufacturers looking at getting back into sports, not just looking at it but taking those next steps,” said Scott Pruett, who is to sports car drivers what Yoda was to the Jedi. “Now, this is one of those things that takes a couple of years to gear up, and when you look at where you want to go racing, there’s always really only two series that you want to do that. And if you want to look at where you get your best bang for your buck, and most certainly where the budget is realistic, not out of this world, I think Grand–Am is a perfect place.”

Ferarri, auto racing’s New York Yankees, introduced a new model specifically built for the Rolex Series, Audi made its first appearance in the series, General Motors’ presence is strong with a new Corvette DP in addition to the Camaro GT.R, Ford Motor Company supplies DP engines and during the offseason, Grand–Am rolled out new body styles for the first time since 2004.

The work on the DP bodies, and some tinkering with the engine rules, has produced six different winning teams this season. Getting six teams to win in two seasons used to be something to brag about.

“I think that the new cars, although maybe there was some skepticism at the time about bringing in a new chassis or new body work, I think it was the smartest thing they did,” said Ryan Dalziel, tied for second in the championship standings, a mere five markers in arrears. “The Grand–Am cars, they were starting to look dated. They had to become current and I think that it really did, much like Formula 1 has done this year, has just thrown a curveball to everybody. And the multiple different winners; it’s amazing, Ganassi, we’re five, six races in, and they only got their first victory.”

In order to coax more owners to enter the series, more sponsorship will be needed. If anything is stalling the vivification of North America’s premier road racing circuit, it’s those sweet multi–million dollar sponsorship packages.

“I think it’s still a little tough. Probably in the last year it’s opened up a little bit, but I still see companies holding pretty tight to spend on promotions and sponsorships,” said Rob Ecklin, a Corning native who owns Invisible Glass and competes in the Continental Tire Series. “It’s a slow return, that’s been my observation. I’ve only been in (sports car racing) for two years, so I didn’t ride the recession with the sponsorship. I think it’s coming back, but slow. People are still a little cautious, not ready to plunk that expenditure down or write that check to go racing. They’re thinking twice.”

The Rolex Series doesn’t get NASCAR–sized crowds and television coverage is limited to Speed Channel, a Fox–owned cable network dedicated to auto racing, car enthusiasts and, naturally, auto–themed reality shows. The highest attendance for the series is when paired with the Sprint Cup, IndyCar or Nationwide series, and interest tends to peak when star drivers from other disciplines moonlight in a DP or GT car.

With that in mind, the series isn’t nearly as expensive to contest as NASCAR or IndyCar, so the asking price for sponsorship is relatively low. In Grand–Am circles, they believe it’s the best value in racing.

“Everybody values bang for their buck. When you go to NASCAR, you get the most viewership for sure, right? But it’s a huge investment,” said Bill Auberlen, who has 25 victories in the Rolex Series alone. “You come here, you could have an entire car for a very small amount, you’re on TV live and the whole race is covered, so you get a lot of bang for your buck in Continental or the Rolex Series.”

Pruett has driven for several major manufacturers over the course of his nearly 30–year career, and is one of the most respected voices in racing anywhere. It isn’t uncommon for a car company to approach the veteran for some advice.

“Where would you go racing? We want to get the best bang for our buck,” Pruett said. “We do want to get back involved in racing, but we are not in a position to spend $10, $15 million a year type of being back involved, but maybe 3– or $4 million.”

Of course, he steers them in Grand–Am’s direction. Lately, some rather prominent companies are either entering the game or augmenting their programs, even if the pace is more methodic than before the bubble popped.

“I encourage them to get involved in Grand–Am and certainly the prototype series,” Pruett said. “Just having the opportunity now to do body work, similar to production cars – which is exactly what Corvette has done on the prototype side – which is exciting for me because now you’re seeing that energy. It’s been kind of flat with no excitement and potential of more cars and manufacturers, where over the last six months, I’m really starting to feel that buzz.”