KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The new road course at Kansas Speedway will get its first real taste of speed this weekend when the Grand-Am series visits the 2.37-mile circuit for the first time.
There's a lot riding on Saturday night's race, too.
The merger between the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series announced earlier this year means Kansas Speedway could be left out of a combined schedule next season. More established venues such as Road Atlanta and Daytona are virtually assured of dates, making it more difficult for a newcomer such as Kansas to land a race weekend.
"The issue is simply math," Kansas Speedway President Pat Warren said. "How many races are there going to be on the schedule next year? How many places are they going to go, and which tracks may or may not be included? I don't think it's a reflection on Kansas Speedway. It's not a reflection on the track or the market, and it's not a reflection on the long-term."
Indeed, even if Kansas Speedway is left off the schedule of the rebranded United SportsCar Racing series next year, Warren said it would aggressively pursue future races.
"They have to make some decisions for 2014 that are some tough decisions," he said. "As they try to figure out how they want to grow the series, what they want to do to bring the two series together, we just don't know where we fit in that picture."
Rather than focus on things they can't control, Warren and his team are focusing on what they can: a strong sports car debut that could convince series powerbrokers to stick around.
Officials are anticipating a crowd of about 15,000 – and are hopeful for more than 20,000 with good weather – for Saturday night's Grand-Am Rolex Series race. The 2-hour, 45-minute race highlights two days of events at Kansas Speedway that also include Saturday's Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge developmental series and two races in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo series.
The early feedback from drivers about the surface has been positive.
Daytona Prototypes were doing more than 190 mph on the main track before reaching Turn 1, the most demanding on the circuit. The tight left-hander sends cars through an S-curve and down the back straightway before a hairpin turns sends them on the return. They get back on the main track in Turn 2, head down the backstretch and through Turns 3 and 4 to complete a lap.
"It's a very challenging track, I can tell you," said Max Angelelli, a former Rolex series champion. "It's not like you approach a corner, brake, turn, go back on throttle, and that's it. You have two corners that are extremely technical."
Angelelli and teammate Jordan Taylor are chasing point leaders Ryan Dalziel and Alex Popow as they enter the 10th stop on the 12-race schedule. Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney are second in points with familiar names such as Christian Fittipaldi and Scott Pruett also giving chase.
"It's one of the fastest tracks we've been to," said Oswaldo Negri Jr., who turned some of the quickest laps at Kansas during last year's testing session.
"It's one of the hardest ovals that we have gone to. It is much faster than Homestead or any of the others," Negri said. "There aren't many passing zones, but the track is fun to drive and we had a good car when we tested there, so I am looking forward to being back."
In qualifying Friday night, Memo Rojas took the DP pole, and Alex Tagliani topped the GT field. Rojas turned a fast lap of 1 minute, 9.883 seconds – averaging 122.09 mph – in the No. 01 BMW/Riley prototype he co-drives with Pruett.
Tagliani, an IndyCar regular, is substituting in the No. 61 Ferrari 458 with Max Papis running in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this weekend. Tagliani is co-driving with Jeff Segal.
"My goal this weekend was to come in, support the team and give Jeff a good position so we could try to win," Tagliani said. "I was very apprehensive that I could learn the car quickly. ... But for me, coming to the Ferrari was like coming to an IndyCar. I really enjoy this car, and it really suits my style."
Tom Long took his third consecutive GX class pole in the No. 70 Mazda 6 he shares with Sylvain Tremblay.