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Rocket Gibraltar - Bill Oursler on the ALMS Sebring test sessions

  The first week in February for North American road racing enthusiasts this year
was devoted to the Grand Americanís Rolex-backed Daytona 24-Hour season
opener; or at least most of the attention was. For some reason, the American Le
Mans Series decided to hold its pre-season test session just down the road at
Sebring during the first four days of the week. Quite why, Iím not sure, so if there
are questions, Iíll refer you to the folks at the ALMS for answers.

Waiting for Godot
  Still, perhaps the most significant thing to come from Sebring, is the thing that
didnít happen at the Central Florida airport circuit. The announcement stating the
Maserati MC 12 would be racing this year in the Don Panoz-owned tour. While
Scott Atherton, the man who runs the ALMS for Panoz is not only upbeat about the
series for this coming year, as well as the future beyond, and has impressed that
fact on your columnist in no uncertain terms, there are issues concerning the size
of the ALMS fields for 2005, and frankly the amount of actual competition in the
championship itself. To give Atherton and the ALMS their due, the series is
moving forward at a brisk pace with new teams like Aston Martin, and new
sponsors signing on. Perhaps more important is the attention that has been and
continues to be paid to the ALMS, with television ratings and attendance figures
increasing every year. Indeed, the ALMS on U.S. network TV draws better than
both the IRL and Champ Car, not to mention Formula One. So when Atherton
complains that the media, and your columnist have spent too little time focusing
on the positive accomplishments of the Panoz title chase, he does have a point.
The ALMS is doing well. Even so, as Atherton notes, the real test is where people
plant their feet. After all, those are the items with which they vote best.

Feats don't fail me nowÖ.
  So far, in terms of the public, the ALMS have been the clear victor over the Grand
Am. But, the Grand Am has resources and leverage that the ALMS doesnít have,
and never will. Its basic business plan is a "pay as you go" one, with the
participants doing most of the paying. And why would they do that? The answer is
simple: the Grand Am has made its series affordable, most especially in terms of
running costs, but almost in the longevity of the equipment, a situation brought
about by the unique - some might say - overly enforced rules structure.

  Either way, the competitors appear to have voted with their feet, having chosen
the Grand Am in far greater numbers during the past two years over the ALMS.
This is important because the pool of prospective team owners and drivers
seemed to have chosen Grand Am over the ALMS. Not only is that pool finite, but
there are not many within it who will "double dip" in both camps. Further the Grand
Am, because of its obvious ties to NASCAR has the resources to boost the star
quality of its fields, not to mention the means of securing manufacturer
involvement that otherwise might not come the Grand Amís way. In short, the
ALMS is on the flat ground facing the Grand Am, which is entrenched in the high
territory where the ALMS needs to go. It is, in other words, a difficult and tricky task
if one has to battle the Grand Am for needed resources, and ultimately fans.

The winter of someone's discontent Ö
  So given all of this, the importance of having Maserati as an on-going competitor
in the GT1 production category as an equal rival for the Corvettes at races where
the Aston Martins might be playing in the European Le Mans Series, is of some
importance. Unfortunately, the authorities at Le Mans donít like the Maserati MC
12; donít want to know about it; and, most definitely, donít want it racing either at
Le Mans or in the ALMS. Over the winter insiders reported that Atherton and
company had worked out a deal where the MC 12 could participate in the ALMS
through a special dispensation from the French race officials. That agreement
was seemingly in place when the press conference was scheduled on the test

Most likely you'll go your way and I'll go mineÖ
  However, at the last minute the French called and said, " no way, Jose".
Reportedly, there were threats of disassociation from both Le Mans and the
ALMS. Although by the end of the week, there were said to be indications of a
compromise in the air. No matter what happens, the matter has exposed a
fundamental flaw, at least as far as the ALMS is concerned, in being so closely
tied to the ACO. There is no question that the Le Mans name is a valuable asset
to have. Equally true is that what is good for a single event in one country, may not
meet the needs of a series in another. If the ALMS is to be successful here in the
ultimate, it is going to need the freedom to deal with what are called "local
conditions." The ALMS doesn't have that freedom at the moment, and while no
one wants to see the Americans split with the French, if the latter wonít
compromise, then perhaps it is better the two go their own ways.

                                                                        Bill Oursler
                                                                      February 2005

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