Bill Oursler on The Identification of a Series
On the eve of The American Le Mans Series’ second biggest race of the year, the
ten-hour, or 1000 Kilometer Petit Le Mans affair over Road Atlanta’s sinewy, hilly
North Georgia facility, one has to wonder not only where the future of the ALMS
lays, but that of its opposite number, the Rolex-backed Grand American Sports
Car tour, as well. Clearly, the approach of each is different, the Grand Am
choosing a controlled, relatively low-tech formula for its rules book, while the
ALMS regulations are designed around much faster, and advanced vehicles
whose costs are stratospheric by comparison. But, only by comparison, and not in
reality when one looks at the whole budget picture.
And, therein can be found the irony and perhaps a glimpse of whether the North
American sports car scene will continue to have two separate title chases, or just
one. Over its post World War Two history, the two-seater, bi-fendered set has lived
on a roller coaster; its steep rises and equally daunting downturns partially the
result of the health of the global economy at any particular time, and partially the
offspring of an ever changing set of international agendas attributable to those
writing the scriptures.
The folks in charge of the Grand Am have tried to insulate themselves and their
championship by creating a series which circumvents the seeming causes of that
seemingly endless ride by drafting a set of rigid, stable regulations intended to
provide not only rules stability, but also competitive equality for its participants,
and all for a reasonable capital investment, regardless of whether one chooses
the Daytona Prototype category, or the production-based GT division. In many
ways the Grand Am is a mirror image of NASCAR in these respects; sort of a
Nextel Cup for road racing.
From the twin viewpoints of car count, and entertainment value, the Grand Am
has been a success, In just three years its Daytona Prototype population has
risen from zero to around fifty, a spectacular increase in a universe where few
such sports racing formulas have ever produced similar numbers, and never in
such a brief time frame. Moreover, the abnormal Rolex event is the one where
more than a second or two separates the top finishers. Indeed, at the August Mid
Ohio round, the first two cars were less than a half a second apart, while the top
six were covered by just 2.1 seconds; this making the run to the checkered flag
look more like a rush hour freeway traffic jam than a motorsports contest.
What we got here is failure to communicate
And, yet while the Grand Am has been able to sell itself to its competitor base, it
hasn’t been able to sell itself to the public, whose mammoth lack of interest has
remained relatively constant since the introduction of the Daytona Prototype
concept at the beginning of 2003. Grand Am officials say this is due to a lack of
promotion on their part, a lapse they attribute to the Grand Am’s rapid growth.
Those officials have indicated their intent to rectify the situation as quickly as they
can. Yet, one has to wonder if those efforts will be successful in making the Rolex
series externally attractive, rather than internally as now is the case.
In many ways, the ALMS are betting that the Grand Am can’t. Representing the
traditional view of the sport with its swoopy, sophisticated pumpkin seed racers
and high end production cars, the ALMS aimed at the traditional fan, one whose
interest over the years has been rooted in technology inspired dreams as much
as in the competition itself. Unlike its Rolex counterpart, the ALMS prototype count,
both for its headlining LMP1, and its secondary LMP2 categories rarely has
exceeded ten, and more usually numbers seven to eight on a good weekend.
Yet, one can not deny the attractiveness of these cars with their high horsepower
engines and often differing approaches to performance. They are, in every sense,
the true successors to a heritage that includes such greats of the past as the
factory Ford MK IIs and Mk IVs that beat the European Ferraris and Porsches in
1966 and again in 1967. Then the equally impressive 917s developed by the
German manufacturer which not only dominated La Sarthe in 1970 and 1971 but
also traveled down the famous Mulsanne Straight at nearly 250 miles an hour,
speeds unrivaled even today. The fact that there is a core audience for the ALMS
can be found in its network television figures, which with the except of the Indy 500
itself, meet or exceed those for either the single seaters of the IRL or Champ Car,
not to mention Formula One. Even so, when it comes to on site crowds, with
several notable exceptions like Sebring, Mosport and Petit Le Mans, are often little
better than those for the Grand Am. Perhaps equally disturbing is the fact that the
so-called “gene pool” from which both the ALMS and Grand Am draw their
contestants, has chosen the latter or the former as evidenced by the disparity in
the figures not only for the Daytona Prototypes over their counterparts, but the
disparity in the number of production car entries for the two championships,
figures that likewise favor the Grand Am.
Driftin' and Driftin'
Even more worrisome is the fact that once having chosen the Grand Am over the
ALMS, it is unlikely that few, if any will reverse themselves and travel back to the
Don Panoz owned tour, Ironically, this isn’t due so much to reduced capital
investment needed in the Grand Am, because the overall costs of a racing budget
– which takes into account things such as travel and overhead – doesn’t differ
between the two series, but rather what that investment buys. In the Grand Am,
one’s money, if well spent can bring the promise of outright victory, even against
the name drivers, many from the Nextel Cup’s ranks, while in the ALMS if one
doesn’t have the “right” car, the chances for success no matter what the budget
are far smaller.
Still, the contest is by no means settled. The Grand Am for all its assets,
continues to search for public legitimacy, while the ALMS remains in an on-going
state of self imposed purgatory that is rooted in a lack of cars brought on in some
measure by its too closely tied apron strings to those who run Le Mans. Years
ago, the American Can-Am blossomed by mating the then latest in European
chassis technology with big, booming Detroit V-8’s. The Grand Am has the V-8’s
-although not all are made in the United States, while the ALMS has the
sophisticated European- developed chassis.
Some of the time, not all of the time…
Should they combine forces – of course. Will they combine forces – not anytime
soon. Can North American road race survive – absolutely. In the meantime, sports
car fans are presented with the unique opportunity to double dip, and that’s much
better than not being able to dip at all – much, much better.