The League of Nations
Political correctness. It’s what we practice these days, couching our complaints,
concerns and worries in language that often is so un-offensive that the meaning
is totally lost. The problem is that in many cases being offensive is about the only
way to be heard; something about “squeaky wheels, etc.”
This year the American Le Mans Series has had its problems, most of which are
obvious, and most of which are not of its own making, or, at least not stemming
from any initial mistakes on the part of Don Panoz and his crowd. Yet, in a world
where the ALMS has to compete against the Grand American Sports Car tour for
interest and competitors, never mind sponsorship dollars, not being responsible
for one’s situation isn’t enough.
Yes, no, maybe….
The business plan of the Grand Am is a solid one, and while many of us brought
up on a tradition of high performance, high technology sports car racing might not
appreciate the nearly absolute limits imposed by the Grand Am in these areas,
the fact remains that it isn’t our opinions that count. No suspects that by the time
the Grand Am opens up for business at the Rolex 24-Hour next winter, there will
be 40, or more Daytona prototypes in existence, along with a huge pool of
production-based racers. We might not like it, but some one does, and those
folks are paying Grand Am’s nills.
Unfortunately, the man still writing the checks at the ALMS is Panoz, even if the
amounts they’re written for are becoming smaller. In many ways, it seems to this
author that the reason for the problems with the ALMS stem from a simple fact:
namely that the rules are leased from the crowd at Le Mans. Moreover, despite an
awareness that they need to create breathing space for themselves if they are to
prosper as a business, the ALMS contingent has taken the “politically correct”
view, and negotiated with the French.
Bottom of the eighth, two on, two out….
And, in truth they’ve done well, a fact for which they are to be congratulated.
Consider their accomplishments so far this year. First they got Le Mans to agree
to let them run their premier prototype division, LMP to last year’s LMP 900
specifications. That was a huge deal, for without it, the Dyson team might well
have chosen eschew the ALMS, thus leaving the headlining class with any drama
at all as a single Champion Racing Audi cruised to the series title. Yet, even
though the Champion team achieved that goal, there was drama, particularly at
Portland where young Chris Dyson led an impatient, but temporarily impotent J.J
Lehto for much of the race. And, of course let’s not forget Mosport, where Butch
Leitzinger and James Weaver beat the Audi camp, fair and square.
All roads DON’T lead to Paris….
More recently, series president Scott Atherton got the French to agree to move
their test weekend to June 6th from the beginning of May, this allowing the ALMS
to stage at least one, and possibly two races between Sebring and Le Mans,
erasing what has bee, up to now a three month hiatus between the 12-Hour
season opener and round two of the championship. And, as if that weren’t
enough, Atherton and company have also got the French to agree to the creation
of a four-door GT class that should bring BMW, not to mention Audi and possibly
Cadillac back into the production car fray next season.
As well said, a job done well. Even so, these efforts beg the question. Why
should the Americans be negotiating in the first place? Why not simply inform the
French of their intentions? Surely the public is not going to quit attending their
events simply because the Le Mans name might not be part of the official title.
Nor, in fact one would expect participation on the track to decrease either. If this
were not so IMSA would have never succeeded in the first place during the
1970’s, ‘80’s and early ‘90’s when there was no Le Mans moniker attached to any
of their title chases.
In point of fact, what are the French going to do; tell the ALMS it can’t use its
regulations, and thereby stop the money flow from the United States? One thinks
not. The French tend to bluster, but when comes down to the serious stuff, more
often than not that bluster is non sustained – at least if the past records are to be
When John Bishop started the Camel GT he did so using the FIA international
Group 2 and Group 4 production and sports car rules. That, however, didn’t stop
him from accepting Trans-Am, and even SCCA amateur National Championship
spec entries when he needed to fill what, in the early days, were slim fields. Nor,
when Bishop thought it was good for business did he hesitate, as he did when he
told the FIA take a hike and keep its fuel economy-based Group C prototypes out
of his sandbox. Instead, Bishop created his own power-to-weight IMSA GT
Prototype scriptures, cars that looked and sounded similar to their FIA
counterparts, but which raced to their own (or in this case, Bishop’s Tune).
And, that’s the key. THE IMSA GTP category, while different, resembled the cars
that ran at Le Mans, and in some cases actually competed at the Sarthe
themselves. They were advertised as “being like the Le Mans prototypes,” which
was more than good enough to attract large crowds – something which the Group
C cars often failed to do.
The ultimate key for the ALMS then could said to be “co-operations,” not
“subservience,” something which served Bishop and IMSA well, and could do
equal good for the ALMS’ long term fortunes.