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Bill Oursler on Parking Cars

So, who really is the ultimate customer for the American Le Mans Series? That is the question now facing ALMS officials in the wake of Audi’s decision to race only at Sebring in North America for 2009. If you talk to those inside the Don Panoz owned championship, you here phrases such as “we’re better off than most folks,” and “We’re not worried as much as the others because we do have other manufacturers coming in.”

True enough, perhaps, but other than the commitment of Honda’s Acura brand to run in the ALMS’ headlining LMP2 division, the rest of the top level prototype entrants will be privateers, and we all know how they do against factory-backed competition. Now, it is true that there are a reasonable number of those private teams who pledged themselves to LMP1 for the coming year. Yet, it must be asked whether or not the ALMS can sustain its audience if what that audience is watching is the Acura ARX prototypes beating up on their “little guy” opposition.

In years past, other sanctioning bodies have had to deal with the dilemma of balancing the interests of its participants with its own self interest in getting the public attention it needs to survive and prosper. This is relevant because one possible solution to any apathy generated by the solo factory presence in LMP1 for 2009 is to simply do what television does on a regular basis when there’s a problem with a show a network doesn’t want to cancel: put the program on hiatus, and wait for a better time to air it. So why not follow that example on place LMP1 into hibernation for the coming season and make LMP2 the premier prototype category instead?

The is precedent for this in the past, that being the kind of decision which was made by the FIA after Alfa Romeo quit Formula One following the 1951 season after being challenged by Ferrari. The world governing body in the light of Alfa’s departure and the prospect of having Ferrari go unchallenged for 1952, switched its World Championship from Formula One to Formula Two until its new 2.5-liter F-1 regulations came into effect in 1954. As this columnist has noted so often in the past, whatever motorsport might have been in previous times, today it is in the entertainment business, and one strongly suspects that many in the ALMS’ audience will tune out a championship most probably dominated by a largely unchallenged Acura at the head of LMP1.

But what about LMP2, you say? After all, hasn’t Porsche closed down its own LMP2 program, and hasn’t Acura all but abandoned the division in its move up the ladder in class? The answer to both queries is yes. However, a closer look reveals that those moves are not irreversible in the short term, at least. Consider for a moment the fact that Acura’s intentions to race in LMP1 would only be postponed, this giving them the leisure of being able to stretch out their development budget for the program in a time when economics are tight, while still being able to utilize their existing ARX-01bs without having to do too much updating.

Similarly, it wouldn’t be beyond reason to persuade Porsche to release a portion if not all of its RS Spyder fleet that currently resides under dust covers at its Weissach technical center in Germany. The options about who might actually campaign the cars are many, but clearly, Roger Penske could be switched back from the Rolex Sports Car tour, or even do the ALMS in addition to the Grand Am championship, if Porsche wanted to go that route. Another option would be to go back to Rob Dyson and do a deal with him, something that might hold some interest for the New York State resident if LMP1 were to be taking a nap throughout 2009.

Moreover, the attractiveness of having a straight fight between Acura and Porsche is that the ALMS would not have to worry about complying with the changes laid down by the ACO intended to reduce the LMP2 category’s competitiveness vs. LMP1 because there would be no LMP1 to compete against. Indeed, the reduced performance could be an enhancement to promote interest from prospective participants because of a potential drop in maintenance costs.

So, in conclusion, would the ALMS’ public be more interested in a possible Acura-Porsche confrontation, or would that public be willing to accept a year of domination by the Japanese brand while waiting for the rumored Porsche LMP1 hybrid to make what some predict will be an appearance in 2010? And, on the other hand, if the answer is yes to the former, rather than the latter path, can the ALMS sell the idea to its competitors, and avoid the fate of other sanctioning organizations which did suffer when they forgot their audience and put their participants first. These are not easy times, and there are no easy answers, but, one hopes that the ALMS looks at all its options before choosing the status quo.

                                                                Bill Oursler
                                                              December 2008

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