The original working title of Part II of this series on the ALMS was “Out Manuvered and Out in the Cold.” Following a couple of press releases, one on the 2013 Oklahoma City race (exactly what we need, another processional street race, but that’s another story) and the return of “a” P1 team at Lime Rock, I kept wondering where are they going. What better theme for the ALMS today than Axel Rose and Slash “Sweet Child of Mine.” We all know the chorus, “Where do we go, Where do we go now, Where do we go, Sweet Child o’ mine.” Okay, let’s not debate theme songs for the ALMS. This is about how they got here and where they’re going.
In five years the ALMS has transformed from the premier sports prototype-GT series in North America to one that is arguably in survivor mode. In 2006 the American Le Mans Series was at its pinnacle, a showcase for sports car racing technology that featured major teams and manufacturers and most importantly, great racing. All the pieces were in place for success. The series had manufacturer involvement in each class. Audi, Honda and Porsche were the headliners in prototypes and the door-knocking GT class featured Ferrari, Corvette and BMW. The teams were no less spectacular, not just names known to the hardcore enthusiast, but names the casual racing observer recognized; Penske, Andretti and Rahal-Letterman. The driver lineups were exceptional and boasted accomplished talent from sports-car, IndyCar, Rally and even Formula 1.
Near global economic collapse spared no one. Free spending corporations slashed budgets and sports sponsorships vanished. All racing was hit hard, even the multi-million dollar series (billion dollar for F-1) Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar were all battered. Some were knocked around harder than others. The fortunate teams reorganized which meant downsize to one car efforts or run reduced schedules, or both. The not so fortunate succumb to the economy and never recovered. Manufacturers scaled back or quit series.
In 2011 it would appear the ALMS is fighting for an identity and maybe it’s very existence in a diluted racing market. The economic recovery is painfully slow in the U.S. Sponsors are elusive and teams continue to struggle to find the big dollars necessary to compete. Its’ main rival, the Rolex Grand-Am series, not only has a rich uncle in NASCAR, but may well be outmaneuvering the ALMS where it’s strongest in the GT ranks. As previously reported by Speed.com, GrandAm is in negotiations with Audi, Mercedes and Lotus to adapt their GT3 and GT4 cars to the Rolex series and Ferrari has committed to build Grand-Am spec 458 customer cars.
Mercedes and Audi are keen to compete in the American market, but without the cost of a LMP1 or Le Mans GT program. Audi is focused on ILMC and Le Mans. Mercedes primary focus is winning the F-1 World Championship and as an engine supplier. A Grand-Am crossover platform for existing GT3 and GT4 cars makes economic sense for manufacturers and teams. A stronger GT field and the forthcoming evolution of the Daytona Prototype body/aero kit (with more direct manufacturer involvement) is a winning combination for the Grand-Am, especially when everyone is trying to attract the “casual” racing fan and keep cost in check.
As if the North American racing market wasn’t saturated enough, the story that will not go away is the U.S. DTM series. Marshall Pruett, SpeedTV.com, broke the story on the NASCAR-DTM partnership for a 2013 series. The U.S. DTM series would consist of 12 races. Six to run as support races at NASCAR events and six as support races at Grand-AM races.
Suddenly the NASCAR-Grand AM looks like Ali and the ALMS Foreman. The ALMS is on the ropes. The fight is on.
Next Week; Part III; An Ally Becomes the Rival