ALMS/Grand-AM possible mergerPosted: September 3, 2012
Originally, I planned on my next post being my 2012 Le Mans race recap, but sadly a combination of writer’s block and post-race malaise has kept me from going into detail about another amazing race. Soon, I promise.
Something, however, has presented itself I feel it needs to be addressed.
This weekend, Speed.com’s John Dagys posted this story that has race fans cheering or up in arms – depending on what side of the fence you are.
The headline: ALMS, GRAND-AM Finalizing Merger.
Almost immediately, I received several e-mails and texts asking me for my thoughts. Asking me to explain this. Telling me this is the end of American sportscar racing as we know it. Telling me this is one of the signs of the apocalypse. I’ll explain the best that I can, tell you what I know, and help you step away from the edge.
As of right now, 9:00 on Monday morning, September the 3rd, nothing is finalized. Through this website, I have “met” several automotive journalists and I got word of something like this in the works about a week or 10 days ago. Here’s what I know. But first, I need to give you a little history.
The American Le Mans Series was founded in 1998 by Dr. Don Panoz. Dr. Panoz and his pharmaceutical team invented the nicotine patch in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Dr. Panoz partnered up with the ACO – the race organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans – in an attempt to bring European style endurance racing to America.
That same year, Audi introduced the R8 race car. The R8 and it’s successors went on to win 11 Le Mans over the next 13 years. The timing of the two was serendipitous. Audi brought the R8, the R10, the R15, and the R18 to compete in various races here in the States as well as in Europe. The ACO went on to copy the formula and create European and Asian series under the same rules.
Under ACO/ALMS partnership, you can argue, the sport grew faster and greater than either of them expected. The grids were packed. The stands were packed. The ACO and the ALMS fed off each other.
The ALMS, in an attempt to help the fans distinguish class leaders, implemented leader lights on the side of the cars. 3 lights on the side of the cars indicated 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place in class. An idea so simple the ACO adopted it for the 24 hour race. The final race of the ALMS season is held at Road Atlanta. The ALMS coordinated with the ACO so that the class winners from the 10 hour Petit Le Mans would gain automatic entries into the following year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
With the 12 Hours of Sebring starting off the season and the Petit Le Mans closing the season, the ALMS gained international recognition and legitimacy.
Grand-AM was founded a year after the ALMS in 1999; it’s focal race is the 24 Hours of Daytona. With similar rules to the ALMS, the Rolex 24 at Daytona actually featured ALMS competitors and Le Mans winners for the first few years. In 2003, Grand-AM introduced their own prototype class, the spec built Daytona Prototypes. The series was always closely affiliated with NASCAR, it was officially acquired by NASCAR in 2008. Because of it’s NASCAR relationship, Grand-AM never received the international recognition the ALMS did. That’s all about to change.
While the ALMS has operated under the ACO rules, the relationship has cooled over the past few years and the ALMS has operated under ACO sanctioning on a year to year basis. In 2011, the ACO partnered with the FIA to create the World Endurance Championship. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile is the sanctioning body behind Formula 1, WRC rally racing, GT1 and GT3 sportscar championship, and dozens more world championships of motor racing. Through this partnership, the ALMS and it’s races are essentially being squeezed out of international competitors such as Audi and Toyota and other major players are choosing to compete in the WEC and not in North American races.
So now, NASCAR and it’s deep pockets are going after the ALMS. This can be viewed as NASCAR buying out the competition or NASCAR looking for international legitimacy. Without knowing all the details, let’s look at the two possible scenarios.
NASCAR buys the ALMS, merges their competitors and venues and operates under Grand-AM rules. Daytona Prototypes instead of LMP1/LMP2 cars, but the GT classes remain essentially the same.
NASCAR buys the ALMS, merges their competitors and venues and operates under ALMS/ACO/FIA rules. They either eliminate the Daytona Prototypes or get the DP cars homologated by the ACO/FIA and they compete directly with the LMP1/LMP2 cars and the GT classes remain essentially the same. This scenario makes the most sense.
But I have another scenario to throw out for your consideration. And one I think makes a lot of sense.
For a minute, let’s ignore the prototype classes and focus on the GT classes. The ALMS and GA series both allow, Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, and Corvette. But Grand-AM also allows the Audi R8, the Mazda RX-8, and Camaro. The FIA under the GT1 and GT3 classification allows the Mercedes SLS, the Audi R8, the Nissan GTR, BMW Z4, and the McLaren MP4-12. These cars aren’t allowed to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I’m not going to lie, I don’t entirely understand why this is, but there you have it.
So let’s talk about money for a second. Manufacturers and privateers spend a ton of money each year racing. Because of the slightly different rules from organizer to organizer, they have to make a choice which series to compete in. ALMS, GA, or FIA? Sure you can race your Ferrari 458 or Porsche 997 at Daytona, make slight modifications and then go to Sebring, but there are costs involved. But Mercedes and Audi can’t race their flagship GT cars in either. Why not? Well, what if this is all about to end. What if there’s enough pressure from the manufacturers to get the FIA/ACO/ALMS/GA to create across the board rules to allow these cars to compete in all series?
How much would Audi pay to get the ACO to allow the R8 to compete at Le Mans? Can you imagine the marketing opportunities of the R18 e-tron wins overall and the R8 wins the GT class? With the new prototype rules set for 2014 and Porsche already committed to fielding a LMP racer, how about their LMP winning overall at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 997 winning GT class. While this scenario has huge implications in European racing, it certainly opens up American road racing to the world. Take into consideration Porsche sells more cars in California than they do where they’re built in Germany. America is a HUGE market in terms of sales but almost off the radar in terms of international racing.
The US hasn’t had a F1 race since 2007. Finally with the Circuit of the Americas being built in Austin, the US will once again be on the world stage for the pinnacle of racing. But if the merger rumors are true, the 10 year contract for the ALMS to race at COTA, who can and will be there? If my scenario is correct, think of the possibilities. What European manufacturer wouldn’t be there? Whether my thoughts of the ACO to allow FIA GT cars to compete in Le Mans style endurance races are correct or not, let me wrap up this NASCAR/ALMS meger.
Ultimately, I can’t imagine a scenario where NASCAR would acquire the ALMS and thumb their nose at the ACO/FIA and run under current Grand-AM rules. This would create US sportscar racing versus what the rest of the world is doing. It doesn’t make sense. I’ve always enjoyed ALMS racing over GA – I just don’t like the Daytona Prototypes. They’re spec cars, they don’t allow for innovation, they are the same cars with different engines. The Audi R18 is different from the Toyota TS030 which is different from the dead Peugeot 908. Different philosophies all aimed the same goal. If NASCAR allows for this, and partners with the ACO/FIA, you would see a whole new world of sportscar racing in the States. And I would love that.