I love sports car racing. From the time I first saw cars like the Porsche 962s and Jaguar XJRs through the Nissan GTP ZX cars and the Toyota Eagles on through the Audi R8 to the Audi and Peugeot diesel prototypes I’ve loved sports car racing. Equally captivating have been the production based cars. For the last decade, sports car racing in the United States has been divided between two competing philosophies. Without a doubt, I stand squarely in the ALMS camp I also appreciate Grand Am’s philosophy and I also enjoy watching their races.
Whether it turns out to be a change for the good or a change for the bad, yesterday was undoubtedly a watershed day in the history of sports car racing in the United States. The American LeMans Series (ALMS) and Grand Am series are “merging.” The term merger is being used but it sounds to me more like the ALMS is being absorbed by Grand Am. In 2013, the two series will be separate but in 2014, there will be a combined series. I won’t go into all of the details because there are a number of good articles on the Speed website with the merger details (Speed’s John Dagys should be commended for first breaking this story then for his great work in following it up). Following these links are my thoughts about the merger.
Personally, I found yesterday’s announcement to be somewhat anti-climatic. It was announced that the merger was taking place but as I expected there weren’t a whole lot of details. Without those details, it’s hard to form an opinion on whether or not the merger of the two series is good or bad. I’ve already seen comparisons to the ChampCar/IRL merger a few years ago but I don’t think it’s an appropriate comparison. The ChampCar/IRL merger was almost one of necessity on ChampCar’s part but it wasn’t that way yet for the ALMS. Additionally, the IRL was already moving back toward the ChampCar/CART format of combined oval/street/road courses so it wasn’t as much a combination of two different concepts as the ALMS/Grand Am merger is going to be. Essentially, the two series we’re dealing with here represent different concepts in sports car racing. The ALMS represents a school of thought that is more technologically driven in technical regulations and more European in sporting regulations, a reflection of its relationship with the ACO and the 24 Hours Of Le Mans. GrandAm represents a school of thought that is less technically driven and more personality driven with sporting regulations of a more American nature, reflecting their relationship with NASCAR. GrandAm is a part of NASCAR, so it can’t be overlooked that NASCAR will now control a considerable chunk of professional auto racing in the United States.
With GrandAm and NASCAR getting the upper hand in this merger, there is a plenty of cause for trepidation on the part of ALMS fans. That said, there are reasons to be positive. First, both sides wish to retain the relationship ALMS has with the ACO and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If they want to maintain that relationship, something of the current ALMS class structure and regulations have to carry over. Second, they have more than a year to negotiate the classes, technical regulations, and sporting regulations; they don’t have to slap them together in a short period of time. They can do the job right the first time. Additionally, the ACO has made it clear that they approve of the merger. So far, all of the participants are saying the right things. Whether they’re still saying the right things a year from now remains to be seen, but for now we do have reason to be optimistic. I’m not trying to force positivity down your throat like some were doing on Twitter yesterday but at the same time there’s no indication that it’s time to start playing funeral dirges yet either.
As far as the technical regulations go, both sides have indicated that they would like to see a minimum number of classes. Currently the ALMS has five classes and Grand Am has two. Based on comments from Don Panoz, it also seems that the current ALMS P1 class will not exist in the new series. What I would like to see are four classes:
- The current ALMS P2 cars as the top class with ACO type engine rules and open tire competition. This would help keep the relationship with the ACO and Le Mans while retaining the technical aspects and relevancy of the ALMS.
- The current Grand Am Daytona Prototype class as the second class with their more restrictive technical regulations and spec tires. The close racing and emphasis on the drivers instead of the cars is popular with many fans and would retain those fans that enjoy the more NASCAR style of racing.
- The current ALMS GTE class as the third and top GT class with ACO type engine rules and open tire competition. Once again, this would help keep the relationship with the ACO and Le Mans while retaining the technical aspects and relevancy of the ALMS.
- The current GrandAm GT class as the fourth class, once again with the more restrictive engine rules and spec tires, for the same reasons as the DP cars above. Ideally, I would like to see them phase the tube frame cars out and just have stock-based machinery.
P1 competition has waned over the years, so although I love the big prototype cars, I can accept not having them in the merged series. All of the four classes I listed above have competitive fields and feature the best of the two series. Personally, I won’t be able to accept Daytona Prototypes in their current guise as the top class in the series; they just don’t represent what I believe sports car racing is (I do have to admit here that I strongly believe that they will make the DPs the premier class). I won’t quit watching the races, but my allegiance will definitely transfer to the World Endurance Championship if the current DPs are slotted in as the premier class of the new series in 2014.
Over the last 24 hours there has been a lot of discussion of the technical regulations and speculation over what the class structure of the merged series will be. It is just as important to consider what the sporting regulations of the merged series will be like. Which current series will the sporting regulations reflect most? Contact is accepted more in Grand Am than it is in the ALMS, how and when will the merged series penalize contact between the cars? The ALMS makes use of local yellows whereas GrandAm does not. Will the merged series use local yellows or just full course cautions? These questions are just as important as class structure, engine rules, and tire rules.
Essentially, yesterday’s announcement created more questions than it provided answers. I haven’t been able to form an opinion on it yet good or bad, there are just too many unanswered questions. As the merger takes shape and we learn more about which classes there will be and what the regulations will be like, we’ll all be more able to form our opinions. It certainly isn’t time, as some have already done, to declare sports car racing in the United States dead. There are certainly reasons to be skeptical but for now there are reasons to remain positive.