With no fanfare or eyewitnesses, a treaty was agreed to with a handshake on a golf course, thus ending a 13-year stalemate between rival sports car racing factions. Six months later, it was officially announced to the world that Grand American Road Racing and the American Le Mans will become one in 2014.
Not so much a merger as a Grand-Am buyout of ALMS, like open-wheel racing’s reckoning in 2008 without the buckets of venom. What Wednesday’s announcement lacked in details it made up for in enthusiasm from the sports car racing community.
“I know a lot of people have been waiting many years for this day to come,” said Jim France, who launched Grand-Am in 2000 out of the ashes of the United States Road Racing Championship – an alternative to the ailing IMSA, which sanctions the ALMS. “This is a great day professionally and personally for me. I’ve been a sports car racing fan my entire life. I can thank my father, Bill, Senior (NASCAR’s chief architect) for that. He obviously loved stock car racing but had a real affinity for sports car racing, as well.”
Along with ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz, ALMS president Scott Atherton and Grand-Am president Ed Bennett, France was finally able to tell manufacturers, sponsors, team owners and fans the split will be over in 15 months. Due to the Herculean task of blending eight classes of cars – some completely unique to each series – a unified championship wasn’t feasible in 2013.
Grand-Am boasts closed-cockpit Daytona Prototypes, which only contest the Rolex Series schedule, while the ALMS fashion much of its rules around the Automobile Club de l’Ouest for its Le Mans Prototypes, which are able to compete in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans. The two kinds of prototypes are seemingly incompatible, which is why the two groups, along with manufacturers and the ACO, gave themselves a large window to hammer out technical specifications.
“This will be the true merger of the two series, when we combine the technical regulations and descriptions of these cars,” Atherton said. “The vision has been clearly established but it’s been all by the guys in the suits. And the practical application of our vision with the realities of technical limitations and capabilities, is yet to be determined.”
How the classes shake out, what name the combined series will adopt and what the schedule will look like are all being determined.
The buyout included Road Atlanta, site of the Petit Le Mans eight-hour endurance race, and a new lease agreement for Sebring International Raceway, the retired World War II airbase where the 12 Hours of Sebring has been held every March since 1950. That considered, the schedule is almost guaranteed to include at least the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring and almost certainly the annual six-hour race at Watkins Glen International. It’s the first time sports car racing has boasted the Big 3 North American endurance races on the same schedule since 1997.
Page 2 of 3 - For track promoters, one series could significantly boost ticket sales.
“This is most definitely the best news you could ever get when two series come together. It sure makes our job a little easier, but I’m sure the bar will be raised to make (the event) bigger and better,” said WGI president Michael Printup. “If we could only bring back IMSA and GTP back, but this is the next best thing. This is sports car racing at its best. I can’t wait for 2014, it’s got to come faster than a year. We’ve got to speed the clock up a little bit.”
During Wednesday’s press conference, Atherton said they’re looking at a 12-race schedule for 2014.
The board of directors for the new series will include France as chairman; Panoz, who built his empire on the strength of time-release medication he engineered, will serve as vice chairman; vice chair/executive vice president Lesa France Kennedy, who also holds the title of CEO for International Speedway Corp and is the sister of Jim France; Bennett; Atherton; and NASCAR deputy general counsel Karen Leetzow.
Both series struggled with car counts in the premier classes the past few years, thanks in no small part to a weakened global economy. With a singular series, manufacturers, sponsors and team owners won’t be forced to choose anymore.
“I just really couldn’t be more pleased and more happy and, frankly, more optimistic about the future of road racing in America,” said Gainsco Racing owner Bob Stallings, who started a championship DP program in 2005. “I had a great opportunity to spend an hour on the phone with Jim France (Tuesday) morning and he kind of walked me through his vision for this exciting new venture, how he expects it to all play out, and clearly he is very enthusiastic, as he always is. It all reinforces for me that there is some awfully exciting things coming down the road in North American road racing.”
“Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be answered about the schedule, the equipment, and the technical regulations,” said Michael Shank, whose team won the Daytona 24 in February. “As a team owner, these are very important questions to be resolved. But there is always work to be done in racing, and just knowing that this sport is positioned for the future gives us a very positive outlook as we move forward.”
More than anyone, team owners are anxious to know what the new specifications will be, since most of them just purchased new gear in 2012. Will those chassis, engines and body work still be viable after 2013?“I just hope we don’t have to buy or build brand new racecars for 2014 after all we’ve had to invest in, lately. But it’s certainly a great opportunity for all of my partners because just about everything we do is business-to-business-based,” said Wayne Taylor, a championship endurance driver-turned championship team owner. “This will give us a lot of new opportunities with teams, drivers, racetracks, race markets and everything that goes with that as both series will be under one roof. I think it will be absolutely great for someone in my position. The one and only question mark will be, how do we move forward in 2013? But I’m sure we will have clear direction once the dust settles from this initial announcement.”
Page 3 of 3 - How the new series works with the ACO and Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, which both helped and hindered the ALMS since inception, Panoz was pretty blunt about influence from abroad.
“This series that we are putting together is the American Sports Car Series, and we have to take care of our own business, our own market, addressing our sponsors, our fans, our teams, and that’s exactly what we are going to do,” he said. “Of course we are going to pay attention to what’s going on around us, but we’ll be acting responsibly in our own best interests.”