CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a market that many consider too small to support two separate professional road racing championships, there are questions as to how the future of both the American Le Mans Series and the NASCAR-owned Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car tour will shake out over the long and short terms.
In essence, the ALMS has represented this continent’s ties to the international sports car community through its rules leasing agreement between it and the L’Automobile Club du L’Ouest, the organizers of the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance classic.
That arrangement, stressing technological innovation, has given the ALMS a patina of excitement not found in the Rolex series; which despite close racing, as been dogged by rules restricting both costs and expensive technology innovations. Further troubling the Rolex waters is that in a segment of motorsport built more on the fantasy of performance, the Grand Am cars have had a patina not so much of glamorous excess, but of urban taxi cabs dueling on city streets.
But, is that equation now about to change? Clearly the alliance between the Le Mans folks and the ALMS has hit some bumps caused by the French organizers new partnership with the Federation International de L’Automobile in establishing the World Endurance Championship.
Although one might have expected the fact that making the 12 Hours of Sebring, the traditional ALMS season opener, the debut race of the WEC would have brought with it a boost for the Americans, it has had an opposite effect.
The reason for that is that the WEC has demanded roughly half the starting grid spots for itself, potentially leaving many ALMS regulars, particularly those in the spec LMPC prototype and all Porsche GTC production categories, out in the cold in what is the ALMS’ premier event of the year. In truth, while the Don Panoz owned championship has a strong production car base to build from, it’s prototype component, if not exactly in tatters, is showing so rips in its fabric with only three legitimately top of the line LMP1 prototypes and possibly six of their spec LMPC cousins on tap for the year.
Moreover, despite the positive spin the ALMS has put on its internet-driven television package, there are rumblings that as the series heads into 2012, it is not working nearly as well as had been hoped, leaving much frustration among its participants, particularly those with manufacturer and corporate ties, in its wake.
(Indeed, both Audi and Ferrari, once staunch ALMS regulars have moved over to the Grand Am, with Corvette likewise taking a new interest in the NASCAR-owned tour.)
Even so, despite changes to its rules philosophy that have loosened the technology restrictions, and which likewise have improved the dismal appearance of its headlining Daytona Prototype class, the Rolex’ image still takes a back seat to that of the ALMS — largely because of its lack of bonding with the rest of the international sports car community. Yet, the face of that community is also changing, with new regulations coming on line in the next few years, rules that the Grand Am may well embrace in part, or even in whole.
Indications of that car been found in the arrival of the Audi R8 sports car, so much of a fixture of the current international racing scene, and its Ferrari 458 Italia opposition, both the Ferrari and the Audi having been adapted to Rolex specifications. A further indication is this week’s announcement that Gabriel Cadringher, long a major player in defining the international competition rules, has joined the Grand Am as a consultant working in this same area for the NASCAR camp. (Additionally, insiders say that the hot V-8, tubeframe Audi and Mercedes sedans of the German Touring Car Series may soon be added to the Grand-Am’s weekend roster on a limited basis.)
So, does all of this mean the downfall of the ALMS’ empire as the Visigoths of the Grand Am stage a takeover of the Panoz tour’s turf?
Perhaps, and then again perhaps not. What is for sure is that the situation is, what battlefield commanders might term, as “fluid.” And, in that fluidity will, most likely, be found the “new” future of the sport both here and abroad.
Unanswered, of course is whether we will like or reject it. Either way it will be a modern day soap opera.