Wednesday
Aug122009

As the Racing World Turns

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.With Michael Schumacher officially ending his comeback due to his on-track motorcycle crash earlier this year - which was far more severe than anyone really knew, including fractures around the head and neck - the racing world has been deprived of a tantalizingly intriguing scenario after weeks of conjecture and speculation. Would he be quick? Would he sit on the pole? Or would he be in the 6-10 position, still credible but not front-line stuff? We’ll never know now. A little air has been let out of the racing world after the announcement this morning that’s for sure.

How about Tony Stewart’s performance at Watkins Glen yesterday? It’s clear that with Hendrick Motorsports support - and Stewart’s hugely prodigious talent and incredible will to win - that he is the man to beat for this year’s Sprint Cup. And how about that nasty wreck triggered by Kasey Kahne involving Sam Hornish Jr. and Jeff Gordon? All involved were very lucky, and you have to wonder how badly Gordon tweaked his already seriously injured back. It’s days like yesterday that could hasten Jeff’s plans for retirement.

I observed the ALMS/IndyCar weekend at Mid-Ohio, and the most glaring thing made clear to me about being there is why aren’t these two series making these joint weekends a habit? Here we are on the verge of the ALMS making its annual trek up to Road America in August, and the crowd this weekend is going to be deprived of a Saturday-Sunday show of great road racing. Not that Road America doesn’t have a great weekend of diverse road racing already planned, but it would be that much better if the weekend was bookended with the ALMS on Saturday and the IRL on Sunday. I understand that there are sanctioning fee issues preventing IndyCar from appearing there - or Road America from wanting them there - but whatever the reason the parties involved have to step back and think for once about what would be good for the enthusiastic road racing fans who would welcome it, instead of putting their own egos first. IndyCar needs to run at Road America, pure and simple. It’s the greatest natural-terrain road racing circuit in the U.S., and most of the teams running in the series have long histories and fond memories of running there. So you’d think that they’d figure it out eventually.

Not that anything so perfectly logical would enter into the discussion anytime soon, but wouldn’t it be nice - for once - if rational thought emerged in conjunction with a racing series? I won’t lose any sleep over that notion or do anything as rash as hold my breath, but stranger things have happened in the course of this crazy racing business, and I choose to hang on to a shred of hope that some way and somehow the parties will see the light.

Speaking of the ALMS, CEO Scott Atherton is hinting of an announcement this coming Saturday night in Elkhart Lake that is said to be hugely positive for the series. Whatever the gist of that announcement is it’s clear that the ALMS has had to deal with a double-edged sword in its relationship with the ACO and their governance of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. On the one hand, the fact that the ALMS has a direct connection to the world’s greatest endurance road racing event is quite simply its raison d’etre, and without it the ALMS would be just another road racing series. On the other hand, that direct connection between the ACO and the ALMS has its limitations, or should I say there are “technical issues” that restrict the ALMS’ ability to enhance “the show” it puts on for its hard-core road racing fans because of the overly restrictive rules package specifically enforced for the endurance classic in June.

I’m not privy to Scott’s “Plan” but I will say it’s clear that - except for Sebring and Petit Le Mans where Audi and Peugeot regularly square-off against each other - the ALMS needs to do something radical at the front of the field. There must be more prototypes competing during the races on the rest of the schedule to make that class worth watching, otherwise, it will turn into a GT series. Not that there’s anything wrong with a GT-oriented series - the Corvette vs. Porsche vs. Ferrari vs. BMW battle is shaping up nicely after Corvette Racing’s C6.R debut at Mid-Ohio in GT2 trim - but if the ALMS is going to thrive it simply needs more enticing cars at the front of the field.

Linking the auto manufacturers’ current obsession with fuel-efficiency in their R&D programs with the racing challenge that the ALMS provides is a natural. The ALMS is touting that direction, but they need to do more - much more - to make it work and make it more attractive for manufacturer investment and interest. Or, short of that, the ALMS will have to make a calculated move to go off the ACO reservation in order to bring more high-powered prototypes into their series. It’s going to be interesting either way.

The bottom line is that we need a healthy road racing series on this continent, and whatever Atherton & Co. has to do to make that happen, they need to get it done, pronto.

See you next week.

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