Monday
Sep202010

Over, Under, Sideways, Down!

So here we are… days away from the end of another American Le Mans Series season. Where have we been? What do we know? And, more importantly, where are we going?

In the past, the ALMS’ annual pilgrimage to Road Atlanta included Scott Atherton’s eagerly anticipated “State of the Series” address. In the past, that was convenient. Petit Le Mans was always the penultimate round of the season. We would gather, learn… and wind up the season in Monterey.

With the calendar juggling witnessed in 2010, Petit Le Mans is now the final race of the year. Frankly, that’s a good thing and a great move. But it has created a somewhat fragmented method of getting out Series news for the coming year. While the race is roughly one week later than previous years, the Series has been pushed getting their house in order to bring everyone up-to-speed for 2011.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s briefly look back at 2010.

On the positive side, the Challenge class additions seem to have been well received and fairly well attended. I don’t recall any major incidents (I suppose that might depend on where you ended up in the incident) with the LMP and GT classes and the Challenge teams did a nice job of battling among themselves.

Rick DoleDid the classes grow the Series? I guess we won’t know until 2011. Did they sell additional tickets? Probably not. Did they help round out the show? Yes. I think they did. I think it’s fair to say the Challenge idea was a good idea and if the Series can continue to foster them along… and not lose interest or energy in the idea, with a little relaxing of the “spec” structure we could see things back to the solid four class competition.

On the negative side of things, we only had nine races in 2010. My personal feeling on this is nine is not enough. Quite honestly, even 10 is a bit anemic. The ALMS should be a 12 race series… minimum.

Regis LefebureFor the most part though, the nine races were damn good races. Sebring lived up to its historic heritage. Good crowds turned out despite a flat economy and the racing was good. Everyone was always worried about what the ALMS would look like without Audi. Well… it looked like the ALMS. It looked like endurance sports car racing, and frankly, the loss was Audi’s and the Audi fans. They should have been there. The GT guys were right back where they left off in 2009…. banging doors for 12 hours with no signs of letting up.

In the end, we saw Team Peugeot with the win in LMP1, Team Cytosport Porsche in LMP2, Risi Ferrari took the top spot in GT2, and in the new challenge classes the inaugural win went to Alex Job Racing in GTC and Level 5 Motorsports in LMPC.

John ThawleyLong Beach was another 100 minute thrash. I know why we go to Long Beach, I know why it’s an important event to both the Series and the manufacturers that participate. But if it is that damn important, why isn’t it at least a 2 hour and 45 minute race? A 100 minutes is not a race. It’s an exhibition. We need to fix it and we need to fix it now. Sorry… it’s a crumby situation.

All that aside, we saw a great race with the guys from Highcroft giving everyone a thrill, Adrian Fernandez a lower rung on the podium and Duncan Dayton near on a heart attack. It was good. In GT2 the Lizards left the Corvettes with an irregular heartbeat and in second place four seconds back.

Regis LefebureThe first dose of reality in the schedule change came in round three as we headed up the road to Monterey. It was May. MAY. It was just a touch chilly for this boy. But it was a six hour slugfest and it was what endurance racing is supposed to be; six hours of wheel to wheel racing. Not quite into the darkness… but close enough. And when darkness did fall, the Highcroft boys were the last man standing while the Dyson Mazda crew were left to wonder how they came up 24 minutes short. And while Joey - I’ve got things in - Hand had is BMW poised for the win, Patrick Long picked his pocket at the final turn to bring in another GT2 win for the Lizards.

Rick DoleUtah and Miller Motorsport; Highcroft went on to make it three in a row taking the LMP win and the Level 5 guys took their third win in LMPC. In GT Risi Competitzione won its second race of the season with a dominating 21 second margin over the Auberlen/Milner BMW of Rahal Letterman Racing. It was a second straight win for Black Swan Racing in the GT Challenge.

Utah is the race everyone wants to see succeed. Seriously, people want this track and this event to work. And on paper… it should. It’s an amazing facility (not necessarily the best race track… but that could be fixed) with a promoter willing to do whatever it takes. But, it’s dollars and cents. People just aren’t showing up in numbers that make the math work.  - Stay tuned.

John ThawleyLime Rock greeted everyone with wet track, wet ground and wet air. Did I mention it was wet. Though once again, the racing was awesome. Greg Pickett’s Cytosport Racing Muscle Milk Porsche Spyder saw the team’s first overall win in Series competition. But it didn’t come without a fight. Late race contact with David Brabham’s Highcroft HPD turned Brabhams slow leak into a flat tire putting Graf in the pits with a stop and go penalty. What we learned is that it takes longer to change a flat tire than it does to serve a stop and go penalty.

In LMGT it was Patrick Long and the Lizards one more time holding off a pair of charging BMWs to take the win. The BMWs finished second and third.

Gunnar Jeannette and Elton Julian claimed the LMPC win while Andy Lally and Henri Richard grabbed the GTC win for TRG.

Rick DoleYou know its mid-summer when the circus comes to Mid-Ohio. Give or take a 30-day window, you just know that that’s where you’re going to be. And there we were.

Turned out Greg Pickett’s Lime Rock celebration would come to an abrupt end at Mid-Ohio. During the first day of practice Pickett landed the Cytosport Porsche RS Spyder upside down in the tire barrier and suffered rib and back injuries. The car was done for the weekend and Pickett’s injuries were enough to force him out of the remainder of the season.

The big story in the race was Intersport Racing. Before losing an engine, Clint Field dominated the first two hours of the race. The #37 Lola’s exit resulted in a battle between the Highcroft Racing HPD and the Dyson Racing Mazda. The Mazda would prevail giving the team its first American Le Mans Series victory with the new Lola-Mazda combination.

In LMGT Risi Competizione took the win with Jaime Melo and Gianmaria Bruni recovering from mid-race fuel pump problems. Corvette tried closing the gap but settled for second.

It was another win for Black Swan Racing in the GTC class and Level 5 Racing continued its dominance winning the LMPC division.

John ThawleySo off we go to Wisconsin and another too-short race on an almost too long track. Road America… billed as America’s National Park of Racing is always a fun stop on the tour. But again… it’s endurance racing. Four hours minimum, please.

Once again, the racing was good. It was real good. Drayson Racing’s Jonny Cocker stole the LMP victory from Klaus Graf in the second to last corner. Some are saying it was one of the greatest ALMS victories of recent memory. It was edge-of-your-seat stuff and it was a breakthrough win for Drayson.

In the GT class it was Dirk Mueller in the Rahal Letterman BMW finally shedding their bridesmaid’s role for the 2010 season.

Gunnar Jeannette’s Green Earth Team took the victory in LMPC and in GTC it was once again, Black Swan Racing with Jeroen Bleekemolen at the wheel.

Rick DoleRound 8 took the Series north to Canada and the legendary Mosport International Raceway. In a word… bummer. About two hours into the race  a heavy accident on the Mario Andretti straight caused severe damage to the Armco safety barrier bringing out a red flag. The stoppage essentially brought an early end to the race once it was determined that the safety barrier was not going to get fixed in a timely fashion. So, the Muscle Milk Porsche inherited the win, Green Earth Team Gunnar took LMPC, the Lizards found themselves on the top step in GT and the Patron Porsche of Lewis and Aschenbach took the win in GTC.

While we were at Road America, the Series pre-empted the afore mentioned State of the Series address with the announcement of the 2011 Schedule. It was billed as “a familiar mix of high profile street circuits and the best permanent road course in North America.” Ten races in all.

As was the case in 2010, next year’s schedule will open and close with the American Le Mans Series’ two premier events - the 59th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Fresh from Florida on Saturday, March 19 from Sebring International Raceway and the 14th annual Petit Le Mans from Road Atlanta on Saturday, October 15. Both events are North America rounds of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, a new global endurance championship from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the organizing body for the Le Mans 24 Hours.

However, there were a couple of surprises that left a few faces wearing question marks.

First, no Miller Motorsports on the schedule. Disappointing? Yes. Surprising? No. At the end of the day, I don’t think the race is working economically for either party and both agreed to take a break and revisit the situation at a later date.

Next topic of discussion was the two new events on the schedule. Two more street courses? One with the IRL in Baltimore… that frankly sounds very viable and on the outset, well promoted and organized. The other a stand alone event in Oklahoma.

Hmmmm… I don’t like the sound of standing alone in Oklahoma. Apparently, neither did the city council in Oklahoma. The race was voted down in short order. While there are a few flickering embers of “maybe,” I’ve got a hunch Braselton HQ is making other plans.

Mosport takes a tumble forward and this is probably a good thing. The traditional “cottage weekend” in Canada hasn’t always faired well for the race, so moving to July 24 could and should work out well.

Mid Ohio and Road America fall right into place at the heart of the summer. They’ll be followed by the new street venue in Baltimore. I fully expect the Baltimore race to be great. I think the city has the right attitude and the right desire. They’re putting all their resources behind it and putting it in a primary location. Not some outlying suburban sports arena parking lot. No sir. The Baltimore track will circle through the inner harbor right smack in the middle of all the action in downtown Baltimore. Book your flight for this one. It’s going to be what a street race ought to be.

The other flip flop on the calendar is Laguna. It’s later in the summer… some would say fall, on September 17. I don’t know if this is good or bad. Frankly, I don’t care either way. BUT… this is an important race at an important venue. It’s just as important to get the date sorted out and quit screwing with it. It’s a legendary track and the ALMS visit is a great show. Pick a date, lock it in and build a tradition. It’s too important.

The final point of contention with the 2011 schedule is a two month break - yes, two month break - following the Long Beach race (April 16) the Series will not reconvene until July 9th for round 3 at Lime Rock. Round 3 in July?

To quote Scott Atherton: “The positioning of the Le Mans Test Day is unfortunate but it will give many of our top teams the opportunity to prepare for what is the most grueling test of man and machine.”

That’s true. But how many teams? And at what price to the other competitor’s in the series, the fans and the Series itself? I realize the Series owes much of its existence and certainly the roots of its name to Le Mans… but I ask, at what point is the tail wagging the dog?

There needs to be a compromise. It’s too much. I’ll go on record right here, right now as one of the ALMS’ biggest supporters, and seriously… I really am, it’s NOT two months…. it’s actually three. To be accurate, it’s 12 weeks. Whatever it is, it’s too much.

I just want to wrap this up with my thoughts on the future of the Series on television:

I think the ALMS is in a very good position and is being quite smart manner in which they’re evolving their race coverage. It’s time to stop calling it a television package.

Television is the new radio.

Programming isn’t defined as narrowly as it used to be. Audiences are defined or reached the way they used to be. We get our information and our entertainment in all sorts of ways. We watch “clips” of our favorite shows. We stream, we download, we DVR - we watch what we want, when we want and wherever we want. And if you don’t, your kid does.

The reality is, no one can afford to broadcast these events flag-to-flag live via traditional television broadcasting. It’s not in the budget. Would you subscribe to pay per view? $30 - $50 to watch live flag-to-flag coverage? Didn’t think so.

But here’s the good news. It’s called broadband. It’s called asynchronous viewing. The ability to watch what you want, when you want and where you want. Want it on your laptop? Want it on your iPad? Want it in your living room? It’ll be your choice.

The ALMS is providing live streaming. Sure.. it might be a little clunky right now. But consider this; when I started photographing ALMS races in 2001 hotels didn’t have internet. I would struggle with dial-up… assuming I could figure out how to get the 9, in to the dial string format used by the hotel telco system. By 2005 most hotels had hard wire and now even the most remote hole-in-the-wall race hotel has wifi. And this year, I did much of my photo transmissions via WiFi from my seat on an airplane or in airport lounges. Point is, we’re connected. The next wave will come faster than you think. Remember when your phone was just a phone? Remember Pong? Technology growth in exponential.

So live streaming flag-to-flag coverage supported by live timing and scoring… are you kidding? Run that through Apple TV onto your HD flat screen and your smack in the middle of Green Park without the hang-over or bad breath.

Team that together with the Series produced NFL-film style docudrama and you’ve got something for everyone. And the docudrama is worth owning for watching at a later date. How many owned the IMAX DVD called Speedway? How many times did you watch it? Believe me, it will all get better and better.

I contend that there’s a synergistic if not serendipitous scenario on our doorstep that the ALMS is poised to take advantage of.  And they will turn a tough situation into a great situation. Patience…

Wow.. this wasn’t intended to run this long… but there you have it. As I said, I’m a huge supporter… agree with me, don’t agree with me, I’m in it for the long all.

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