Tuesday
Mar192013

"Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!”

Sebring, Fla. – This year’s Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours brought with it two major dramatic themes. Both involve the closing of an age.

For nearly as long as the American Le Mans Series has run, one of its biggest attractions has been the super high-tech presence of Audi’s LMP team. Their drivers have always been among the world’s finest, often with Formula 1 pedigree (indeed, the years-old joke on the paddock is that F1 is the “feeder series” for Le Mans sports cars), nearly as diversified as the UN, or at least Angelina Jolie’s nursery.

Thus, with the FIA World Endurance Championship continuing to play to the more sterile but market-friendly circuits (its only US date for 2013 being COTA in Texas), and with the LMP1 class departing from the series after this year, the Audi team returned for a Swan Song run – a thank you and farewell to the fans and the series, and as always a tune-up for Le Mans 24. What’s remarkable about Audi’s run last Saturday was not that they won, but how they continue to make it look so easy. It isn’t. Just completing 12 Hours at Sebring is a conquest of its own; winning it, and winning so convincingly for so long, leaves Audi with an overall streak to rival the greatest ever.

Then, there’s the story of the Series itself.

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” 

The words of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters may have been intended as a joke, but no less hyperbole has been spent in recent months on next year’s integration of the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am into one combined program.

“This NASCAR thing? It’s gonna’ suck!”  – (echoed comments from any number of ALMS fans in the crowd and via the internet, on next year’s unified series)

We’ve had all Winter to grouse about it; to complain and prognosticate on what it all means to the future of racing, but with both series’ 2013 openers now in the books, it’s time to more seriously consider: What’s the United SportsCar Racing series going to mean?

Everything – the new name, the loss of LMP1 class, the inclusion of Daytona Prototypes, the mixing of various GT classes – everything has been under scrutiny, and not just from the fans. Team owners Rob Dyson and Greg Pickett, both longtime LMP1 competitors as well as great friends, held a joint conference with the motorsports press during the week, and both seemed to have more questions about 2014 than answers. How exactly will the specifications shake out? Where will the tires come from? Will P2 be competitive with DP? Right now, less than 11 months until the United SportsCar Racing series goes live in Daytona for 2014, there’s still a ton of scaffolding in place, lots of “we’re working on it,” and not too much else to go on.

However, there are several things we can count on:

The relationship with ACO will be preserved. This was pretty obvious, as ACO has benefited greatly from ALMS over the years, and had very little liability in the deal. It’s a win for ACO no matter what, so they’re in.

IMSA sanctioning is being kept in place, another obvious move. The “big reveal” ceremony showed a somewhat revised IMSA logo, which wasn’t broken to begin with, but someone’s market research must’ve concluded it was the way to go.

Manufacturers and sponsors will no longer need to hedge on which series will provide the best return. One top-level sports car series means we no longer have a split in that slice of the pie. It also means TV networks can present a more cohesive package – even though Speed channel is going away later in 2013, other networks are bound to take notice. Velocity, are you listening?

For the ALMS-faithful, the biggest complaint seems to be about NASCAR running everything. While that’s certainly valid on some fronts, the Walmart of racing in the US does do some things incredibly well. Turning racing into money is the France family specialty; it’s what they DO, before anything else. Also, as evidenced by the extreme makeover at Daytona International Speedway, they don’t mind spending real money on the fans’ experience at the track. As the USCR schedule forms, a few circuits are sure to lose out, obviously.  Those that remain, however, will stand to benefit in ways previously unimagined.

In Steve McQueen’s movie Le Mans, his character Michael Delaney famously said:  “When you’re racing… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after, is just waiting.”

It’s time to stop waiting, and go racing.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.

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