With the Grand Prix of Mosport coming up this weekend, I have been bombarded with story ideas and interview suggestions.
I mean, you send an email requesting an interview with Dr. Don Panoz, who owns the American Le Mans Series as well as Mosport, Road Atlanta and Sebring, and you get one back saying, "We can line you up with Dr. Panoz, but how would you like to talk to Scott Atherton first?"
Well, sure! After all, Atherton is the president and CEO of the ALMS and the series has just announced an overhaul of its class structure. What better time than now to talk about the state of the sport?
So a week ago yesterday, Scott Atherton and I had a great chat by phone about all things ALMS. I don’t propose to go over the whole conversation; just the highlights. But I think you’ll get the feeling, as did I, that the ALMS is not sitting still during this economic crisis. It has taken the bull by the horns and is determined to not only stay in business but to come out on top.
One of the big problems the ALMS is facing has been the number of cars showing up to race. Fewer and fewer pretty much wraps it up. Audi, for instance, pulled out of the series this season after the 12 Hours of Sebring. This was a big blow (although Audi announced this week that it will enter two cars in the next ALMS race, the 10-hour Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta next month).
So to combat this, and other difficulties, the ALMS brain trust examined the four existing classes and concluded some fine-tuning was in order. Significant changes were announced in the last couple of weeks.
To review: There will continue to be four classes in each race but the LMP2 and GT2 classes have been scrapped. In their places will be LMPC (for Le Mans Prototype Challenge) and GTC (Grand Touring Challenge).
In short, this means that manufacturers (Acura, Lola, Audi, Peugeot, et al, in LMP and Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, etc., in GT) will be able to continue to test their diesel and hybrid and other progressive creations under endurance race conditions. The two "challenge" classes, meantime, will enable racers with money to buy into the series and take it to the big guys.
(An example: a race-ready LMP Challenge car can be yours for about US$380,000. A team can look to run a full season for under US$1-million, which is about a third of what it costs to run a P1 car for the season. That is not a bad deal.)
Atherton said the reaction within the series to the changes has been "mixed, with an emphasis on the positive. We’ve retained the core elements of what the ALMS is all about but we’ve now added opportunities to make it more viable for others to participate."
He said that although he’s not aware of any out-and-out hostility toward the moves, "I probably won’t get any face-to-face. I have my ear to the ground, though, and I haven’t picked up many negatives."
Atherton said the ALMS didn’t operate in a vacuum when it determined change was required.
"We went to Audi, Peugeot – all the manufacturers – and we asked them where they were going and what were their marketing issues and what were their environmental issues and we boiled everything down in order to make the right decisions."
Atherton said Peugeot decided to enter two cars in the Petit Le Mans race because "with the exception of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, they get better coverage in Europe when they race over here than they do when they race at home." He's got his fingers crossed that the French marque will enter the ALMS for a full season in 2010
He said Audi’s decision on the Petit Le Mans race (confirmed this week) could perhaps be seen as a precursor to returning to the series full-time next year. "It was a tough decision for them to make (to pull out of the North American series). Audi wants to come back. There isn’t a manufacturer that’s done more for sports car racing than Audi."
Atherton had special words of praise for Corvette, which dropped back from GT1 competition this year to GT2 (and soon to be just GT).
"Look what General Motors has been through" he said. "We were really, really pleased when they said that Corvette was coming back. A lot of racing contracts got written out in the last few years. And yet, in its darkest moment, it speaks volumes that GM would commit resources and money to develop a property like Corvette."
Okay, enough with the talking. It’s time to go racing.
Some of the American Le Mans Series prototypes and touring cars tested at Mosport earlier this week. Support series cars will take to the track tomorrow and then the Grand Prix of Mosport will begin in earnest on Friday morning with practice and qualifying for all cars.
The action will be just about non-stop from then on.
The big race is on Sunday at 3:05 p.m.