With the ripples being created from the Grand-Am/American Le Mans Series merger for 2014, some of the biggest players in the shift – however it evolves – are those who largely operate behind the scenes.
Consider the thoughts of those involved in the marketing, activating, technical and tire sides – sides who all need to have their thoughts put into play once this revitalized series hits the track at Daytona in January 2014.
“I think it's going to have a significant impact right out of the gate; there should be a really cool race schedule in year one,” says Zak Brown (LEFT), founder and CEO of Just Marketing International, better known as JMI – the world's largest motorsports marketing agency and a major player in some of racing's biggest sponsorship deals the last decade.
“I think NASCAR can bring its ideas, resources, clout and management to the infrastructure, and bring some of cost containment racing to the table in what Grand-Am has. On the other hand, ALMS has done well with the technology side of the sport. There is a balance between how spec you want to make things versus open and extravagant. Sports cars are meant to be unique, and there, I think they have good international experience and teams. Blended together, you could have a really cool product, with the outcome you want having the best possible sports car series, being able to cherry pick the best of both worlds.”
A name brought up during Wednesday's press conference as having helped move the discussions forward was another Brown – Patron Spirits CEO and Extreme Speed Ferrari driver Ed Brown – whose participation in this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona was as much a business trip as a racing one.
“I'd had interest in (acquiring) the ALMS, but the way it could have happened might have almost defeated the purpose, which is making sports car racing the greatest thing on the planet,” he explains. “Some of the assets – Road Atlanta for instance – might have needed to be diversified.
“And here, there were really two players playing in the same pool. I wondered, ‘Why wouldn't the thing just merge?' You ask questions and it comes back, ‘It tried to happen, but the parties don't like each other.' So I started working on both sides. I worked on Jim (France) a lot.”
With officials from both sports car series on the grounds at Daytona, and a major sponsor to the ALMS in Patron helping, Brown described how talks evolved.
“The thing I came out and told both of them is, ‘What the hell, the worst thing that can happen is nothing,'” he says. “So let's get in the same room and see if there are some similarities, equal visions and the goals are the same, because I think you'll find out, they pretty much are.”
The man who's been tasked at organizing the playing field for the manufacturers who have come to play in the ALMS – IMSA chief operating officer Scot Elkins (LEFT, shown from during his prior stint in Champ Car) – seems thrilled at the prospect of seeing what this new series can bring.
“To be honest with you, I think it's one of the greatest things that's ever happened to American sports car racing,” he says. “It's something that I'm, at this point, very much a part of – and looking forward to figuring out to see what this series looks like in 2014.”
Nothing was outlined specifically Wednesday in terms of the class structure for 2014, although ALMS president and CEO Scott Atherton indicated the ALMS' GT will be a part of it. At present, with Rolex having two classes (DP and GT) and due to expand to a third (GX, for new and experimental technologies) in 2013, with ALMS' five (P1, P2, GT, PC and GTC), there's going to be a fair bit of finagling to condense the categories.
Then there's the GT3 aspect. Particularly popular on the world platform, GT3 has not as yet found a home in America, although some GT3-based cars were introduced into Grand-Am this year (the Ferrari 458 and Audi R8, although each was fairly modified). Zak Brown's not just a marketing maven but a driver and team principal as well; his United Autosports team has run Audi R8s (RIGHT), McLaren MP4-12cs in GT3 spec and also done sporadic ALMS and Grand-Am races in prototypes.
“There's so many types of GT racing out there, with GT3 by far being the most popular on the basis of number of cars sold and different championships,” Brown admits. “And they're all pretty close but with different rules. Do they try to adopt GT3 rules and go ahead and modify those?
“And on prototypes, if right now you have three or four LMP2, five or six LMPC, and 10 DPs, there you've got a class. Maybe it's done where there's a prototype race, a GT race and maybe three or four times a year, say at Daytona or Sebring, they're all put together. I think everything's on the table and there's a lot of people with a lot of opinions. Seeking different views and with everyone chiming in, that will help things.”
Elkins has the challenge of keeping the hammer down on the ALMS technical side for 2013 before moving onto any 2014 endeavors.
“I only met Gabriel Cadringher (Grand-Am chief technical consultant) for the first time Wednesday,” he says. “There's a lot of business terms to sort out, and we're literally just starting now. We all have ideas.”
Without sportsmen, or "gentlemen" drivers, many of the teams can't exist, either. While ALMS GT doesn't have a de facto pro-am class, there are a number of pro-am driver lineups, and defining a balance that will allow pro-am lineups a proper chance to compete while not losing what ALMS GT has to offer is a very important aspect.
“We don't have a pro-am division, and it's arguably the most competitive racing on the planet right now,” Extreme Speed's Ed Brown says of ALMS GT. “I don't know if it's vitally important to have a pro-am category, per se, but there does need to be the ‘Wow' and ‘buzz' about what ALMS brings to sports car racing.
“For the guys without a lot of experience, oh well, you'll show up and try your hardest and that makes you get better. I've gotten a lot better the last couple years but that's only because I've been thrown in among a bunch of assassins!”
One thing also not elaborated on in Wednesday's press conference was whether tires would be left as an open specification or held as a single supplier. Domestically, the ALMS is the last bastion of a championship with open tire competition – and it's one of the things that has pushed its entrants, Michelin, Dunlop, Falken and Yokohama, to compete. ALMS has opted for a single supplier in its Challenge classes, Michelin and Yokohama providing customer tires to PC and GTC class entrants, respectively. Grand-Am has gone with Continental as its single supplier for both classes for several years.
Although there's still work to be done on that front, French giant Michelin is pleased with the developments, says Silvia Mammone, motorsports manager, Michelin North America.
“We applaud the efforts of both the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am, who have worked hard to promote and grow sport car racing for the past decade,” she says. “We believe that by going forward together that the sport can grow bigger and faster and bring even greater value to the fans and the stakeholders.”
“Michelin is very interested in learning more about the opportunity to grow and promote sports car racing in North America through the combined new series beginning in 2014.”
Newer to the sports car scene, Falken Tire has made inroads on Michelin and Dunlop within the increasingly deep ALMS GT ranks and won three races, including the most recent round of the championship last weekend at Baltimore with drivers Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers.
“We greet today's announcement with a sense of both excitement and wonderment,” says Kevin Jones, supervisor, ALMS Motorsports, Falken Tire. “While having no experience with Grand-Am, we have been nothing but pleased with the guidance of the team that runs the American Le Mans Series and trust that they have the best interest of sports car racing for the fans, manufacturers and competitors in mind.
“Our hope is that the new series debuting in 2014 is truly a combination of the best of both series incorporating fantastic GT racing, technologically progressive prototypes and open tire competition across a broad geographic schedule. We look forward to the final season of the ALMS in 2013 as it is known today and the bright future of sports car racing in the U.S., starting in 2014. At this time, we will wait to see what developments come about in the coming months while the new product is put together.”
And then there's the prospect of how this affects IndyCar. With the marketing arms and goals of manufacturers wanting to showcase their race teams and more relevant road car technology in a united American road racing championship, will this mean the continuation of the popular – and mutually beneficial – doubleheader weekends where IndyCar and either ALMS or Grand-Am split the ticket? In 2012, IndyCar partnered with Grand-Am at Barber and Detroit, and shared the bill with ALMS at the Long Beach and Baltimore street races and Mid-Ohio road course. Road America, as ever, would be a natural for a joint weekend for 2014.
“Absolutely, I think they will continue,” Zak Brown says. “Long Beach is an exciting event for Grand-Am to go to, and they'd went once before (in 2006). Sports car is doing better than it had been. I think IndyCar is still bigger than sports cars, but I think sports cars help IndyCar make a better weekend; more people generally go to IndyCar races, but they like that kind of [combined] weekend. Hopefully they wouldn't cannibalize each other, but it's a similar type of audience.”
As talks, discussions and regulations move forward for this series, it's vitally important for all opinions to be heard to help produce what could be a stellar, singular sports car racing championship.