The day participants and fans of North American sports car racing have hoped for – and/or feared – appears to be at hand. After many years plying separate paths – and philosophies – Grand-Am's Rolex Series and the American Le Mans Series are tipped to be ready to tie the knot and become just one series.
Is it a revelation? A miracle? A blessing? A curse?
When the report by SPEED.com's John Dagys of a merger to produce joint race operations, likely beginning in 2014, initially broke Saturday mere hours before the ALMS race at Baltimore, it's first impact was of profound surprise. My initial on-ground perspective from talking to various teams, drivers and crew members in Baltimore over the weekend was of shock and disbelief and further conversations since then have only bolstered this impression. While many racing “secrets” are usually at least well speculated on or predictable in advance of their official announcements, this one caught almost everyone off guard. In today's day and age of instant information, it was a genuine shocker.
It was such a bombshell it took almost all the attention off the race (ABOVE), which was intriguing enough as it turned out with 15 cars from four different classes on the overall lead lap with less than a half an hour to go, before a P2 class entry won overall and the GT class winner took a top-five finish. That spoke volumes about the ALMS' level of competition on a day when it didn't need to put on a thrilling race, but it didn't hurt its cause, either.
Yet the race was merely a brief interruption to the conjecture and opinion about possible outcomes that could soon follow. An announcement is expected to be forthcoming on Wednesday that will provide more details – namely, the philosophy, class and technical structure, and human elements of what happens to all the people involved on either side.
Ahead of that presumptive assembly of the various puzzle pieces in play, here's what some of the key players involved within the industry had to say:
BOBBY RAHAL, TEAM CO-OWNER, RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING (COMPETES IN ALMS WITH BMW M3)
“The same as with IndyCar, it would be nothing but great, for the sport, the scene, spectators, for everybody as it would be one series. I think it would be huge for the sport if it came about. Having both Sebring and Daytona in one championship as it once was. The list of tracks goes on. If it all works out, it would be great for the sport.
“I certainly hope the ACO formula, or classes are still used. When I raced IMSA, it went from Sebring to Le Mans and big international teams came over. When you have a singular focus, that could happen. It would be huge for racing as a whole.
“I would hope the ALMS formula would be kept, but if the worlds come together, you have the might of ISC, the television of FOX or SPEED, or ESPN3… there is some real leverage, some real clout. I don't think this is anything but a win for endurance racing. You'd have the marketing might of ISC/NASCAR combined with the ACO formula and the manufacturer involvement, and it's nothing but fantastic.
“I don't know how they'll go about timing. It could probably be handled better than IndyCar (in its merger with Champ Car -Ed.). IndyCar was last-second, some guys in Japan and some at Long Beach. It was one of those things. In this case, we have a chance to do it with a little planning. How it comes out, I don't have a clue. The formulas are different.
“If they are coming together, whatever it is has to be done to make it happen.”
DOUG FEHAN, PROGRAM MANAGER, CORVETTE RACING (ALMS)
“We're in the position of being very happy with the way things were going, for the most part. The classification of GT racing in the American Le Mans Series, I think it's the best GT racing that this country has ever seen.
“From whatever this new organization looks like, in 2014, they need to pay close attention to how close that is, and don't fix something that's not broken. I can tell you for 2013, we're solid. That's not an issue. What form it will take and what it will look like in 2014, is open to conjecture, and we have to wait on how this organization comes together, what it looks like, and obviously make our decisions based on that.
“Any prudent businessman would take cause and wait to see. Maybe we'll have some answers after Wednesday, although I highly doubt it. I'm not certain how much of 2014 is sorted between the two of them, I'm not sure yet.
“It'll be a challenging time for us, and for all our decision-making, on how we'll look as we go forward. We're in the American Le Mans Series now because, for our needs, it's a much better fit. The association with the ACO, ability to compete on a global stage at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that's been the cornerstone of the program. Chevrolet is a global brand. Corvette is the tip of that spear. Now we have to see how that may change.
“If it changes, we have to take a look at where we are to meet all our marketing objectives. We have always gone forward with all options on the table. We evaluate where we are during and at the conclusion of each year.”
RYAN DALZIEL, DRIVER (HAS COMPETED IN WEC, ALMS AND ROLEX WITH STARWORKS MOTORSPORT, CORE AUTOSPORT IN 2012, SEBRING/LE MANS P2 CLASS WINNER)
“There's a right and wrong way of doing things. Having been someone left out, high and dry after Champ Car's mistakes, I'm a little nervous as a driver as to how this affects guys like me that rely on both series.
“I think for the strengths of sports car racing in North America, there needs to be unity between the two. I haven't heard anything other than what I've read. Just hearing how to integrate series – if a championship can be made, I'm all for that, but I'm a little nervous to see how it works for 2013, then '14.
“Ultimately, it's the right thing and they can learn from the mistakes of what IndyCar and Champ Car did, and go from there. I'll probably have more to say on exactly what the merger means once they announce it.
“It's kind of a weird one. Guys have done both for so long, and the only reason we have to do both, we made the living from the one. It's crew guys too. Now teams may have to pick-and-choose. I hope it's done for the best interest of everybody.
“One thing I'm excited about for sure is having Daytona and Sebring (RIGHT) under one banner and group of cars. Sebring, I think, has lost some of its intent or credibility over the last few years. I think both series have pros and cons. I think Grand-Am is a bit stronger from a marketing standpoint, I think ALMS has a better atmosphere, and hopefully they can make it all work out for the best.
“I think that's been the hardest thing. Getting the car counts up. Grand-Am, one of its strengths, is that it's had two classes – that's easier to follow than like five or six. You look at Petit [Le Mans] two years ago, like seven classes. Difficult for TV, for the fans. You can't fall into the trap of merging seven classes.
“But, we don't get a heads-up! I talked to Peter Baron [Starworks team principal], he knows about as much as what we've read on the Internet. I don't know if some magic dust will be waved tomorrow. But it's gonna be interesting to see.”
BUTCH LEITZINGER, DRIVER (LONGTIME DYSON RACING DRIVER, THREE-TIME ROLEX 24 AT DAYTONA CHAMPION)
“I think it's what we all always said would be the ideal. Everyone always has a caveat of what that ideal is. Which side the merger would lead to? What would one sports car league look like? The devil is always in the details. If they took the best of what each series has to offer, both in terms of class structure, and actual assets of each group, including the people that run it, it could be a great thing.
“The ALMS on execution, generally, you didn't feel things were stacked against you. You could always have a reasonable discussion with series officials. It's not that Grand-Am wasn't, but I think that ALMS is very professional.
“One of its problems, I think, that was always a weight for them, was running everything through France [the French-based ACO, organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans –Ed.]. That was a lot of the reasoning for Grand-Am coming to be in the first place – not needing to take orders from overseas. There's a lot to be said for using your own discretion rather than asking permission for everything.
“A lot of us who remember the old IMSA, it had the idea where it was mostly the same cars that ran at Le Mans, but for the American audience and teams. So if you wanted to go to France, there were only minor alterations. It was structured for America, not European racing in America.
“That would be almost too perfectly ironic, like the movies – you'd think the writers had given up if it moves from going through France, the country to France, the family!
“I hope there are details laid out on Wednesday, not, ‘A statement of intention to tune in later, and we'll tell you more about it.' This one of many times I'm glad I'm not a team owner, in figuring out what cars to use next year. It can't be very enjoyable.”
JEFF SEGAL, DRIVER (ROLEX GT CLASS POINTS LEADER, AIM AUTOSPORT TEAM FXDD FERRARI 458)
“First and foremost, in terms of being competitors, we're really optimistic about what this decision can mean. Combining the strengths of each, it could be epic. Not the least of which is looking at the tracks, the schedules, and it could be absolutely spectacular.
“On the other hand, there's a lot of difficult questions. The biggest is technical. What is the class structure, the cars? We just introduced the Ferrari 458 into Grand-Am, and I'd be surprised if the GT3 format wasn't adopted in some way, shape or form. Until we get some insight from Grand-Am, it's difficult to know.
“I think it's difficult on timing. It opens one of the two series up to being a lame duck for next year. As long as this series is quickly forthcoming with the details of what 2014 looks like, then it doesn't have to be like that.
“As it stands today, we start planning for 2013 not knowing what the classes, rules are for 2014, and no one knows. But '13 will have an impact on '14 to cars, pit equipment, spares and so forth. There's a lot of questions, which are hopefully solved sooner than later!”
JOHN EDWARDS, ROLEX GT DRIVER (STEVENSON MOTORSPORTS CAMARO)
“I'm waiting for the official announcement, but I've seen a lot of things reported before the announcement and then they don't happen. I had read [ALMS CEO] Scott Atherton had flat-out denied it.
“I think if it does happen, a merger would be good for the long-term future of the sport, same as IndyCar/Champ Car. In the short term, being the driver, you have an opportunity to drive in both series. There's a lot less opportunities for driving if series combined. But one series will be much stronger for the series and time in the States. In the short-term, it may eliminate some options to do races.
“I don't know how they'll do the classes. ALMS has five, Rolex has two and third next year, can't combine. A lot of cars are close enough, if classes can be combined with relative ease, I think they're all fairly similar speeds there should be a way to combine those.”
MARTIN PLOWMAN, ALMS P2 DRIVER (CONQUEST ENDURANCE MORGAN-NISSAN)
“I think it's too early to say whether it's a good thing or not. On one hand, it looked like NASCAR's Grand-Am series was in decline, and the American Le Mans Series you'd think seems to be growing again. Now, you'd get these together for a power series – at the moment, ALMS has almost every manufacturer under the sun involved with it. You've instantly got a strong base.
“I think it will be interesting how they play [the classes]. You have to be very careful on balance of performance. The DP cars aren't really as quick as the LMP2 or PC cars, so there has to be way to figure it out. Teams are now on the fence about whether to buy cars for next year.
“This year the Morgan car is for sale, Eric [Bachelart, Conquest team principal]'s the distributor for it, and PC cars may want to buy an LMP2, now it's cost-capped and affordable. But why now would they go ahead and buy it if it's only gonna be valid for one year? Going out and buying them, you want it to be a long-term hit.
“ALMS has always been good at achieving balance of performance, because when you look at all the GT cars, they're all close even though they're so different. They have different ways of being quick and placed on a level playing field.”
So, a lot of good questions, hopes and concerns are touching everyone in the sports car industry today, and they as well as the legions of fans who follow their efforts look forward to seeing how they will be addressed in the days ahead.