As both the Grand-Am Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series wind down their 2012 seasons – each with one race remaining – the majority of talk has centered on how teams are planning for 2013 and even more importantly, for 2014 once the merger between the two sports car series takes place.
Specifics have been lacking to this point about class structure, although there's been a general understanding that ALMS GT and Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype categories will continue in some way, shape, and form.
After that it gets a bit sketchy. There's a sense that a combination of Rolex GT (largely tube-frame cars) and ALMS GTC (spec Porsche GT3 Cup cars), and perhaps GT3 machinery, will all combine into one class. Atop of that, how will ALMS P2 and PC fit in alongside DP, given possible performance balancing? ALMS P1 – arguably the most technically sophisticated cars on either grid – appear unlikely to make the cut.
One thing that all of those classes have in common, aside from ALMS P1, is primarily pro-am driver lineups. Frankly, their interests have bolstered the class participation numbers.
The uncertainty of not knowing how a second GT class will play out, or how the DP/P2/PC balance will come into play, has left the amateur-rated drivers – those who bring most of the budgets to these entries – scratching their heads as to how they will create their programs and what type of machinery is worth acquiring.
“I thought it was very difficult (to get in), then they announced the merger which made it even harder!” says Mike Hedlund, a co-founder of Social Concepts, Inc., who's raced in both Rolex GT and ALMS GTC this year, with sporadic starts in Pirelli World Challenge and in Porsche Supercup in Europe.
Hedlund's simple thoughts reflect the growing discontent with pro-am drivers who are stuck sitting on the fence waiting to see how this shakes out.
For 2013, ALMS faces the prospect of a lame duck year. The P2 class grew to as many as five entries this year, but only two teams – Level 5 Motorsports and Conquest Endurance – have run the full season.
Conquest's gentleman driver is David Heinemeier Hansson, a Chicago-based Dane (FAR RIGHT) who's made his mark on the tech world as a world-renowned programmer, creator of Ruby on Rails and a partner at 37Signals. As a driver, he's advanced from Porsche Cayman Interseries racing to sporadic ALMS starts a year ago in GTC and GT with Lotus, then a full season this year in P2 alongside Martin Plowman, an Englishman who has the talent to make it in IndyCar but not the funding.
The pairing has won only twice but “DHH,” as he's known, has been a revelation in the cockpit this year with a series of spell-binding moves and great drives – if tempered by the occasional mistake.
An advocate of the P2 formula, he notes gentlemen drivers have fostered the class's growth. There were 20 P2 entries, mostly top notch, on the grid at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, Hansson among them driving for OAK Racing.
“To me, the ACO penned a stroke of genius when they pegged LMP2 to be both cost-capped and requiring a gentleman driver,” he says. “The explosion in that class in such a short amount of time has been nothing short of astonishing. When you hear 20 cars in class, you assume F1 with a couple guys at the sharp end, then there's the rest. At Le Mans, the majority of cars could win the race because the lineup was so good. Taking away the pro-am element, where a majority of the teams have to fund themselves entirely through sponsorship, what will happen?”
In his view, it's not only the fact P2 has exploded, but also the fact that from a worldwide perspective, sports car championships without a pro-am class or formula are thriving at the moment. Those without are largely withering.
“It's not just LMP2, but Blancpain (Endurance Series) too with the GT3 format they run,” he says. “The professional formats have collapsed – GT1 is dead, GT3 is in the throes of it – and Blancpain is showing up at 24 Hours of Spa with enormous grids, all funded by pro-am drivers.
“As a pro-am guy, you want to fight for a win. The classes that allow pro-am setups to compete and win are exploding; the ones that don't are imploding or staying put.”
For 2012, Rolex and ALMS have a combined seven classes. Only three – Rolex DP and ALMS P1 and GT – are almost entirely pro-driver self-sufficient, but even those classes have pro-am entries mixed in. The pro-am lineups have had a better chance at success in Rolex than in ALMS; Michael Shank Racing won this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona with its usual pairing of Ozz Negri (pro) and John Pew (am) and pro guest drivers Justin Wilson and AJ Allmendinger.
Starworks Motorsport (RIGHT) has remained in contention for the DP title with Ryan Dalziel, who raced alongside amateur driver Enzo Potolicchio through Indianapolis before Potolicchio withdrew from the series. Starworks has also raced in the FIA World Endurance Championship in P2, with some combination of Dalziel, Potolicchio, Stephane Sarrazin and Tom Kimber-Smith.