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.
Meanwhile, the ALMS GT entries with am drivers Seth Neiman (Flying Lizard Porsche), Ed Brown (Extreme Speed Ferrari) and Bill Sweedler (Alex Job Lotus) have only achieved, combined, a best finish of fifth in class in any race this year (Neiman, with Porsche factory driver Marco Holzer at VIR). They're generally starting at a disadvantage because, with no disrespect to them, they're losing too much ground early on to turn the car over to their pro co-drivers at a good spot.
Yet all three are integral parts of the series. Neiman's Flying Lizard squad has been ALMS GT's standard-bearer for nearly a decade and has provided a stable home for Porsche factory shoes Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister. Brown, the Patron Spirits CEO, has improved in just a handful of years thanks to co-driver Guy Cosmo. Along with team owner and driver Scott Sharp, Extreme Speed is a GT squad on the rise, and a class winner at Mosport this year with Sharp and Johannes van Overbeek.
In a recent RACER.com interview, Brown admitted of his talent level, “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!”
The rest of the classes – from a bulk of the Rolex GT through all of ALMS P2, PC and GTC – need am drivers to make up the numbers. Without the am drivers helping provide some of the budget, pro drivers such as Dalziel, Colin Braun, Bruno Junqueira, Marino Franchitti, Kyle Marcelli (PC), Damien Faulkner, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Spencer Pumpelly, Michael Valiante, Leh Keen (GTC) and the like might have disappeared entirely from the grid. Memo Gidley was left high and dry when his co-driver – Michael Guasch – split from the Pickett Racing team and withdrew his PC car from the grid. Gidley would have factored in that class's title chase had his co-driver not opted out.
In the same time, amateur drivers – such as Hansson and Scott Tucker in P2, Alex Popow (RIGHT, DP and PC), Cooper MacNeil (GTC) – and others have really grown in stature and ability through more track time and racing. Their presence has helped sustain the classes and keep both series afloat from a car count standpoint.
It's quite possible that the second GT class beyond ALMS GT in the combined series for 2014 will have a pro-am element to it, but it's questionable how exactly it will be formulated. Potential entrants need assurance of what type of machinery will be permitted – will it be Rolex GT only, ALMS GTC or will GT3 cars be added in?
Time is of the essence for any potential participants, says Tim Pappas (LEFT, with co-driver Jeroen Bleekemolen), whose own Black Swan Racing team has had a frustrating season on the sidelines. BSR ran only two ALMS races in P2 with a Lola HPD coupe – then backed out in the wake of Lola's financial issues, and was considering a GT-Am class entry before the class was shelved for ALMS in 2013 with the merger news.
“As it stands now, teams like mine have to sit on the sidelines, because we have no other choice,” he admits. “We have no assurance from the sanctioning bodies that either a GTC car or a Rolex GT car will be legal in 2014. The longer you're waiting, you then ask what does that do from a staff and equipment standpoint?”
Hansson says the prototype side will be harder to figure out because the P2 class, under the ACO, mandates a pro-am lineup but at the moment, the cars themselves are faster than DP cars. Egos would need to be set aside if DP entrants, with all-pro lineups, weren't competing for outright victories as the top class.
“There's so many aspects of this, which is why I don't envy the position the technical guys at ALMS and Grand-Am are in, because it is pretty tough,” he says. “All the professional teams in DP, how would they roll if not as the top class? Then if they go P2, what does that do to the P2 aspect of pro-am, that's been so conductive to entries for ELMS and Le Mans? Would there be all-pro lineups in DP stuck behind pro-am P2s? There's a lot of factors that make it difficult.”
The class structure debate as a whole is another piece, but even before a full rollout of the defined class structure, here's what the leaders of the combined series could do for pro-ams.
A specific pro-am formula will need to be established for the second GT category, however it is assembled, with rules stipulating a car cannot have all pro drivers. For endurance races, where cars have three or four total drivers, there should be at least one amateur, and for five total drivers, two. A pro-am trophy can be established, either a continuation of the Trueman and Akin awards as currently utilized in Grand-Am or a new one developed from scratch. A second GT category could see budgets anywhere from $500,000 and up for a season, but not in the several-million-dollars-per-year range that GTE (ALMS GT) would require.
Prototypes are trickier to draw the line as to where amateur drivers can race, given the desires of some to advance into these type cars. If the DP and P2 classes are somehow combined under one prototype umbrella, it would be easier to allow amateur drivers in, again with a pro-am trophy available for those pro-am entries. If they're split, it's hard to imagine amateur drivers being allowed in whatever the top prototype class is – not because of their ability level, but perhaps because of the stigma that the top class isn't all pro drivers. Ideally P2 stays in some capacity; a full-season budget is under $1 million and Starworks, a team that has raced both this year, has said its P2 budget is less than one in DP.
The challenge for the rule makers is figuring out a way not to alienate the gentlemen drivers, given the uncertainty as exists at the moment, and ensuring they have a place to race competitively but safely within the guidelines of a merged series. It's realistic to expect a bulk of the field in 2014 to come from gentlemen drivers, and for their sake as well as the whole of the potential series, it's key to keep them involved.