Haven't we been here before? Two rival sanctioning bodies with differing philosophies, strengths and weaknesses merge in order to create a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.
One needn't possess a PhD in motorsports history to recognize the parallels between the recently announced American Le Mans Series/Grand-Am merger and the Champ Car/Indy Racing League amalgamation of 2008 that – eventually – resulted in today's IZOD Indy Car Series.
First off is a contrasting rules set that was present in both mergers. Like the IRL, the Grand-Am Rolex Series is based on tightly controlled technical regulations designed to contain costs, while the ALMS – even moreso than CART/Champ Car – champions technical innovation.
Like the IRL, Grand-Am has a world-renowned event – the Rolex 24 at Daytona – and a television package that features live or same day coverage on SPEED. Like Champ Car/CART, the ALMS has its own iconic event – the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – and several other top-tier races… most notably Petit Le Mans. In addition, its GT class features a cast of leading manufacturers including BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Lotus, Porsche and SRT that is the envy of any race series apart from Formula 1.
Weaknesses? Not unlike the IRL, Grand-Am has struggled to develop noteworthy events beyond its iconic centerpiece race. And for all its effort to contain costs, Grand-Am has seen its car count – particularly in the Daytona Prototype class – plummet in recent years. Not unlike Champ Car, the ALMS faces “challenges” on the television front. Live Internet streaming may well be the future of sports broadcasting, but the key words there are “may well be” and “future.” And for all the manufacturers involved in its GT class (and with all due respect to the PC competitors), the ALMS has by no means recovered from the withdrawal of Audi, Porsche and Acura from its prototype divisions.
Like the IRL, Grand-Am enjoys the support of one of America's greatest racing families, with generation upon generation steeped in motorsports (indeed, Grand-Am merged its communications, research, and marketing resources with NASCAR in 2008). In contrast, the ALMS was founded and owned by pharmaceutical entrepreneur/magnate Don Panoz, who was a relative newcomer to motorsport when he founded the ALMS in the late 1990s.
OK, OK … enough already on the parallels between the open-wheel and sports car mergers. How about the differences?
First and foremost, the ALMS/Grand-Am merger has one priceless luxury the Champ Car/IRL re-unification lacked: Time. The IRL/Champ Car amalgamation was announced just two months before the start of the 2008 season. The result was not pretty, to put it mildly. Champ Car teams scrambled to obtain and familiarize themselves with IRL equipment virtually overnight (with help from IRL “technical partner” teams that proved uneven), to say nothing of running competing races at Twin Ring Motegi and Long Beach in order to ensure the latter's presence on future schedules.
Notwithstanding Graham Rahal's remarkable win for Newman/Haas Racing in the second race of the unified series (LEFT), the Champ Car teams were behind the 8-ball throughout 2008, and it was at least two seasons before they achieved a semblance of parity with their IRL counterparts.
That said, the reunited Indy car series enjoyed a straightforward technical transition: there was one chassis (Dallara) and one engine (Honda) for one class of racing. One of the biggest jobs for the new sports car series is defining a class structure and its rules package when the technical regulations currently differ so much between the two series. And that's just for openers. The Grand-Am Rolex Series consists of two classes (Daytona Prototype and GT) while the ALMS presented by Tequila Patrón features no less than five (count ‘em, five) classes: P1, P2, GT, PC and GTC.
What role will the Automobile Club de l'Ouest have in all of this? Your guess is as good as mine, but it was a good sign to see the board of the 2014 organization meeting recently at Le Mans. What that ultimately means is TBD…
Another important consideration is that, in contrast to Champ Car and the IRL, the ALMS and Grand-Am schedules share a number of common venues – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Lime Rock Park, and Road America. As well, Road Atlanta and Sebring International Raceway (the former will play host to a Grand-Am race in 2013) were included in the acquisition, so formulating a 2014 schedule should be, if not a slam dunk, comparatively straightforward. The financially strong events will survive; those that simply filled spaces on the calendar may not. On the other hand, some of the venues included on the 2014 schedule will have to find means of filling the void created by one less sports car race per season.
Then there's the human factor . . .
For all the verbal niceties at the Champ Car/IRL merger announcement, the unified series was clearly the IRL, albeit with most of Champ Car's teams and its marquee event. Of Champ Car's principals, only Kalkhoven had any involvement in the new series and that as a “mere” team owner, with no say in the governance of the series. And with few exceptions Champ Car's technical, operational and administrative staff were thrown under the proverbial bus when, in some cases, they were better qualified than their IRL counterparts.
In contrast, the new sports car organization will be governed by a six-person board of directors including Panoz, ALMS president/CEO Scott Atherton, Grand-Am founder Jim France, his niece Lesa France Kennedy, Grand-Am president/CEO Ed Bennett and NASCAR general counsel Karen Leetzow. It begs the question: how will such a group represent the divergent philosophies of its two constituencies?
And there's the rub. When it's all said and done, the biggest challenge of the Champ Car/IRL merger – even more than the Champ Car teams playing technical catch-up – was developing mutual trust and respect among officials, competitors and team members who had been on opposite sides of a bitter divide for more than a decade. Suffice to say, the “Us and Them” mentality did not exactly evaporate overnight.
In that respect, the ALMS/Grand-Am merger has a leg-up on its open-wheel counterparts, given the fact that there has been a considerable amount of crossover between the two series by competitors and manufacturers over the years. That said all parties concerned must be prepared to go the proverbial extra mile to accommodate their former rivals. As the acquiring entity, Grand-Am has a responsibility to make every effort to treat its new partners as equals and, whenever possible, to integrate ALMS personnel into its operations. And while it is still too early to draw any conclusions, the public interaction of the France/Panoz and Bennett/Atherton shows signs of real cooperation, mutual respect and, dare I say it, friendships forming. If true, it will certainly help when the required difficult decisions are made in the near future.
The way I see it, in order to succeed, everyone involved has a responsibility to make sure their former employees and competitors are afforded every opportunity to fully participate in the brave new world of American sports car racing.
David Phillips is one of North America's most respected and renowned motorsports journalists, having been featured in RACER and other prominent motorsport magazines. He is a regular contributor to ALMS.com, where this column originally appeared.