Growing up, you could have considered me to a diehard NASCAR fan. From watching endless hours of TV coverage every weekend, to being fortunate enough to go to a handful of races annually, I was convinced NASCAR was unmatched, for the sheer entertainment value and spectacle alone.
That was, until I discovered the mystique of sports car racing. It was the mid to late-'90s, a time of disarray with the breakaway USRRC series from the Andy Evans-led PSCR. Yet it was the cutting-edge prototypes such as Ferrari's 333SP (ABOVE) and BMW's V12 LMR (BELOW RIGHT) and the early days of the Corvette-vs.-Viper rivalry that had me hooked, no matter the names of the series or their ever-changing sets of owners. Back then, for a 12-year-old kid, the cars were the stars and nothing else really mattered.
Fast forward some 15 years and the sport has reached another crossroads, with Grand-Am's acquisition of the American Le Mans Series, which changes the sports car racing landscape yet again. Following more than a decade of bidding for the same real estate, the once archrivals have come together to form a single championship beginning in 2014. While no doubt long overdue, the unification of North American sports car racing comes as a significant game-changer, yet one that the executives from both sides realize they have to get right the first time, as there may not be a second chance.
Last week's announcement of the new series branding and class names, in a first-class production at the Chateau Elan in Sebring, came as the next step in the merger process. United SportsCar Racing was was officially launched, with confirmation of the retention of IMSA as the name of the new sanctioning body. But through the glitz and glamour, with Grand-Am President and CEO Ed Bennett, his counterpart from the ALMS, Scott Atherton, as well as Ed O'Hara, one of the men who helped devise the new series' identity, all speaking in front of hundreds of industry representatives and a live TV audience, there was no news other than the shiny names and logos that will be the new face of sports car racing in America. In fact, beyond January's rather nondescript reveal of the conceptual class structure, we're still left with little detailed information on some of the key components of the new series, with just 10 months until the drop of the green flag at the 52nd Rolex 24 at Daytona.
One of the more pressing concerns – besides some of the obvious questions such as as the 2014 schedule, TV package and support series billings – is the nature of the cars themselves and how the class regulations will be defined. It's already known there will be four or potentially five categories in United SportsCar, led by the Prototype division, which will accept cars from the current Daytona Prototype and P2 classes, plus Don Panoz's DeltaWing.
But how all three vastly different types of cars will be balanced is a different story. With the P2-spec car having up to a five-second-per-lap advantage at some tracks, there's been talk of giving the DPs another “extreme makeover,” with new bodywork and mechanical updates to bring them closer to the high downforce Le Mans-spec prototypes while, at the same time, P2 cars could face slight aero restrictions. The idea would be to find a compromise between the two platforms.
For the other classes, it's a bit more straightforward from a technical standpoint, although questions remain over open/closed tire supply, pro-am driver class enforcement and the future of alternative technologies, including hybrids and E85 fuel and the Michelin Green X Challenge, currently embraced in the ALMS.
Then there's the relationship with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, which is also a bit fuzzy at the moment. What's known is that the two organizations have reached a licensing agreement to continue using the “Petit Le Mans” name for the 1,000-mile/10-hour Road Atlanta enduro and will also allow for select American cars to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
While further details involving the class regulations and its renewed relationship with the ACO will eventually get worked out as we head into the summer months, some of the answers can't come soon enough for teams and manufacturers, who are already planning for the much-anticipated unification year.
But through this time of change, we should all take a step back to understand the direction the sport is headed as a whole. What mustn't be forgotten is the one pillar that has stood since the very early days of Le Mans: Innovation.
From the first use of windshield wipers to disc brakes and turbochargers, all were proven on the racetrack before making their way into the road cars we drive every day. The same goes for modern-day sports car racing, with flywheel-based hybrids, Isobutanol fuels and periscope camera systems, developed on the race track, that will help lead the automotive industry into the future. The elimination of the LMP1 class, which has fostered the majority of the technological growth over the past decade and a half, comes as a significant concern to some. While having struggled for an acceptable-sized grid in the ALMS for the last three years, the top prototype category drove innovation, while also producing a show on the track for the fans.
With the combined DP/P2/DeltaWing class now set to serve as the premier prototype category, will there still be that spectacle many of us have become accustomed to? The more-restrictive, cost-capped nature of P2 currently does not allow for hybrids, continuous developments or large-displacement engines, for instance. DPs are considered to be even further behind in embracing new technology, although there have been recent strides, including the introduction of turbos.
The days of seeing a prototype evolve, with new aero and mechanical pieces, through the course of a season could very well be over. Instead, the future appears to be more about cost-containment and spec racing, both no doubt a critical piece of the puzzle in this day and age but not the ultimate solution for every class, especially the top prototype platform, which will be front and center in the new series.
The focus away from LMP1-style racing is also likely to affect the unified series' link to the outside world. Manufacturers such as Audi will no longer be able to compete in the world-renowned enduros at Petit Le Mans or Sebring, where it recently notched its 11th overall victory with a high-tech diesel-hybrid prototype. While there will undoubtedly be a handful of GTE and P2 teams still making the trip from Europe, these races arguably won't be the same without the cars that fight for overall honors in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Consequently, will Sebring and Petit slowly lose their significance in the international spotlight?
What has to be recognized is the fact that the cars are the stars in sports car racing, especially in the eyes of the younger generation. If it wasn't for the exotic, no-holds-barred nature of prototype racing in the late ‘90s, there'd be a good chance I wouldn't be where I am today, fortunate enough to cover the sport that has grown extremely close to my heart.
At times, I wish I could be like Marty McFly from “Back to the Future” and go back in time to witness the golden era of IMSA and the heyday of GTP racing. With legendary cars, cutting-edge technology, close racing and a large fan base, IMSA had it all back in the day. While sports car racing in North America hasn't been at that height for more than two decades, there's hope that, with the right steps taken, it can return to those glory days with a unified series and a new focused direction. The time is now to make it happen, and there's no going back.