The American Le Mans Series kicks off the second half of its 10-race season this weekend in Mid-Ohio. Rain shortened the end of last year's race. Here are some of the storylines;
SNAKE ATTACK – Easily the hottest story of the weekend is the premiere of the new SRT Viper GTS-R, with two cars set to debut in GT. Kuno Wittmer and Dominik Farnbacher will be in the team's No. 91 with Tommy Kendall and Marc Goossens in the No. 93.
The Riley Technologies staff has worked overtime on preparing both cars, and the team has participated in several tests. SRT Motorsports program manager Gary Johnson confirmed the team will evaluate future races this year based on how this weekend goes for the GTS-R, a modified version of its production-based car that features an 8.4-liter V10 engine.
Realistically, it would be a surprise if the Viper came in immediately and took over the top of the GT times – not to mention it wouldn't be in Viper's best interest to do so, given balance of performance adjustments might then need to be applied. In the GT field where Corvette, Ferrari and BMW have held a slight edge ahead of Porsche this season, the Vipers should qualify in the upper midfield of class and potentially challenge for a podium position.
Interestingly, the Corvette C6.R GT2-spec car also premiered at Mid-Ohio three years ago. That car went through substantial changes to meet the regulations, but still featured impressively – qualifying third and sixth in class and finishing second and fourth.
FALKEN'S DEFENSE MECHANICISMS – With rain a regular interrupter around the racing scene this year, it hasn't yet struck an ALMS race. The obvious sticking point from that is that Team Falken Tire hasn't had the opportunity to race its ace in the hole – its widely acknowledged superior wet weather tires.
They came very much in handy a year ago with a late deluge striking the race, causing an early conclusion to the two-hour, 45-minute race. Wolf Henzler carved his way from seventh to lead in the waning stages, before the race was called.
If it isn't rain-affected, Falken's new dry-weather tire design should be utilized for the first time this weekend. With balance issues affecting the team's performance the last few races, Falken is looking to move back up the all-too-tough GT leaderboard with the new design, created by new manufacturing methods. That would help Henzler and Bryan Sellers in their race-winning defense.
FOURTH STRAIGHT DIFFERENT GT WINNER? – Viper's introduction and Falken's new tire design could see those two battling to capture their first wins of the year. Of course there's still particularly tough competition among the establishment, with Corvette, Flying Lizard Porsche and Extreme Speed Ferrari winners of the last three races.
After winning Sebring, BMW has yet to record its second win, and after near misses both a year ago (contact between the two M3s at the Keyhole) and in 2010 (Jaime Melo passing both M3s at the Keyhole in his Risi Ferrari), Bobby Rahal's squad seeks a home victory and to reassert themselves back in the championship picture.
Extreme Speed seeks an on-track win after recording its first at Mosport's Canadian Tire Motorsport Park following Flying Lizard Porsche's exclusion. The Lizards are always contenders, as are Corvette, which has yet to record a Mid-Ohio win with its GT2-spec C6.R. Less likely contenders are the Paul Miller Porsche and Alex Job Lotus Evora, but both underdog teams showed improved pace and results at Mosport.
MUSCLE MILK'S DRIVE FOR FIVE – One driver had a quest at four straight IndyCar race wins at Edmonton a couple weeks ago; now one team has a shot at five straight ALMS wins.
Muscle Milk Pickett Racing can match the mark last achieved in the series by Flying Lizard Motorsports in 2009, if it can take home its fifth straight win in P1 this weekend. Although Level 5 Motorsports won all five races it entered in P2 in 2011, in three of those, the team ran unopposed.
The HPD ARX-03a has had the measure of the fellow new car this year, Dyson Racing's Lola B12/66 Mazda, on every track but Lime Rock. It shouldn't change too much at Mid-Ohio.
P2, CHALLENGE MODES – Proving it only takes two cars to make a race, the P2 contenders from Level 5 and Conquest Endurance showed the desire of both parties to win almost at all costs last race. Although Scott Tucker and David Heinemeier Hansson are considered the team's gentlemen drivers, they had a stellar scrap throughout their stint at Mosport. DHH handed to Martin Plowman, who duly held off Tucker's pro co-driver Christophe Bouchut to provide Conquest its long-awaited first class win. Dempsey Racing returns with its Lola Judd and Level 5's second car will race for the first time since Monterey, Ricardo Gonzalez now taking over from Luis Diaz to help the car fulfill the drive-time regulations.
RSR ended CORE autosport's string of four straight PC wins to open the year, and with prior experience at Mid-Ohio in both open-wheel and sports cars, Bruno Junqueira should again figure in the equation. Realistically any of the six GTC class runners could take that class win, with Green Hornet's second car returning and JDX Racing bringing in the class' defending champions Jeroen Bleekemolen and Tim Pappas this race.
• The Mid-Ohio Sports Car Challenge airs Saturday, Aug. 4 at 2 p.m. Eastern on ABC.