Site of two dramatic endings in the last two years, including the closest finish in series history a year ago, the American Le Mans Series returns to Elkhart Lake's Road America this weekend for the four-hour Road Race Showcase.
P1/P2 – Muscle Milk Pickett Racing, seeking its sixth consecutive victory overall with Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr, has been on both the winning and losing ends of the two since 2010. After Graf ran out of fuel only corners from the finish two years ago, Jonny Cocker stormed past to take Drayson Racing's first win in the series.
Graf redeemed himself and the team a year ago (LEFT) by holding off a relentlessly charging Guy Smith of Dyson Racing. Smith went off course at times in his pursuit, ultimately ending just 0.112 of a second short.
Dyson's new Lola Mazda has failed to match the similarly new HPD ARX-03a fielded by Pickett, save for Lime Rock. But at a track where the Mazda could have improved straight line speed, the No. 16 of Smith and Chris Dyson could play itself back into closer contention and end the Muscle Milk streak. The older, second Dyson car of Eric Lux, Michael Marsal and Tony Burgess runs a three-driver lineup to make up the numbers and benefit for points if Muscle Milk hits trouble.
A four-car P2 lineup, same as at Mid-Ohio, is back. Dempsey's strategy of a three-driver lineup isn't an option with Dane Cameron, the team's pro third driver, on Rolex Series duties in Montreal. Elsewhere Level 5 swaps Ricardo Gonzalez out for Luis Diaz, set for his first start since Monterey in May. The two class championship contenders, the lead Level 5 HPD (Scott Tucker, Christophe Bouchut) and Conquest Morgan Nissan (Martin Plowman, David Heinemeier Hansson) should again battle for the class win.
GT – Traditionally one of BMW's strongest circuits, the RLL squad seeks its first win since Sebring in March after a tough summer. Team principal Bobby Rahal estimated in his latest RACER blog the M3s are roughly the third-quickest car in the stacked class, and despite two poles in the last three races (Bill Auberlen at Lime Rock, Jorg Mueller at Mid-Ohio), the team has struggled for race pace.
Additionally, more eyes will be fixated on the team's No. 56 entry with Joey Hand on DTM duties and Jonathan Summerton back for the first time since Sebring to replace him. Summerton, although a sports car novice, is an excellent pick for Road America, having won previously in Formula Atlantic competition there in 2008. He shouldn't miss a step at the track, and co-drives with Dirk Mueller.
Defending race winners Risi Competizione Ferrari are out, leaving Extreme Speed's pair of 458s as the lone runners there. A difficult Mid-Ohio left both cars out of the top five for the first time since Sebring. In a four-hour race, though, there's every opportunity to think that both cars will be firmly in podium contention with Johannes van Overbeek and Guy Cosmo able to run for longer periods in the No. 01 and No. 02 cars. Cosmo, in particular, has been due a result after stellar pace but horrible luck all season co-driving with Ed Brown, while the van Overbeek/Scott Sharp car has been consistent if not the outright fastest at each event.
Porsche – which has never starred at Road America from an outright speed perspective – still has managed to stay in contention with Flying Lizard's No. 45 the last few years. With the higher rear wing and new front splitter creating more downforce on the new 2012 RSR, the team may struggle even more in that department, but thrive in the corners. Patrick Long is back in his natural habitat after making his NASCAR Sprint Cup debut last week, driving alongside Jorg Bergmeister for the Lizards. Their sister car and the Falken and Paul Miller Porsches each keen to maximize results if the leaders falter. Falken has back-to-back fourth place finishes with Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers.
Corvette's had bad luck strike either of its two cars the last two races, yet could have had back-to-back wins. Van Overbeek's pass of Jan Magnussen dropped him and Antonio Garcia to third, and ultimately second, at Mosport, while the sister No. 4 had mechanical issues early on. The No. 4 of Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin won Mid-Ohio (LEFT) while the Magnussen/Garcia car retired late with suspension damage. With Corvette having been the top dog of the early season, and still in the title hunt, the goal for the yellow and black is a safe race with both cars coming home unscathed. The team has yet to record a Road America win with its GT2-spec C6.R.
Lastly, the SRT Vipers make their second start. The team ran consistently and without mechanical issues to get both cars home to the finish at Mid-Ohio and will be looking for more of the same this weekend. The potential exists the Viper could crack the top-eight of 13 in GT in qualifying at a track known for high speeds. As for Lotus, the same strategy applies but it will be a challenge for the Evora to match the other cars in the field on top-end speed.
PC/GTC – After four straight race wins to open the year, CORE autosport has fallen off the top step in successive rounds. They still have a healthy class title lead as the No. 05 of Jon Bennett and Colin Braun and Alex Popow in the No. 06 are all tied on 88 points, 30 ahead of RSR's Bruno Junqueira. Junqueira, if he can get the car handed to him in a favorable position from Tomy Drissi, should be able to capitalize on his Road America expertise – he's won twice there in open-wheel competition.
Popow has Tom Kimber-Smith back as co-driver at CORE; “TKS” did himself no favors by making contact with Cosmo in his most recent start at Lime Rock, with the collision sending Cosmo into the tires and out of a top-five finish. Meanwhile, Popow got himself placed on probation after contact with both a PC and GTC car at Mosport, knocking them each out of the race.
Defending race winners PR1/Mathiasen still have Rudy Junco from a year ago although again he'll be co-driving with Marino Franchitti, rather than Butch Leitzinger. The new pair won last race at Mid-Ohio. Elsewhere Dempsey's PC car (Duncan Ende, Henri Richard) seeks its second podium of the year, with Merchant Services' two cars and the oft-entered, oft-withdrawn Performance Tech car set to complete the eight cars in class.
GTC leaps from five entries at Mid-Ohio to a projected nine at Road America. Jeroen Bleekemolen makes his third class start with as many teams, now alongside Cooper MacNeil at Alex Job after races at TRG and JDX – which he both won.
Projected new or revived entries besides the ones from Mid-Ohio (Job, JDX, TRG and two Green Hornets) come from GMG and Competition Motorsports, each back for the first time since Monterey, NGT, set to return for the first time since Sebring, and TruSpeed Motorsports, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Pirelli World Challenge participant stepping up for its first ALMS start with Tom Haacker and Alex Figge driving.
The ALMS Road Race Showcase airs Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2, and also airs live on ESPN3.com Saturday at 3:15 p.m. Eastern.