American Le Mans Series President and CEO Scott Atherton tells RACER about the goals, challenges and other pressing series topics for the 2012 ALMS season in advance of the 60th Anniversary Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
Q: What do you make of the Lotus entrance, plus Alex Job returning to the GT class?
A: I don't think that there's anyone more pleased about it than Alex himself. He's one of, if not the most successful GT competitors in the ALMS. For him to be back in the thick of it up against the other factory programs from BMW, Corvette, Porsche, etc., this is where he rightfully belongs. It's an ambitious plan and long-term commitment from Lotus and all the other partners. It's another example of us going from strength-to-strength in that category.
Q: Was Ferrari omitted on purpose, not knowing the status of Risi as yet?
A: Officially, no. I still feel cautiously confident about them, but they're in a fairly critical stage.
Q: With prototypes, there's a P2 class increase, but what's your prototype car count estimation for the season?
A: I think P1 will be at least three, and most likely four, growing to five by the end of the season. In P2, I think we'll open up with at least four, with the numbers growing to as many as six, and it could even be, if everything in play came to fruition, eight, but that would be very optimistic. More likely there is six. LMPC should be eight with as many as 10 by midseason.
Q: As the prototype regulations have evolved from LMP combined in 2010, then back to the P1/P2 split in 2011 as the cost-capped category was introduced, how are you working to get more prototypes back?
A: I think you're seeing the byproduct of a full-court press by us last season to expand the LMP2 car count. It's a combination of things. We have new manufacturers and teams coming in. Eric Bachelart coming in, Level 5 for a full season, Black Swan moving up from GT ranks, Dempsey organization which has yet to confirm their plans but right now is committed to an LMPC program, with the expectation of expanding beyond that, potentially into a P2 program at some point. There's two teams I'm familiar with, that are yet to make formal announcements, that will be on the grid with P2 cars as well. So these announcements that have or are yet to occur are byproducts of our efforts.
We have the same efforts in our P1 category, but it's much more challenging by the nature of its current configuration. It's largely a platform for manufacturers. With the simultaneous launch of the WEC, almost by default, that's where they elect to focus their efforts. It's a dynamic that plays out as we speak, as manufacturers outline their motorsports plans, and right now, the WEC is their priority.
We believe that North America – and in particular the U.S., so ALMS – continues to be a very important business market. I don't believe that having a presence in that market, one weekend a year, once a year, constitutes an effective motorsports marketing plan in what is their most important business segment.
For that reason, I believe our LMP1 content is stable, but stable at a level that is not acceptable to us, and frankly for anyone else either. But it can grow from here by the value we can provide for the manufacturers and top-level independent teams.
Q: What's the status of the Challenge classes post-2012?
A: Looking beyond 2012, first off, the Challenge classes have exceeded even our most ambitious expectations in terms of how they've been received, and what the byproduct of those categories has done for our series. They've done exactly what's been intended, which was to attract some new contents into the series – not with the idea the Challenge classes were the destination, but that they became a step on the ladder. Ideally we bring in new teams, drivers, sponsors, manufacturers, to hit that level, and watch them build and grow into the higher ranks. That's exactly what's occurring. I see it as an example of, don't fix it if it's not broken.
Now, we haven't made final decisions post-2012. The original commitment to both categories was, at a minimum, three years. That's the season we're about to begin right there. Because of what we've referenced, we don't see the need to make radical changes.
I would say that like every category, there is an effective usable life to any product, in this case a racecar. So the potential of a next-generation LMPC car is certainly on the horizon. But as a category, and as to what it represents, it's a very value-rich opportunity to race a proper prototype at a very high level and professional setting. That won't change.
As far as the GTC category goes, that is more of a “to-be-determined” situation right now. We've had a lot of interest from a lot of different manufacturers to introduce their brand into the GTC category. One of the benefits of the way we have GTC configured now, is that it's a single-marque, and that it's relatively affordable with a high return for a team, sponsor, driver to participate. We don't want to lose that either.
I know that's not a specific direction, but that's because we haven't confirmed it to a point of going public.
Q: With that said, the GT3 platform is pretty popular worldwide. How would you see that potentially fitting in, with homologating or integrating those types of cars into ALMS?
A: Yes, and that's a very different dynamic added to the discussion. The GTC car that we are utilizing is not the FIA-spec GT3 car. It shares the same platform, but it's a substantially different piece of equipment.
If we were – and I'm not suggesting we're going to – but to explore a GT3 configuration, I think it would potentially cause a lot of concern within our existing GT2 – or, GTE – field. That's for sure a situation we wouldn't want to jeopardize by any means.
We have the most competitive, most diversified, GT racing in the world right now. Many people – not just myself – but folks who have been around for decades, reference the ALMS GT ranks as the best production-based GT racing that has ever occurred. That includes the peak of the Trans-Am era in the 1970s. That's something we're proud of and don't want to jeopardize for the future.
Q: So essentially, with GT you're looking at it from a “if it's not broke, don't fix it” standpoint?
A: I think it's the rule now, rather than the exception, that for a manufacturer to justify a truly professional, factory-backed motorsports program, there has to be an unprecedented level of relevance involved. There's no better place that I'm aware of that does it better than the ALMS. Between the ones that are here now and the ones that are on the way – Lotus now for example – bears that out. That's just the most recent, and happy to tell you there's more to come.
Q: One other big thing of note this year is the DeltaWing debut. Depending on how well it does, do you see that as having a future in ALMS?
A: It absolutely would have a future in the ALMS. That was the original motivation way back when. It's a relatively unreported story as to when the DeltaWing came to be the recipient of the 56th garage opportunity at Le Mans. It started here in Braselton with a set of meetings and took what would have been an otherwise dead and finished program, which was the DeltaWing IndyCar option, and kept it alive and reborn in the form of a prototype.
The intent from the beginning of those discussions was not to have it a one-and-done debut at Le Mans simply to demonstrate the technology, but to use it as the catalyst to demonstrate the technology. Then follow it up with a full engagement in the ALMS. Right now, that continues to be our plan. There's so many variables in play at the moment to say whether it will happen. But that would be the intent.
The car in its form at Le Mans would be appropriate to the LMP category. Depending on which drive train it's fitted with would determine whether it would be a P1 or P2 configuration.
Q: This year's Sebring, of course, is huge with it being the 60th anniversary and relaunching the WEC. It's also the first joint WEC/ALMS race. What excites you, and how do you see the sanctioning bodies working together?
A: What excites me most? It's an epic year that's materialized. It's an easy question to answer. This is what we've been practicing for and working toward, since Don Panoz's acquisition of Sebring and the launch of the ALMS. I think the ALMS is the birth mother of the WEC. It's because of the success the ALMS realized, and the continued growth that the series and the premier events within the series – Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring – year-by-year approach that brings us to this absolute crescendo of all of the stars aligning.
You have the absolute celebration of 60 years of the most historic road racing in the Americas. Sebring occupies that without argument. If that wasn't enough, you now add the debut of the modern era of the FIA World Endurance Championship – and all that that implies. It's the three combined together. You have the first event of the 14th season of the American Le Mans Series, the 60th anniversary of Sebring and the inaugural event of the new WEC all packaged together.
What I envision, and what we envision, as to what this event means can be summed up in a single sentence. This will be the largest, most significant, professional sports car race in the history of the United States of America, period.
What I mean by that is, you'll have the largest physical turnout of fans who have ever attended a sports car race. You'll have the most significant grid of professional prototypes and GT cars from literally around the world. You'll have media in unprecedented numbers. The highest profile TV coverage this series and the individual series has ever had. Live coverage throughout Europe and America. Sunday's ABC network broadcast. All those elements collectively, and this may sound like a great exaggeration, but it's a statement of fact: this will be one for the ages.
Q: Do you feel the ACO and ALMS have been strengthened or affected by the WEC creation, or is it kind of a “wait and see how it evolves” type process?
A: Yes, all of the above. For sure, the launch of the WEC has added a dynamic to our relationship with the ACO that frankly didn't exist before. There's also been some unfortunate individual events that have occurred that added to the strain. When they announced the schedule in China that included the Bahrain event directly in conflict with Petit, that was unfortunate, disappointing, but it happened. That was corrected.
Even though, in reality, the problem created by the WEC calendar in close proximity to Petit Le Mans or any other major sports car race, by changing the date didn't alleviate that.
But this is more important than what's happened historically. Since those isolated events occurred, the relationship that we have with the ACO is actually strengthened. There's been an approach by both parties to truly work together – by saying that, I mean, the ACO works with us to build the ALMS in the Americas. At the same time, we've committed ourselves, as always, to build their brand on a global scale as we can affect it in the U.S.
We'll start them off with the first WEC event in the most successful way possible. Time will tell. We're all very focused on making sure the execution of this race – which is truly a combined effort – the first ALMS event of our 2012 season, 60th Sebring, first WEC race, there's a lot of moving parts in that equation. From a fan's perspective, this needs to go off without a hitch. Even though there's a lot of behind-the-scenes activity, the product on-track will be second to none.
Q: This is now year two of the ESPN3/Watch ESPN streaming, plus four live TV races. Having had the off-season and the time to reflect, how do you rate the first season? How do you deal with comments, critiques and criticisms? What is the plan for 2012?
A: All good questions. How would I rate the first season? I'd rate it as a challenging start that wasn't a surprise to us, but with a very strong finish and a very strong overall result. It was frankly the worst-case scenario to begin a new TV relationship with ESPN after 12 very successful and very positive years with SPEED. We'd trained everybody that the second Saturday in March, go to SPEED to watch the 12 Hours of Sebring.
For anyone who had access to ESPN3, they loved it, and thought it was one of the best broadcasts they'd ever seen. It had all the content and a high-production value broadcast, with minimal commercial interruption and great announcers. There were all the pieces you'd want to enjoy that type of event.
If you couldn't get ESPN3, you were extremely upset. You made your opinion known, in large numbers. That was a challenging start.
The reality is, more people saw the 12 Hours of Sebring on ABC – the next day – than the many years of SPEED combined. It's the economies of scale of having a major terrestrial network broadcast versus having a cable sports channel broadcast.
When you take the learning from that debut event at Sebring, a lot of money was spent on marketing the “How to Watch” the ALMS on TV.
The overall results from the season proved a leading-edge example of being able to live stream on ESPN3, and having either ABC or ESPN2 for all our broadcasts. The on-demand capability from the ESPN archives and our own website. All those options versus the net results, how many families, sets of eyeballs, tuned in and watched the ALMS on TV last year versus years before. No one can argue this point as it's published by Nielsen, and it was a 67 percent increase over 2010 results. That's a staggering number for any sport.
Now most people will say that's because they had all the ABC broadcasts. To which we say, that's absolutely correct. That was the value represented in our new TV platform.
We've got the learning and awareness generating from last year, and we're not throttling back at all on our efforts to make people aware of how, where and when to watch. The quality of our broadcast is second to none.
Headlines out of the Consumer Electronics Show that I saw deal with Internet broadcasting and the fact that we will all soon be going to the Internet for what is today called "television." Your home computer and television screen will become one in the same. Not just the computer streaming, but also the status quo of network broadcasts, we have the best of both worlds. If we wanted to watch last year's races, it's a couple clicks away. There are very few sports/motorsports that can boast that and offer that connectivity. What was a leading edge example should become more mainstream.
Q: The other big tech thing you're looking at for 2012 is your new website, and enhanced social media plans. What's going on to improve those platforms?
A: You mentioned it, and it was the next topic to bring up. It's a completely new website, that will launch March 1 (screen shot is LEFT). Companies always talk about recent upgrades, but for us, it's been two years since a serious makeover. Through the expert advice of McMurry and several consultants across different aspects, for video integration and social connectivity, the website that is represented by ALMS.com, and I don't want to sound repetitive, should be an unprecedented upgrade that provides content and connectivity to our fans in ways that have never been seen before.
We always have live timing and scoring and live chats. Those elements are taken for granted. But featuring in-car cameras during the race, that will be something our website provides that for the fans in ways we have never been able to do before. We'll have unique content done by our own production services group. Behind the scenes, deep into the series looks, episodic content refreshed on a weekly basis.
Social media should have a very substantial content expansion with guest bloggers and professional media that will be tweeted out and Facebook posted. I know just enough about it to be dangerous! I have been asked to do a personal blog, and I'm excited to do it.
We're all just waiting for Christmas right now. Santa Claus can't come soon enough when it comes to the launch.
Q: What's new with “Green racing,” and what's in store this year?
A: It will continue to be a primary focal point of the series. We've renewed our relationship with the EPA and DOE. We'll have alternative fuels and power trains continuing. Cellulosic E85, which we've always strived to use but sometimes been unable to do because of supply issues, has been resolved.
I think you'll see some one-off examples, with the DeltaWing at the top of that list. Other manufacturer-based examples may run unclassified to demonstrate the technology unaddressed in our rulebook. That's why the series exists, for manufacturers to bring that technology, if a rulebook doesn't contain it.
There's another angle here, that's developing, not directly connected to the ALMS, but it's at arms-length. That was the announcement made at the AUTOSPORT show with our linkup with the Quimera organization and its AE-GT, All-Electric GT car. That car will make a demonstration debut at an ALMS event in the near future. It's all-electric and has performance characteristics that are consistent with internal combustion engines in GT of ALMS. This is a car that would lay down lap times similar to a current GT car.
Q: Also, you announced the Unlimited Racing Championship at Monterey. Are there any schedule or entry details there?
A: It's a work in progress. It's very difficult to birth a new series. They are scheduled to begin the new season on the Laguna Seca date, the second weekend in May. I spoke to Richard Nauert, about two weeks ago. They are flat-out on building cars, they have sold several cars, they are building some others based on additional future sales.
He claims that they will have a “reasonable” car count to start with it consistently growing. Naturally, you'll ask, what's “reasonable,” and I'll say you need at least 6-8-10 for it to be a proper race. But the cars themselves are so interesting and exciting. If you're 30 or older, you know what I'm referring to. These are proper, fire-breathing, Can-Am cars, that even if there were only two of them out there running around, it would be worth watching.
Q: So, bottom line. What's your biggest growth area for 2012? Your biggest challenge? And what, other than Sebring, excites you most?
A: Our biggest growth area is twofold: car count and content. I think we'll set another record in terms of highest overall car count average in the history of the series. Just over 34 cars last year, and I think we'll eclipse that in 2012.
The priority for us, and the biggest focus and challenge, is continuing to grow our fan base. That's the high tide that will raise all the ships. It's what all our strategy is built around, with the website, etc. If you look at the core reason as to why we do this, it's to expand the fan base. Looking at all the new teams, manufacturers, sponsors – not unlike with Lotus – we're not alone in this quest. Our ability to leverage them and assist us helps.
I'd almost regurgitate on that besides Sebring. We want another season of growth, based frankly on the results we delivered in 2011. I won't say it's an overnight success because we are entering our 14th season. I'm having trouble sleeping at night, but it's not because I'm nervous. I'm excited and ready to go.