American Le Mans Series president and CEO Scott Atherton looks ahead to the 2011 season and beyond.
Let's look back before we look forward. What was the most significant achievement for the ALMS in 2010?
"Two things: having all class championships come down to the last laps of the last race and successfully incorporating both the LMPC and GTC categories into the existing American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón platform. I think both categories performed above our highest expectations. They've also proven be an effective incubator of upwardly moving teams, drivers, sponsors etc."
So what's the next step?
"There are new technical rules and regulations in the LMP categories which will provide new content, but we also have a continuation of truly the best GT racing in the world. It has been the hallmark of our series for the past several years and it continues to get better. The combination of new technical rules in prototypes, which has already produced new manufacturers and cars, and a raising of the bar – again – in GT will, no doubt, enable us to top 2010."
Tell us more about the direction you've taken with your new television package with ABC and ESPN.
"Our new television/digital platforms provide us with the best of two worlds. We have the gold standard in sports broadcasting in the United States with the combination of ABC and ESPN. The ESPN3.com digital element is the benchmark for what will be the next generation of sports broadcasting. So, we have one foot firmly planted in the present and another foot firmly planted in the future. The programs we've put together are without question the best possible combination for us, now and going forward."
The global competition created by the ACO – the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup – certainly brings worldwide talent to the grid, but it must bring challenges as well. What are the pluses and minuses?
"The pluses are world-class teams, manufacturers and drivers that are making a commitment to be at all of the ILMC events and, in our case, that means Sebring and Petit Le Mans. However, that can't be solely attributed to the ILMC. Sebring and Petit Le Mans have always attracted world-class, international talent that has participated in those events, but not the whole series. If there is a downside, it would be that the same level of content won't be found at all of the other events. But that also can't be blamed on the ILMC. We're pleased to be hosting two rounds of the ILMC and our commitment is to make sure all of our events feature a full grid of world class teams, cars and drivers."
The ALMS has received acclaim as the global leader in "green" racing for its pervasive use of alternative fuels and technologies. What's new with the green racing movement this year?
"What's new is going to be a concerted effort by ALMS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and SAE International, to make the MICHELIN GREEN X Challenge understandable and easy to follow for our race fans – and for the casual observer as well.
"The series will also be partnering with the Go Green Auto Rally to better educate the public on how they can drive their own cars more efficiently. Drivers from the American Le Mans Series will be at Go Green Auto Rally events throughout the season to provide hands-on instruction for conserving fuel and reducing emissions based on their racing experience and driving techniques."
Where do you see the growth of the series?
"Remarkably, we have had consistent increases in spectator turnouts even during a period when many other sports were suffering in that category. Our new television/digital package gives us an unprecedented opportunity to broaden our fan base not just to race fans, but to auto enthusiasts and sports fans in general. That's one aspect of where our future growth will come from.
"I think another catalyst for growth will be the fact that the technical rules have been redefined for the prototype category. When new rules are announced, there is always a bit of a lag between when the rules come into play and when the content appears on the track. We have the earliest examples of new LMP cars appearing now, but more importantly we have a lot more in the pipeline. You couple that with our new TV and digital platform and I like our positioning and prospects for growth."
What about growth in the schedule and venues?
"We are always looking at strategic growth opportunities for the series. We have no complaints about how we are scheduled right now or where we are racing. However, there are parts of the country that we'd like to get back to. We think it is important for us to impact the central and southwest regions and we have opportunities under development there. We think a race in the northwest is also important. Aside from that, our agreement with the ACO provides us with the opportunity to conduct events throughout all of the Americas, including, Central and South America. The opportunity to expand the series beyond North America is strategically on our radar screen and there are some very interesting possibilities."
If you had one message for the fan, what would it be?
"First and foremost, I'd say thank you. We have some of the most loyal and passionate fans in all of motorsport – perhaps sports in general. I would also encourage them to continue doing what they're doing, because they're following us in ever-increasing numbers both at our events and on TV. I meet a lot of fans at events every season, I always thank them for coming and I say, ‘Come back next year and bring friends.' Apparently, they've been listening, because the growth is well documented. I would also tell them that the best is yet to come."
Who is the person you most admire in this sport and why?
"That's a double-edge sword – got to be careful with this one! I'm a big fan of [ALMS founder] Don Panoz, that's for sure. I admire Don, not only for his motorsports accomplishments, but also for what he's achieved in virtually every business with which he has been involved. He's done some amazing things.
"If the question is specific to someone in motorsports, for me, hands down that would be Roger Penske. I had the pleasure of working within the Penske organization for several years and was able to witness firsthand how things operate there. I can tell you the rumors and urban legends about work ethic and the number of hours worked in a day are all true. There are very few people who live up to the hype but Roger does. He lives by the motto “effort equals results” and leads by example."