The final round of the American Le Mans Series season features a plethora of items going on beyond the on-track action. Here's a recap:
ALMS STATE OF THE SERIES RECAP – What the American Le Mans Series' annual "State of the Series" news conference lacked in specifics in terms of how the sports car merger between it and Grand-Am will evolve for 2014, it more than made up for in terms of quality of people on hand. High-ranking officials from across the board beyond ALMS were present – Grand-Am heads Jim France and Ed Bennett and from the ACO, Pierre Fillon, Gerard Neveu and Frederic Henry-Biabaud. This came in a packed room at Road Atlanta filled with a host of OEM representatives, media members and other high-level officials from across the spectrum of sports car racing.
The more pressing matters announced were twofold. First, to coincide with the 2013 ALMS schedule announcement confirmed late Thursday night, the series announced a return to the FOX Sports Media Group for live telecasts of the two longest races of the season – the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans. Sebring will unfold live on SPEED, with Petit Le Mans confirmed on the same network but likely under a different name depending on how the FSMG progresses with the evolution of SPEED into a broad-based, multi-sport network rather than a motorsport-specific channel as SPEED has been.
ALMS president/CEO Scott Atherton (ABOVE, from Sept. 5 merger announcement) admitted the truncated, two-hour TV broadcast windows for Sebring and Petit Le Mans have been unacceptable to both hardcore and casual fans. He also said to expect at least half of the ALMS races to be televised live. ABC will broadcast races at Long Beach (tape-delayed), Road America (live), and Baltimore (tape-delayed) with the remaining five races airing on ESPN2.
Additionally, the ALMS confirmed presenting sponsor Tequila Patron has renewed its role through the end of 2013 – marking the company's fifth year of involvement with the series. Both sides felt confident in the continuation of the partnership beyond the end of next year.
RACER.com will have more from both president/CEOs, Atherton (ALMS) and Bennett (Grand-Am) in the coming days regarding the immediate developments in the sports car merger progress and more on the TV announcement.
ESM GOES CHROME FOR A GOOD CAUSE – An off-the-wall conversation I stumbled into on Thursday with Jeff Segal, Grand-Am's GT co-champion in a Ferrari 458, and two Extreme Speed Motorsports crew members including them hinting that the team's eye-popping new Ultimat Vodka silver chrome livery had actually seen the car lifted by crane and dipped into a chrome paint. The unusual suggestion was dismissed after I spoke to ESM's public relations rep Susan Pollack, who confirmed the car was in fact a wrap.
Regardless of how the car came to be, it is truly a vehicle where photos don't do it justice. That's no knock on the pros, but the way the chrome reflects depending on the lighting is just staggering. It's going to be one of those cars that years from now, fans look back on and think, “Wow, what a spectacular livery,” and perhaps want to buy diecasts.
Perhaps more important than the sponsor – Ultimat Vodka falls under the Patron Spirits umbrella – is the charitable cause associated with the livery. The team is seeking to raise awareness and donations for Action Against Hunger, a global organization committed to saving the lives of malnourished children across the world and provides communities access to safe water and sustainable solutions to hunger. The organization has lifesaving programs in more than 40 countries around the global and assists more than seven million people each year. In addition, Action Against Hunger has more than 30 years of expertise in emergency contexts of conflict, natural disasters, and food crises.
“We hope our new look for Petit educates our fans about the great work Action Against Hunger does throughout the world,”said Ed Brown, Patron Spirits CEO and co-driver of the team's No. 02 Ferrari F458 Italia with Guy Cosmo and Anthony Lazzaro. There are more than 3.5 million childhood deaths each year because of malnutrition and Action Against Hunger works to provide safe water and sustainable solutions to hunger in an affordable way.”
GOOSE ON THE LOOSE – Beyond the top five in qualifying times (prior to fastest qualifier Guy Cosmo losing his time for the car failing a ride height infringement), the fourth manufacturer after Ferrari, BMW and Corvette was not Porsche as might have been expected.
Instead, it was the SRT Viper – qualified by the underrated veteran Marc Goossens – that came best of the rest and made its first top half of the GT field appearance. Goossens in sixth outqualified all four Porsche 911 GT3 RSRs.
Tommy Kendall and Ryan Hunter-Reay, two of the three American drivers on the squad (Jonathan Bomarito), both noted the team has made some dramatic improvements to the car since their last race at Baltimore Labor Day weekend. The crew has worked an incredible amount of man hours in rebuilding both Riley-built cars since Baltimore.
DALZIEL THE TWEETER – The last month has been whirlwind enough for Ryan Dalziel (FAR RIGHT), the Scot racing in both domestic sports car championships and in the FIA World Endurance Championship. To keep up with the exploits, Dalziel – after much pestering and tongue-in-cheek joking – has finally joined the Twitterverse. His ALMS PR rep at CORE autosport, Dan Passe, was the pioneer of the “Dalziel the Twitterless” hashtag that made its way around the world, most notably onto the video boards at the Silverstone WEC race.
“I blame you guys,” Dalziel joked Thursday when speaking informally to a group of media members. “You were all the ones hinting I needed to get on. But now I've already got myself addicted to it – I felt bad I didn't tweet anything yesterday. It was one hour of track time and 23 hours of nothing.”
WHERE TO ENTER THE R8 DRAGON? – The first “dragon” mention you hear in racing often refers to Jay Penske's IndyCar team. Less well known but also worth noting is the DragonSpeed effort assembled by Elton Julian, who's back in the ALMS this weekend in the PC class with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports (LEFT).
Julian has one of the only Audi R8 LMS cars in the U.S. and is figuring out a plan for more races beyond Dubai and Bathurst endurances races this offseason. The car is not homologated for ALMS GT, and unlikely to run as an unclassified entry. The Audi R8 that has raced in Grand-Am has had significant modifications from the FIA GT3-spec version that Julian runs.
As for his own driving commitments, he's spent this year in the FIA World Endurance Championship racing with Ricardo Gonzalez and Christian Zugel in a P2 class Zytek Nissan for Greaves Motorsport. This marks only his second ALMS race appearance of the year (he was in the WEC-entered car at Sebring), and his first as an ALMS-classified entry with the PR1/Mathiasen car and co-drivers Ken Dobson and Rudy Junco.
“I'd love to do more here but the day job is getting the Audi sorted,” he explained. “That's the main focus in trying to figure out what to do beyond those first two races.”
AROUND THE ALMS PADDOCK – Michelin North America technical team leader Karl Koenigstein signs off his current role this week, with Michelin veteran Ken Payne on site and seeing through the ropes before replacing him next year.
BMW's Jonathan Summerton is one of two drivers racing in two cars this weekend, along with Scott Tucker, who traditionally does for Level 5. Summerton, though, admitted his role in both the No. 55 and 56 M3s has actually been more diminished than expected. Classified as the third driver in both cars, rather than the second in the No. 56 as he has been in the races where just he and Dirk Mueller drove, he's actually had less seat time than expected for having the opportunity to race two cars.
A pair of GTC class entries has had last-minute driver changes. IMSA GT3 Challenge Platinum Cup champion Sean Johnston, a 21-year-old from Mt. Shasta, Calif., makes his ALMS debut this weekend as third driver at JDX Racing. Johnston's advanced from sim racing in Nissan's GT Academy program to racing Porsches this year, with substantial success. He joins Michael Valiante and Chris Cumming in the gold, Hertz-sponsored No. 11 car (RIGHT). A class win for Valiante would net him wins in three different sports car categories (Grand-Am DP, Continental Tire ST) in the same year.
Meanwhile at Competition Motorsports, Bob Faieta called in sick mere minutes before the qualifying session was set to begin. Andrew Davis, Brumos Racing GT driver in Grand-Am and Porsche Sport Driving School instructor, filled in using the same seat and was already decked out in a Norton firesuit – the sponsor on the car this weekend that also features Michael Avenatti and series debutante David Calvert-Jones, a Los Angeles-based Australian.
Competition isn't the only Porsche team with a driver trying to stay healthy. Team Falken Tire's Wolf Henzler has been battling illness all week, but is on the mend and should be good to go for at least the minimum driving time required for Saturday's race. The team has Martin Ragginger as its third driver, back for the first time since Sebring.
AROUND THE OTHER PADDOCKS – The ALMS (and for that matter, ELMS, within the race) are not alone in ending their seasons this weekend.
The Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup featured Dean Copeland and Stevan McAleer splitting the doubleheader of races, with McAleer clinching the title in Friday's race. Both were spirited battles and perhaps a “good” form of pack racing with the top seven or eight cars often tightly bunched within 2 to 3 seconds, but never in jeopardy of having a massive, chain reaction, accordion effect accident.
In the IMSA Developmental Series, the aforementioned Johnston and Tristan Nunez were the big winners, clinching the GT3 Platinum Cup and Cooper Tire Prototype Lites titles, respectively. Each driver seems to be on the verge of bigger things in 2013.
Lastly, providing an open-wheel element to the weekend, the Star Mazda Championship wrapped its own and the Mazda Road to Indy season with a spirited battle between Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam for the win. Karam got within a car length on the last lap of the 50-minute race, but spun heading onto the backstraight.
“I did it more for show,” he joked on the podium after the race.
Chaves' second straight win confirmed second in the championship behind Jack Hawksworth, absent this weekend and with replacement at Team Pelfrey Ryan Tveter never really standing much chance of matching him on pace. Behind the top two, Connor De Phillippi drove one of his best ever Star Mazda events in advancing from ninth to third, although he reckoned the weight balance was off and he could have done even more in his repaired car.
USF2000 graduate Scott Anderson finished 12th in his debut for JDC Motorsports, while that series' runner-up Spencer Pigot has been on hand all weekend in the unfamiliar role of merely spectating and not driving anything.