It could be really, really good, but then again…
When John Dagys of SpeedTV.com first reported early Saturday afternoon (September 1) that the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am series will merge beginning with the 2014 season, which I confirmed after speaking with one of the manufacturer representatives who had directly participated in the discussions, my initial reaction was “finally.” And after years and years of writing about this very idea (read Peter’s definitive piece on the subject that originally posted on October 26, 2011), I was thrilled for the players involved for having the cojones to finally get it done.
My other initial reaction was that this development would be great for the participating manufacturers, it would be great for enthusiasts who love road racing, and it would be fantastic for the overall health of the sport itself. I still believe kudos are due to all involved for making it happen, but I’d like to temper my initial reaction from one of itwould be to it could be great, because there are just too many factors involved that have to fall into place “just so” for all of this to work out.
After talking with various players at several different levels of involvement in this situation, I have pieced together some details about this “merger.” First of all, this is anything but a merger. In fact Grand-Am is buying the ALMS lock, stock and barrel in a straight-up cash deal (I know the number but I’m choosing not to reveal it now),including Road Atlanta and Sebring International Raceway, the two road racing facilities the ALMS owns. I doubt whether this was planned to be unveiled on Wednesday at the announcement in Daytona Beach, but there you have it. (Besides, if this truly was a “merger” you would think that the announcement would come at a neutral site or at least near a major media center, instead of at the home of Grand-Am and of course, NASCAR, right?)
The knowledge that this is an outright buyout changes absolutely everything about this discussion. I have to wonder what direction this new road racing organization will take and that begs many, many questions. As in, will the hard-won international perspective and reputation of the ALMS be enhanced and continued, or discarded? Will Grand-Am leave intact the hottest road racing series in the world right now - the ALMS GT class - or will it mess it up by some convoluted “blending” exercise with its weak sister GT classes that will only serve to dilute the racing? Will the new series make sense of the racing calendar by walking away from the underperforming races and come up with one outstanding schedule? (You can see my schedule proposal in my previous column from last October.)
Questions. Many, many questions. Some of them will be answered Wednesday, and then again some of them might be thrashed over right up until the beginning of the 2014 season.
In the meantime, this is my blueprint for the new racing organization, complete with some very specific recommendations:
1. What’s going to happen with the ACO? This is the fundamental raison d’etre for the whole shebang. If there’s no relationship or direct connection to the France-based ACO it will affect team budgets, schedules, the classes of racing, sponsors, the TV package, basically everything. Is this new road racing series going to go off on its own as sort of a American-centric entity, or will the link to the ACO and the 24 Hours of Le Mans be retained?
2. It’s about the manufacturers, stupid. Racing enthusiasts may rail against this but the fact remains that the automobile manufacturers are the lifeblood of the sport, and to pretend otherwise is just plain silly. This new road racing organization, which automatically becomes the road racing entity in the U.S. (as well as the U.S. road racing entity to the world at large), must embrace manufacturer involvement rather than stifle it. That means developing a competition mindset and rules package that encourages manufacturers to participate, rather than turn them off with a smattering of capricious decisions that suggest instability.
3. An experienced management team must be assembled. This seems silly to even mention, right? Well, no. In fact anyone with even a passing knowledge of the inner workings of racing will know that this is absolutely crucial, because mistakes can be made and the wrong people can be put in place. It has happened throughout racing history and it has every chance of happening again. This new racing organization has a very narrow window - let’s call it a sliver - to get things right, so cooler heads will have to prevail, egos will have to be set aside, and the very best team of people will have to be selected and assembled. That means several people currently in place at high positions will have to go (see Point 4). Make no mistake, the assembly of this management team has the potential to make or break this new racing organization before it even leaves the starting line.
4. One machine is clearly better than the other. The current technical system, capabilities and personnel that run the ALMS should be retained as the mechanism that runs the new road racing series. No, of course this won’t sit well with the Grand-Am operatives but that’s not the point, is it? If they buy into putting the best people and systems in place and if they truly want this new series to fly strong right out of the gate, they’re going to have to suck it up and acknowledge which racing organization is bringing the right stuff to the table.
5. Whatever you do, please don’t mess up a good thing. As I’ve previously stated and what is obvious to anyone who knows anything about racing, the GT class racing going on right now in the ALMS is as good as it gets. In fact it’s the best road racing this country has ever seen. Let me reiterate, as in ever. What does that mean? That means that the current Rolex GT class must be deleted in favor of the ALMS GT rules package and its corresponding manufacturer interest must be retained “as is.” To do anything else would demonstrate a level of cluelessness and tone-deafness that would defy all understanding.
6. Get real about safety, and the need for a traveling safety team. This is a deal breaker as far as I’m concerned. The NASCAR philosophy is that the individual tracks are responsible for providing the proper safety personnel, etc. And they would be wrong. It breeds inconsistency in a sober part of the business that can’t tolerate anyinconsistency whatsoever. It’s clear that if you’re going to be the premier road racing entity in this country that it’s imperative that safety cannot be left to chance or to the vagaries of interpretation provided by the individual tracks. The ALMS has a perfectly capable and professional safety team that’s turn key. Please use it.
7. Come up with one great schedule. As in please. In my previous column (below) I outlined a proposed schedule for a new United States Road Racing Championship. Please study it and hopefully you can come up with a better one, but it’s a excellent place to start. Conducting races with no spectators may save on event insurance costs, but it’s no way to run a major league road racing series. And once you do that, think about running separate races for the Daytona Prototype and GT classes on the same racing weekend. In fact, consider running doubleheader races for both classes wherever and whenever you can. (My gut tells me that the ALMS LMP class is going to go away in favor of the DP class. Don’t be surprised if that’s the case.)
8. Make TV matter. it’s no secret that the ALMS TV package has been infuriating to most. Yes, I’ve heard the argument that the Internet will define TV watching of the future, but when you’re delivering TV numbers close to being nonexistent, there’s no rationale that justifies what’s going on. Take one great unified racing series with one great schedule, add in massive manufacturer support and participation, and racing fans my just start showing up again, in-person and in front of the TV. A serious “blended” TV package that can utilize network television to showcase the major events and actually grow the new racing series is absolutely imperative.
9. A major league road racing series needs a major league sponsor. A series sponsor that will integrate/activate its product/service into this new road racing series is a noteworthy concept, too bad that it has been lacking in major league road racing in this country up until this point. We’re talking a global corporate partner that will help expand exposure and grow audience. A heavyweight, in other words. Here’s the magic formula that should be simple to understand: One Great Unified Road Racing Championship + Factory Participation + Recognizable Cars + Top Teams and Drivers + One Serious TV Package + One Major League Sponsor with Global Reach = A Major League Racing Series worth watching.
We are all aware of how the infamous “split” in Indy car racing destroyed the sport of open-wheel racing, for all intents and purposes. And with all that has transpired while watching that train wreck unfold, it was stunning to me that some very smart people involved in racing actually believed that this country could sustain two major league road racing series, when it was painfully obvious that it just wasn’t possible.
Well, we have finally arrived at the crossroads for major league road racing in this country that I’ve been predicting for several years now, and the powers that be behind this new road racing series have a very clearcut choice as to how to proceed from here on out.
They will move in an enlightened, reasoned manner to finally make things right for road racing in this country, or they will fall into old habits and send the sport down the wrong road.
We will have a pretty good idea as to which fork in the road this new racing entity has chosen when the announcement takes place on Wednesday.
Stay tuned for more updates as they develop.