The Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series wrapped up their 2012 season at beautiful and historic Lime Rock Park in Connecticut on the last weekend of September. Racing at the short and fast Lime Rock circuit usually leads to drama, but in terms of the championships, most of those had been decided coming into the finale. In the top Daytona Prototype (DP) class, Ganassi Racing driver’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas only had to each drive the required 30 minutes and finish the race to clinch the driver’s championship, which would also result in a team championship. Their seventh place finish put those championships in the bag and added a couple more trophies to Ganassi’s large collection. The Ganassi Racing BMW Riley wasn’t usually the fastest DP on the track this year and only won two of fourteen races (Suntrust won three and the Action Express #9 and Spirit of Daytona Corvette DP’s also won two races apiece), but they were the team with the most consistency over the course of the season. “We’ve had to really dig deep with all the experience on the team, knowing we didn’t have the fastest car many times but we scrapped to get every point that we could in order to try and put ourselves in a good position for the championship,” said Scott Pruett after the Lime Rock race.
It’s been a good couple of years for Chevrolet. They celebrated their 100th Anniversary in November 2011 and by the end of last year had set a new record for worldwide sales, with over 4.7 million bowtie-badged cars and trucks going out the door. Sales have continued to be strong in 2012, driven by models like the new Cruze compact and Malibu midsize cars, and let’s not forget that Corvette Racing won Le Mans last year and the ALMS GT championship this year, which is possibly the most competitive GT championship in the world. They may get most of their sales from the more mass-produced cars and trucks, but the heart and soul of Chevrolet resides in models like the Corvette and Camaro. Louis Chevrolet himself was a racer that would probably like to take the ALMS Corvette out himself if he were still around. For our own celebration of Chevy’s 100th anniversary (a little late) and Corvette’s 60th anniversary, we got our hands on two of the hottest models in the Chevy lineup, the Corvette Grand Sport 60th Anniversary coupe, and the Camaro ZL1. First up, the Corvette.
I’ll get straight to the point here. I spoke with Don Panoz, the founder of the American Le Mans Series on Monday and he asked me to keep the details of the Grand-Am/ALMS coming together “off the record” until tomorrow’s announcement. But since John Dagys has decided to break cover on some of the details tonight (speedtv.com), I can tell you this about the arrangement between Grand-Am and the ALMS.
1. The Panoz Motor Sports Group (ALMS) has been sold to GRAND-AM/NASCAR Holdings LLC. The number? Reportedly around $20 million. It also includes the sale of Road Atlanta and a long-term lease of Sebring International Raceway. A new LLC will be formed going forward for the unified sports car racing entity in the U.S.
2. Jim France (GRAND-AM co-founder and NASCAR Vice Chairman/Executive Vice President) will be the Chairman of the unified series, which does not have an official name as of yet. ALMS founder Don Panoz will be Vice Chairman. And ALMS President and CEO Scott Atherton will be President of the new organization. Both Panoz and Atherton are likely to be on the board of directors.
3. The LMP1 class from the ALMS will no longer be a part of the new series. The ALMS LMP2 class will survive, along with the GRAND-AM’s Daytona Prototype class. The DeltaWing will also be a part of this new class as well. The new racing series will equalize those three classes. (Uh, good luck with that.) I’m sorry to report that the Rolex GT class will hang around, but it will come in below the ALMS GT class, which will be retained, intact (thank goodness). A testing program will be undertaken to sort all of these performance adjustments out.
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:
At only 26 years old, Tommy Milner has a very impressive racing résumé. He made the move into sportscar racing after starting his career as a teenager in the Formula BMW USA series in 2004 and has had great success, helping to bring the ALMS GT manufacturers championship to BMW in 2010 and getting a huge win for Corvette Racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011 along with Olivier Beretta and Antonio Garcia. Milner has also raced in the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series and has competed in the Nürburgring 24 Hour race. With five podium finishes in the first seven ALMS races this season, including wins at Long Beach, Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio, Milner and co-driver Oliver Gavin are in a great position to win the driver’s championship in the highly competitive GT class, as well as help to bring Corvette the GT manufacturers and team championships. We caught up with Milner at Mid-Ohio to get his view on the season so far.
SCI: You’re in your second year now as a Corvette driver. How do you like it?
Milner: It’s been great! I’ve had great teammates for both years that I’ve been here and it already feels like family with all the guys here.
SCI: How does the atmosphere on the team compare to the Rahal team? Is it any different?
I hope everyone out there got to see what was a superb road race at Road America over the weekend. Guy Smith (Dyson Racing Lola B12/60 Mazda) delivered a victory for Dyson Racing in the closest overall finish in the history of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón – 0.083 seconds. The Smith/Chris Dyson entry had started next-to-last but ended-up winning the four-hour Road America Road Race Showcase in a riveting finish over Lucas Luhr driving the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD ARX-03a Honda. Luhr appeared to have the race won by passing Smith in the final corner (Turn 14), but Smith and the No. 16 Lola-Mazda won a drag race up the hill and to the checkered flag. Incredibly, Luhr had stormed back from four laps down after his teammate, Klaus Graf, lost time in the pits early on in the race. See more coverage about the events at Road America in “The Line,” but what I really wanted to talk about this week is an idea whose time has come, from where I sit.
As good as the race was for the overall win at Road America, the real action in the American Le Mans Series continues to be in the GT class, which, as I’ve unequivocally stated before, is the best road racing going on in the world right now. (Yes, even better than the Australian V8 Supercars.) It’s also no secret that I feel that the ALMS is somewhat limited by its own multi-class format and their links to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in that they are unable to properly showcase the ongoing GT battle.
So imagine, if you will, that a new racing event takes place at Road America next year, one week after the Petit Le Mans, at the end of the 2013 season. The “Autoextremist Invitational” would be a throw-down battle for GT cars that will have competed in the 2013 ALMS season. A pair of flat-out sprint races for all the marbles without any other classes on the track. Eligible would be manufacturer supported teams from BMW, Corvette, Dodge, Porsche and Ferrari, as well as any privateer teams in the top GT category. The AE Invitational would consist of twin 60-minute heats, each with one mandatory pit stop for tires and a splash of fuel. One of each team’s co-drivers would run in the first heat, the other in the second.
It can’t be easy being a member of the 911 engineering and design teams at Porsche, as with each successive generation they have to balance the demands of hardcore enthusiast buyers that rank performance as their number one priority with the other group of buyers that want more comfort and fuel economy, all while retaining the classic 911 look and feel. No, I don’t envy the job, but it sure is fun driving the cars to see how they’re doing. With the new 991 generation of the 911, Porsche made some big changes to the iconic model, by making it longer and more comfortable inside, as well as switching to a new electronic steering rack. To see how it stacks up, we spent a week in a 911 Carrera S, including laps at Monticello Motor Club where we had a pro get behind the wheel.
Even though its 2.2-inches longer overall and 2-inches wider, the new car is instantly recognizable as a911. You could still park the 1963 original next to the new car and know without a shadow of doubt that they’re the same model from the same manufacturer. It still has the same teardrop shape, still has a rear-mounted flat-six, still has the key on the left side of the steering column and still sounds like a Porsche when you fire it up. The 911 Carrera S is powered by a 3.8-liter flat six, which features all the latest Porsche technology including VarioCam variable valve timing and makes 400hp and 287 lb-ft of torque. 911’s have never had much to look at under the engine cover, but you really can’t see anything of the new engine, besides a pair of fans and a couple of caps for fluids. If the $100K Carrera S is out of your price range, Porsche also offers the base 911 Carrera starting at $82,100, which has a smaller 3.4-liter flat six and makes 350hp.
The Six Hours of Watkins Glen is one of the premier races on the Grand Am calendar and had renewed importance this year, as it was round two of Grand Am’s new North American Endurance Championship. The race was hard-fought with plenty of drama, with overall victory going to the Action Express Corvette DP of Joao Barbosa and Darren Law, and GT victory going to the Stevenson Motorsport Camaro GT.R of Robin Liddell and John Edwards. http://www.sportscarinsider.com/photo-galleries/grand-am-six-hours-of-watkins-glen/