Gordon Kirby

The US Scene
Privateers keep ALMS afloat

The American Le Mans Series suffered during 2009 from the loss of the factory Audi and Penske/Porsche teams, and at the end of the season Acura also departed the series. As a result, ALMS series boss Scott Atherton has combined the LMP1 and P2 classes for 2010 and added the ‘Challenge’ class for the Oreca-Courage Le Mans prototype spec-type car, designed as a cheaper, more accessible way into prototype sports car racing.

Fortunately, the ALMS enjoys guys like Rob Dyson and Duncan Dayton who are committed to racing in the series. Dyson is one of American sports car racing’s most enduring stalwarts, running a pair of Lola-Mazda P2 cars these days, while Dayton’s Highcroft team has competed in the ALMS for the past two years with Acura LMP2 and P1 cars. Highcroft won the 2009 P1 championship with David Brabham/Scott Sharp and will continue to race in next year’s ALMS despite Acura withdrawing the factory support for its LMP1 and P2 cars.

“We will be racing prototypes in the ALMS next year,” Dayton said. “We have contracts with Acura and [sponsor] Patron and we fully intend to honour our commitments and our contracts. But with the P1 and the P2 rules being combined it’s hard to predict whether a beefed-up P2 car will be competitive with a restricted P1 car and how all that plays out.

“At Sebring, we have to declare what chassis we’re running and what spec it’s going to be for Le Mans. Clearly, our goal always has been to go to Le Mans, so we have to evaluate the rules and the performance-balancing regulations from IMSA before we can decide how we’re going to proceed.”

David Brabham will continue to lead the Highcroft team but his co-driver was unknown at press-time. US sports car veteran Scott Sharp moves into the GT2 category where he will co-drive his own Extreme Speed Motorsports/Patron Ferrari 430 with Patron Spirits CEO Ed Brown. Sharp’s new team will run two Ferrari GT2 cars.

Back at Road Atlanta’s Petit Le Mans last September, Audi’s racing boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich said Audi will probably race at Sebring and Road Atlanta again next year but is not likely to run any more ALMS races next season. He also warned that too much rule-changing and instability would push Audi out of Le Mans prototype racing. “I could convince my board to continue in recent years because of a quite acceptable continuance in the rules, with predictable changes,” Dr Ullrich said. “The main issue now is to convince the guys from the ACO that in times like this stability is even more important than before. To go the other way is the most counter-productive thing they can do.”

Dr Ullrich said he appreciates the ALMS’s reasoning in combining its LMP1 and P2 cars into a single category for 2010. But he says the move has added to his problems in convincing his board of directors to keep its prototype sports car budget alive. “I can understand this from the organisers’ perspective,” he said. “But if you are a manufacturer who has been racing an LMP1 car because you don’t want to make an LMP2 and then you get restricted to being no faster than an LMP2 what do you say when someone asks you, ‘Why did you spend this money on this P1 car?’ This is the problem.

“I hope that we can race at Sebring and Road Atlanta in 2010. If we race at Le Mans and there is a way to race the cars at Sebring and at Road Atlanta without changing the cars, then I think we will be there for sure. But if they have a change in the rulebook I think we won’t have the cars ready and I am frightened about whether anybody else will have them ready too. So I hope a solution will be found. There is no question we would like to be there if it fits well into our preparation for Le Mans, but only if we can race more or less the existing cars.”

Meanwhile, the forward-thinking Duncan Dayton would like to see the ALMS be much more aggressive about defining and marketing its green initiatives. “If I were involved with running the ALMS,” Dayton ruminated, “I would go to the government and say rather than spending $20 million-$40 million in sponsorship from the National Guard, Air Force and the Army in NASCAR and Grand-Am on the biggest-polluting and most technically unsophisticated cars in America the government should give that money to the ALMS and put up an X-prize with some financial reward for pushing green technology forward.

“To me, we want to be thinking about zero- carbon footprint race cars. Not by buying carbon credits but by actually designing and building a car that’s going to be a zero-emission car that can go 200mph and run for 45 minutes or an hour on whatever kind of charge it needs, whether it’s full electric or whatever.

“I think the ALMS is well-positioned and needs to push further in this direction. I also think in this age of government bail-outs and thinking what can we do that’s best for America, there aren’t a lot of things that would be more helpful to national security than becoming energy-independent.

“I think 2010 will be a bit of a muddle-through year,” Dayton added. “But we need a new rules package for 2011 and new manufacturers and cars coming in. I think this series has so much interest because it has an open rulebook and a variety of chassis and engines, and we need to generate an even wider range of fuel and solutions. Sports car racing has always lived or died on the whims of the manufacturers, but the backbone of sports car racing has always been the privateers. So I’m in favour of cost-cutting and finding ways of limiting the expense of competing. But the main focus should be on aggressively selling and marketing a long-term green plan.”

Over the past few years hundreds of fans have told me they’ve given up on the IRL and Grand-Am because the cars are aesthetically unattractive and technically uninteresting. The ALMS, they say, is their hope for the future of American motor racing. As regular readers know, I’m among those who believe the essential elements that have always driven the sport – technology development, improving the breed and innovation – must be recaptured if the sport is to thrive again in America in the 21st century. Like Duncan Dayton, I hope the ALMS can make it happen.