The great divide

The differences between the ALMS and Grand-Am have allowed each to prosper. Yet both want the same thing: to be the best US sports car series
By Gary Watkins

Two sets of rules, two calendars and two points of view, but just one country. That could sum up the Champ Car versus IRL IndyCar Series battle. Until you add in that both championships appear to be co-existing quite happily. The split in sports car racing in the United States is quite different to the one that has undermined the future of single-seater racing in North America.

The IRL looks set to bury Champ Car after an all-out war lasting more than a dozen years, yet the American Le Mans Series and the Grand American Road Racing Association both appear to be flourishing. The reason? They each offer something completely different.

ALMS boss Scott Atherton sums it up best. “The IRL and Champ Car are not just variations on the same theme, they are almost duplicates of each other,” he argues. “Whereas with the ALMS and Grand-Am, I don’t think you could have two series that are more diametrically opposed and still call them sports car racing. That is why I believe there is an opportunity for both to flourish.”

It could be argued that Grand-Am and the ALMS, particularly when comparing their respective prototype classes, are as different as chalk and cheese, or as Atherton puts it, “grapefruits and apples”. There is no comparison between the Audis and Porsches that do battle for outright honours in the ALMS and Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototypes, cars built by garagiste constructors, the likes of Riley Technologies, Crawford Race Cars and now European big guns Lola and Dallara. Compare that to the difference between a Panoz-Cosworth and a Dallara-Honda, which form the Champ Car and IRL grids respectively. Even to hardcore racing fans they are little more than variations on a theme.

In the ALMS, the cars are the stars. High-technology is the name of the game in a series whose prototype classes, LMP1 and LMP2, are dominated by factory teams fielded by major car manufacturers, the likes of Audi, Porsche and Honda, which races under the Acura banner. The winning in the two ALMS GT divisions is done by teams backed by Chevrolet, Porsche and Ferrari, who race machinery derived from their road cars. Here it is all about exclusivity.

Grand-Am takes its lead from NASCAR and was set up in 2000 following the failure of the series run by the United States Road Racing Association in 1998-99. It has a strictly-controlled rulebook aimed at creating close racing, all at a price. Over to the boss of Grand-Am, Roger Edmondson.

“The ALMS consider themselves to be part of the automobile industry, while we are part of the racing industry,” he says. “We have no obligation to showcase technology. We have an obligation to provide a sporting platform for the American racing industry and hope what we produce is entertaining to the American racing public.”

At a time when one-make formulas have taken over the world of single-seater racing and when even the Formula 1 rulebook is becoming ever more restrictive, the regulations written for the Le Mans 24 Hours that form the basis of the ALMS rulebook are refreshingly old-fashioned. Some argue that the latest aero rules for prototypes have created a breed of lookalikes, but if that’s true critics should note there is still room for innovation. Where else can a 5.5-litre normally-aspirated engine and a twin-turbo V8 go up against a V12 turbo-diesel? There is freedom to run open-top machinery or coupés.

The ALMS, more so than Le Mans, can claim to lead the way in the introduction of green technologies. The ALMS introduced an E10 fuel – a mix of 10 per cent bio-ethanol and 90 per cent petrol – at the start of the 2007 season, one year ahead of the race from which it takes its name. For this season, E85 has been allowed and will be used by the factory Chevrolet Corvettes, and there is also a plan for a team to run a high-percentage bio-diesel during the season. Le Mans allows just two fuels, E10 and a bio-diesel with 10 per cent bio content.

“We provide a platform for manufacturers to tell a technology story,” says Atherton. “Not only does that not exist in Grand-Am, it does not exist anywhere else in racing. A lot of other series are trying to become more relevant to what is going on in the road car marketplace, and F1 is top of that list, but it is something we have always espoused.”

Think back to 1998 and the first Petit Le Mans 1000-mile enduro at Road Atlanta, the pilot event for the inaugural ALMS the following year. On the grid was a petrol-electric hybrid, the Panoz Q8, that was prescient of the technology that will be introduced into F1 in 2011.

Atherton describes Grand-Am as “NASCAR goes road racing”. In fact, a series that was started by the NASCAR-owning France family has blazed a trail now followed in other parts of its empire. Its Daytona Prototypes, introduced in 2003, could be regarded as a forerunner to NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow concept. Strict rules, both in terms of dimensions and materials, mean that the bodywork of any Daytona Prototype (DP) should fit, more or less, onto the chassis of any of its rivals.

There is nothing hi-tech about a Daytona Prototype. So much so that you won’t see an aluminium honeycomb monocoque on the grid, let alone a carbon-composite tub. Grand-Am’s top-class cars are built around panelled spaceframes, or tubeframes in American vernacular. Key components, such as the gearbox, brakes and wheel-bearings, are mandated by the organisers. What’s more, development is frowned upon.

The design of all Grand-Am cars was set when the DP class was introduced in 2003. The chassis, suspension and bodywork were, in effect, homologated and constructors have had to apply for permission to make changes. That has been granted only where the organisers believe a particular chassis has needed a helping hand to remain competitive.

New constructors have been allowed to take over existing designs for 2008, hence the arrival of Lola and Dallara, and everyone has been given carte blanche to produce all-new bodies. But underneath, many of the cars remain much the same as they were at the beginning of the formula. Dallara, for example, may have thrown its resources at the aerodynamics of the design it took over from Doran Enterprises, but the tubeframe and major suspension components are unchanged from what it inherited.

“Grand-Am defines in detail the size and thickness of the tubing, the dimensions of the greenhouse area and even the distance between the bulkheads,” says Andrea Toso, technical director of the DP programme at Dallara. “We believe all the chassis are close in terms of stiffness. We have measured the Riley against the Doran and they were damn close.” Toso points out that of the approximate 1000kg dry weight of a Daytona Prototype, 750kg are made up of spec components.

Factor in engines, with one exception V8s, pushing out only 500bhp and a control tyre, this year supplied by Pirelli, and it is easy to understand why a Daytona Prototype is much slower than a Le Mans-style prototype. In fact, a GT1 car was quicker than a DP in 2007. The pole-winning Corvette at Laguna Seca, which hosted both series, was a nearly 1.5sec quicker than the fastest time from Grand-Am qualifying.

“Your first impression is that it is bloody horrible,” says reigning ALMS LMP1 champion Allan McNish after getting reacquainted with a Daytona Prototype ahead of a one-off outing in the Daytona 24 Hours, the Grand-Am series opener. “It doesn’t have the downforce, mechanical grip or the power of my Audi R10. It’s a little bit like the original Porsche 911 GT1 I drove back in 1997 or maybe like a DTM car.

“It is definitely very basic in comparison to what I’m used to,” he goes on. “But at the end of the day, the skills required to drive the thing are the same. It still has four wheels and a throttle pedal.”

McNish was making his second stab at Daytona in the Grand-Am era and was joined in his SAMAX Riley-Pontiac by fellow Audi drivers Lucas Luhr and Mike Rockenfeller. Daytona in the last weekend of January has now become a Mecca for drivers of a variety of disciplines. Big names abound on the entry list, from NASCAR Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and IRL champion turned NASCAR racer Dario Franchitti, to former Champ Car title winner Jimmy Vasser.

Grand-Am has the big names that the ALMS can only dream of in a country where NASCAR has become shorthand for motor sport. Or at least that’s the case at the 24 Hours and the summer NASCAR-supporting events at which some of the stars of the Sprint Cup will join the sports car action.

Grand-Am sells itself on big names and close racing. No one can deny that the Audi-Porsche battle at the front of the ALMS created some thrillers in 2007, but Grand-Am officials are quick to point out that it has around 20 cars, more at Daytona, in its premier class. The ALMS has the two Champion Racing Audis and a handful of makeweights in LMP1. It is the good fortune of the ALMS right now that the Penske-run Porsche RS Spyders from the lightweight LMP2 category can take the fight to the top-class cars on most tracks. So keen is it to ensure this remains the case it has gone against the Le Mans organisers and opted not to enforce a series of rule changes designed to maintain a performance gap between the two prototype categories.

Atherton describes the lack of opposition to Audi in LMP1 as “a challenging set of circumstances”. He points out that Honda, which is now entering its second season in LMP2, has already stated that it intends to move up a class, possibly as early as 2009. It is no coincidence that the ALMS has said it aims to run to pure Le Mans LMP2 rules, which means a higher minimum weight and a smaller fuel tank, in time for the start of next season.

Atherton’s rhetoric backs up Edmondson’s claim that the success of the ALMS hinges on the commitment of the manufacturers. “Their future will be determined by a small number of people,” he says. “That is the problem with their business model: their future is not in their owns hands.”

That has led to the suggestion that the ALMS could become a victim of the cyclical nature of manufacturer involvement, the boom-bust scenario of which many have talked before. Atherton points out that the majority of the car makers involved in his series, namely Porsche and Chevrolet, have been there since the beginning. Audi, meanwhile, has had a continuous involvement since it came on board full-time in 2000.

“I would be naïve if I did not admit that was a concern,” he says, “but we have had 10 good years of the ALMS and if I have anything to do with it we are going to have 10 more.”

The vagaries of large manufacturers will not play a part in the success or failure of Grand-Am, argues Edmondson. The top organisations in his series, the likes of Chip Ganassi Racing and Wayne Taylor Racing, do not rely on manufacturer backing. In the case of double Daytona winner Taylor’s team, he is funded by a bank whose ATM cash machines British holidaymakers in Florida are likely to have used. SunTrust, claims Edmondson, “came into our series because they saw it as an arena that would allow them to expand their business”.

Atherton insists that “sponsorship levels are up over the past two years in the ALMS”, reeling off a list of major companies now involved in the series. The problem is that their names are all on the side of factory cars.

The privateers that participate are mostly backed by private money. That’s as true of the best prototype privateers, the likes of Dyson Racing now running Porsche’s RS Spyder, as it is for the lesser GT2 teams. It’s difficult to identify a major sponsor not affiliated to the team owner on the side of one of the independent teams.

Alex Job Racing is one of the high-profile defectors from the ALMS to Grand-Am. Veteran team boss Alex Job was in at the start of the ALMS, became Porsche’s works team in GT2 and then left after he couldn’t raise the necessary sponsorship when he lost that backing. He expanded to run a Porsche-powered DP in 2006 alongside a one-car GT2 programme before quitting the ALMS altogether.

“Sponsorship was the key,” he explains. “The chances of raising the money for a GT programme in the ALMS are much smaller than raising a larger amount of money to race in Daytona Prototypes.” He puts a one-car DP budget at approaching $4 million, as against $2.5m to field a single GT2 car in the rival series.

“Most sponsors don’t want to be on a car in the fourth class in the ALMS and get limited exposure when for similar money they can run up front in Grand-Am,” continues Job, who has backing from the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain. “The ALMS platform is in the most part for works teams, otherwise you have to be funded by a wealthy individual. There is a little corporate funding over there.”

Atherton argues that much of the sponsorship in Grand-Am is placed there by the France family. “A lot of Grand-Am deals are add-ons to NASCAR sponsorship,” he says. That viewpoint is described by Edmondson as a conspiracy theory. “That’s like saying that the people are doing Grand-Am because they couldn’t afford a National Football League team,” he says. “NASCAR does not have the power to make people become sponsors in our series.”

The cordial relationship between the rival series gets increasingly tetchy when it comes to discussing TV and crowd figures and their relevant worth to sponsors and manufacturers. The ALMS has terrestrial TV coverage on major networks, but Grand-Am points out that it is paid for by the organisers. Grand-Am claims better viewing figures on the SPEED cable channel, but the ALMS argues that it is only the result of repeat showings.

What is clear is that ALMS events are just that, events. And that’s not just the enduros at Sebring and Road Atlanta at either end of the season. “We have races in 10 of the top 12 markets across North America,” says Atherton. The ALMS goes to the classic American road courses at Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake and Mosport, and takes in important street events at St Petersburg, Houston and, most importantly, Long Beach.

The list of Grand-Am circuits is getting better all the time, but still includes the odd lesser venue, the likes of Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. The problem is that all too often Grand-Am races in front of empty grandstands, most famously last year at the tiny infield road course on the new Iowa Speedway. It is clearly aware of its failings in this respect: it fined a prominent team boss for daring to question a decision to bring the circus to a clearly unsuitable circuit on the basis that it would get a big crowd, something that never materialised.

It should be pointed out that Atherton doesn’t dispute Grand-Am’s claims that its total crowd is on a par with that of the ALMS. “But there needs to be a disclaimer on their figures,” he says. “You need an asterisk, and the words ‘when combined with NASCAR’.” He is alluding to the events at Watkins Glen and Daytona when Grand-Am ran with the Nextel Cup (now the Sprint Cup).

Both series remain bullish for the future. Daytona Prototype grids were on a downward trend in 2007, but Edmondson says that can be explained by the promise of new cars for 2008. “We went through a lull, as we knew we would, because when new cars are coming people stop buying cars,” he explains. “We won’t necessarily see an increase in entry levels this year, but it will happen over the next 18 months.

“As promised, we haven’t made the old cars obsolete: the very first Riley chassis was fourth fastest in the pre-Daytona test. As teams upgrade, the old cars will come onto the market and that will have an effect on grids. We feel confident about the next two or three years.”

Atherton believes that the future for the ALMS is equally rosy. The series is entering its second season with what he describes as a “dream calendar” that gives him the best possible chance of attracting new manufacturers. Honda should join the LMP1 ranks and has even hinted that it wants to play in GT1 as well when the new NSX comes on stream. He also points out that new privateers have already announced plans to compete in GT2 this season, interestingly running machinery previously unseen in the championship.

Anyone involved in the old IMSA GTP series that flourished in the late 1980s – and there are plenty of those who are still involved on both sides of the divide – will privately remind you that sports car racing in the US ain’t what it used to be. Back then the Camel-backed IMSA GTP had manufacturers and privateers aplenty, though many appear to have forgotten the level of Nissan’s domination in the so-called glory years.

Both Grand-Am and the ALMS appear to have a momentum right now. That’s because they are different.

“I said when we started that we were two degrees off in the course we were taking and that it might not sound like enough to justify the existence of both groups,” says Edmondson. “That divergence has taken us further and further apart over the years. Now the differences are clear to everyone.”

How they stack up

Category - Power - Weight range - Laguna lap time

ALMS
LMP1 Petrol - 620bhp - 880kg - 1m11.175s
LMP1 Diesel - 700bhp+ - 925kg - 1m12.785s
LMP2 - 500bhp - 800kg - 1m10.528s
GT1 - 600bhp - 1125kg - 1m19.304s
GT2 - 500bhp - 1125-1200kg - 1m22.880s

Grand-Am
Prototype - 500bhp - 1020kg - 1m20.787s
GT - 400-450bhp - 1040-1270kg - 1m29.052s