American sports car racing will be unified for the first time since 1997 when the American Le Mans Series and the Grand American Road Racing Association’s series merge in 2014.
The historic move came to light at the beginning of September just days before it was officially announced at a press conference at the Daytona International Speedway. The link-up has been billed as a merger, but the reality is that the ALMS, its sanctioning body (IMSA), Road Atlanta and the lease on Sebring have been sold by Don Panoz to Grand-Am.
What does the takeover mean?
There will be one major sports car series in North America from 2014. This will start with the Daytona 24 Hours in February and include the Sebring 12 Hours in March.
The rest of the calendar, according to ALMS boss Scott Atherton, who will switch to the new organisation set up to run the merged series, will include “four-star examples on our collective schedules”. This is likely to incorporate the 1000-mile Petit Le Mans enduro at Road Atlanta.
The class structure of the new series is unclear, although given that it is a takeover by Grand-Am, Daytona Prototypes will be the top class. ALMS founder Don Panoz, who will be vice-chairman of the new group, appeared to rule out the continuation of LMP1 in North America.
“We’re not thinking of an LMP1-type class,” he said of a category that he described as a “manufacturers’ playpen”.
He suggested that Le Mans Prototypes could be part of the new series, a clear reference to the LMP2 division.
A continuation of LMP2 in North America from 2014 on would be problematical if DPs are to be the top category because a P2 prototype is about four seconds a lap faster around a circuit such as Laguna Seca.
Atherton stressed that the Le Mans GTE category, known as just GT in the ALMS, would continue as part of the unified series.
“If you look at the GT category in the ALMS, many reference it as the high watermark of that type of racing,” he said. “I’m going on the record to say that it will absolutely be in addition to what has traditionally been at the Daytona 24 Hours.”
The Grand-Am GT class, which incorporates production-based cars and tube-frame silhouette racers, will also continue, most likely as a secondary division to GTE.
Le Mans link-up
The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which licenses the Le Mans name to the ALMS, has welcomed the unification of the US sports car scene. Atherton said that the intention was to continue the relationship that stretches back to the inaugural Petit Le Mans of 1998.
“I want to state that from our very first meeting when Jim [France, Grand-Am’s founder] and I sat down back in February, he made the comment that he thought it was an important priority to retain the relationship with the ACO and link to Le Mans.”
Panoz said that he hoped the guaranteed entries that the ALMS awards for Le Mans could continue and that the calendar allows teams to participate in the 24 Hours.
US sports car racing split in 1998 with the establishment of the United States Road Racing Championship in opposition to Professional SportsCar Racing, the new name for the long-running IMSA series. SportsCar was later taken over by a group including pharmaceutical magnate Panoz, who relaunched it as the ALMS .
The USRRC folded after two seasons and was replaced by Grand-Am, set up by NASCAR’s France family.