Disunited State of America

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There was lots of excitement and hope for the future of American sports car racing last winter after the merger was announced of the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am series. The two had persisted as rivals for 15 years, but neither was able to build any sustained strength or attract strong media interest. The ALMS proved more popular with fans, but both series struggled to draw mainstream coverage, plodding along as invisible entities in America’s popular culture.

The ALMS attempted to embrace modern technology and retained its link with Le Mans while Grand-Am pursued a much more restricted formula for its premier Daytona Prototype category. Some encouraging years followed for the ALMS , but the departure of the factory Audi and Penske/Porsche teams left it in a weakened state, which worsened when Sebring and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta were excluded from the revived World Endurance Championship.

Last year ALMS founder Don Panoz admitted defeat and sat down with Grand-Am founder Jim France to negotiate a merger. France is NASCAR ’s vice-chairman and executive vice-president and CEO of the International Speedway Corporation, owner of many American tracks. With France at the helm NASCAR Holdings bought the ALMS and it was announced that the resulting United SportsCar series would begin in 2014.

At last January’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona we were assured that the rules and schedule for the new series would be confirmed by April. But as I write in early September, no such news has emerged. I asked the ALMS and Grand-Am technical directors for further comment, but was allowed to speak only to a PR representative.

“We’re working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to resolve the technical issues and confirm the 2014 schedule,” he said. “We hope to announce the rules shortly, but at this time I can’t confirm anything.

“A lot of stuff has been done. The Le MansGT class rules are in place, for example. They are essentially the same as the ACO ’s GT Pro class and the Prototype Challenge class will continue as it has been this year. Also, GT3 cars will be allowed to compete in the GT Daytona class with minimal modifications.”

Bobby Rahal’s factory-backed BMW team won the ALMS GT championship in 2010-11 and he commented on the unhappy situation. “A lot of people are pretty frustrated by the lack of information about the rules because the first test for 2014 is in December,” he said.

“We saw what the differences were this year at Elkhart Lake, when Grand-Am raced on Saturday and the ALMS on Sunday. A P2 car was seven seconds quicker than a Daytona prototype and I don’t know how you slow the P2 by three or four seconds and make the prototype three or four seconds quicker.

“At Elkhart our BMW GT cars were in the same second as the Daytona prototypes, so I don’t know how they’re going to equalise them. I think P2 is so much more the future, but unfortunately I feel they’re trying to make everybody happy and will end up making nobody happy.”

One important player who was very disgruntled was Skip Barber, owner of Lime Rock in Connecticut. Lime Rock has run both ALMS and Grand-Am races in recent years, but wasn’t on the United SportsCar schedule at the time of writing. It is a beautiful little track located in one of the wealthiest regions of the USA and enjoys a higher demographic profile than any other American circuit, but appears to have been spurned. Say it isn’t so…

Gordon Kirby

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