The most important word in racing: relevancy
Ed Note: Relevancy is also the biggest factor in the design of the Delta Wing. Though it may not look like it, that car has more relevancy to manufacturers than any current racing car, from a developmental standpoint. The ALMS has the biggest relevancy in another sense, as the cars that are raced, are much like what they sell in the showrooms.
American Le Mans Series President Scott Atherton concedes the circuit's premier class is no longer its fastest. But consolidating the LMP and GT divisions also has shifted the spotlight to a primary ALMS objective: connecting the racetrack to the showroom.
"To be completely candid, this is largely driven by economics, because our series is so closely tied to the auto industry, and it's been a very challenging time. But what also has occurred is the GT class has achieved a level of relevance beyond compare. It's a perfect example of manufacturers racing what they sell," he says.
While the LMP division was ravaged by reduced commitments from manufacturers such as Audi and Acura, the unified GT division has flourished with Corvette (formerly of GT1) joining Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Jaguar.
"It's ticking off the list of world-class GT cars," Atherton says. "And they're racing in our series to develop technological advances they can apply to the road cars. Where else in motor sports is that happening?"
Corvette Racing manager Doug Fehan says that link (the production ZR1 Corvette features 18 spinoffs from the C6.R race car, including headlamps, fenders, brake ducts and floorboards) helped save the program when General Motors emerged from bankruptcy.
"GM had any number of race programs to keep, and they picked the two (NASCAR being the other) with the strongest return on investment," says Fehan, who says the team works hand in hand daily with the production line. "It underwent scrutiny from the outside world, too. Some of the brightest minds in the financial world said, 'You can't afford not to do this from the sales leads generation to technology transferring back into the product line.' "
Corvette driver Johnny O'Connell says, "Ideally, you'd love if each category was covered equally," but adds the GTs deserve more attention. "But people assume because the prototypes are faster, it's the better race and the better drivers. Anyone can drive a prototype, because they're glued to the ground. Driving the GT cars is way, way harder. The depth of talent in GT is way, way deeper than the prototypes. It's going to be a much more interesting fight for the fans."
Atherton says having slower cars as the focus is a good problem to have and predicts the LMP class (which retains support from Honda and Mazda) will feature a close overall finish.
There are other encouraging signs for ALMS. The car count for Saturday's 12 Hours of Sebring is up over last year (28 to 37), and all except the Peugeots are expected for the next race in Long Beach. Sebring International Raceway has set a record for corporate hospitality and group sales (selling out its permanent suites for the race with the support of local businesses and national supporters such as ExxonMobil, Aston Martin and Yokohama).
The series also has added its first presenting sponsor (Patr¢n tequila) in an era in which many companies have fled from competing series.
"We're proud to tell a different story," Atherton says. "It's not like it's all sweetness and light and we've been completely unaffected. But some difficult decisions we made are paying dividends." USATODAY.com