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Down and Out in Braselton Print
Written by Miles Geauxbye   
Aug 16, 2011 at 11:43 AM

Miles Geauxbye is a respected motorsports executive uniquely positioned to assess the prospects of the American Le Mans Series. This is Mr. Geauxbye's third commentary to be published by Last Turn Clubhouse.-Editor-

Is it over for the American Le Mans Series?

It's been a while since I last took a close look (aim?) at the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), but at the approximate mid-point of the 2011 season (after 5 races of a 9 race schedule), now is as good a time as any to consider the future of the American Le Mans Series.

I now have every reason to believe that ALMS is a series circling the drain, not the track, and in 2011, the death spiral has begun in earnest. Here are 8 reasons why it's all over for what once was America's premier sports car road racing series.

1. The Series is Invisible.
I don't want to beat this one up too much because it's been dealt with by others in greater depth and probably more coherence, but the ALMS video distribution contract, which has seen the series shuffled off to ESPN3.Com (an internet-only channel) has effectively killed public visibility and interest. Sponsors for teams are leaving in droves. And please, no bleating from the stands about the fact that some of the races are available on tape-delay broadcasts. No one cares. If it can't be seen and seen in real time on a big flat screen in all its high def glory, it's invisible. Period. And because the series is now invisible, the big players are exiting (see below).

2. No Movie Stars.
In Hollywood, there is a term called "Opening the movie". It is used to describe a movie star or director whose reputation is so strong that a certain audience is going to turn out for the film no matter what. Daniel Craig of James Bond fame, can open a film; George Clooney can open a film; Angelina Jolie can open a film. Paul Giamatti, who is a phenomenal actor, can not. It's all about glamour and built in market appeal.

The same is true, regrettably, in racing.

The GT racing in ALMS has long provided the best, most balanced racing in the series at relatively economic prices for the teams competing in GT. But only the ultra hard-core fan follows GT racing closely. Casual fans (and the major media) want the glamour boys: the big factory teams from Porsche and Audi and Peugeot and Acura. They want the overscale transporters and massive paddock setups and all that team gear painted in team colors. It's big, it's excessive, it's what big time sports car racing is all about; after all, the major factory teams are at the top of the speed chain. Peugeot, Audi, Acura and P2 Porsches bring red-carpet swagger to the race track. Without the big prototype factory teams, ALMS is loosing fans and market importance with every outing. The series is now marginalized as a competitive circuit and that's not a winning position.

3. Green Racing is a Bust.
For the last few years, ALMS has trumpeted its devotion to the cause of "Green Racing". It's been the centerpiece of the marketing strategy for the series.

Some advice: Forget it.

It may look great in Washington but it's not an initiative that brings in fans.

Green racing is one of those things that's better as an idea than a reality.

The whole idea of green automobile racing is not something that appeals to the real racing fan; we want our cars loud, indulgent with noise and skid marks, and low-miles-per-gallon high RPM engines; we actually like the fact that big time sports car racing is dripping with disdain for political correctness. We need a break from a world that's far too PC.

Please remember this: racing is by its very nature wasteful with fuel and resources. It is not "green" and was never designed to be "green". It is sport at the edge. It's for development, for pride, for bragging rights, for glory and immortality. It is not for conservation. Gasoline is burned at obscene rates. Cars are trashed, Tires are reduced to smoldering hunks of round black goo. Racing burns through resources in search of optimum performance. That's the idea.

And never forget this: the people who will most enthusiastically endorse "Green Racing" are the same people who will gladly shut the entire sport down and build fruit tree arbors where the back stretch used to be. These people are not friends of the sport. Sports car racing is not and will never be politically correct; that's part of its charm. By getting ALMS to endorse "Green Racing" the opponents of automobile racing have already pulled the series one step closer to admitting it's a hopeless, rolling, environmental wreck. Step away from the whole idea. Even better, drop it and run away.

4. Ferrari moves into Grand-Am.
For a decade, ALMS had Ferrari all to its lonesome. If you wanted to see a Ferrari sports car run in America, you went to an ALMS race, where AF Corse, Extreme Speed Motorsports, and Risi Competizione were running very competitive, championship caliber teams. You did not go to a Grand-Am race. For ALMS, it was the best kind of monopoly.

But that's over. Two weeks ago, a Grand-Am spec Ferrari 458 hit the track at Daytona, testing for next yearís Grand Am Series. And guess who was at the wheel? Two-time ALMS GT champ Jaime Melo, the Ferrari works driver, Risi Competizione's main man, the test pilot who helped develop the on-track manners of the 458 GT (ALMS/ACO spec) and now the 458 Grand Am spec race car. Jaime Melo is a big ALMS talent and his presence at Daytona should be the type of thing that makes the executives at ALMS sweat.

No other company has the swagger, the nerve, the history, the sound, the creativity to do for a racing series what Ferrari can do. Everyone knows what Ferrari stands for. They can "open" a series (see Item 2, above). They can bring in the casual fans. There are some issues with Ferrari in Grand-Am, a few vehicles (tricked out Mazdas for example) that can cause racing and image problems. But Ferrari is headed for Grand-Am and, also GT3, for 2012.

Ferrari in Grand Am breaks the ALMS monopoly but it gets worse: as a NASCAR property, Grand-Am has big time TV coverage and plenty of it.

5. The Performance Waiver Problem
The truth: the only form of perfectly fair racing is one design racing. When everyone races a one-design Laser sailboat, it's the best sailors who win.

But one-design racing is limited in fan appeal; what you gain in cost control and fairness you loose in fan base. So ALMS uses a rules maneuver called the "performance waiver", which is a bending of the overall competition rules and specs that specifies certain key characteristics of race cars such as intake size, weight, etc. in order to try to adjudicate performance. The basic idea is to try and balance out cars of unequal native performance so that they are closely equivalent on the track, in an odd kind of mechanical virtual reality. Forget for a minute that part of the idea of racing is not to move back to the pack but to use innovation and research to get ahead of it. Mark Donohue titled his famous book on racing and engineering "The Unfair Advantage". The fans of our sport (not necessarily all racing) know he was exactly right; the win should go to the entrant that can - within the rules - create for itself "an unfair advantage".

The performance waiver, which is used to define the spec which enables a car to be homologated for the series, is combined with "performance balancing", a rolling system of mods to cars in the series, on a class by class basis to maintain level performance throughout the season. This system is ultimately a balancing act and, also the truth, not fair for everyone. If you have a dog of a car you can actually create a better competitive position than if you have a really sharp race car thatís hot to begin with, a fact astutely pointed out by Last Turn Club's editors. (To be more precise, the LTC editor believes a GT field without performance waivers becomes Ferrari Challenge.-Editor-) But, it gets a bit worse.

According to reputable paddock sources, the (confidential) performance waivers used for the original spec of cars in the series are not necessarily handed out in a totally equitable manner. Some teams are reputed to have lots of them, others have none. Hmmmmm.
.
The underlying contention is that the waivers do not appear to be handed out to balance the field, but instead to perhaps provide a benefit to specific brands/teams.

Does this mean that ALMS is stacking the deck against certain teams in the series?
Could this possibly be true?

We certainly hope not.

6. Amateur Night
The grid composition at ALMS races used to be composed primarily of professional and factory based or seriously-supported teams. No more. Now 50% of the grid is composed of amateur teams and drivers of widely disparate levels of skill.

In other words, a lot of minor league players are getting to play in the majors ahead of schedule.

Good for them but bad for the teams that race as a profession. Here's why, to continue the baseball analogy: By the time a player makes it to The Show in baseball, he's seasoned and has a well developed skill set. In the majors he will play with and compete against athletes who have all reached a similar level of accomplishment. It provides a higher level of play for the fan and the competitor. Packing the field with the amateurs, as well-intentioned as it may be, is simply a marketing move by ALMS to add more cars to an otherwise-professional field that's thin and getting thinner. The grid may be fuller; the on-track product is diluted.

In the modern ALMS, weekend warriors (of whom I was once one - and not a very good one at that) are trying to hang with the likes of Bergmeister, Dirk Mueller, Joey Hand, Jan Magnussen and Guy Smith. Not a freaking chance.

After spending a career to get to this "show," the ALMS teams that earned their way in by excellence in engineering, management, marketing, and on-track performance would prefer to find all the competition worthy and knowledgeable.

7. The International Le Mans Cup/World Endurance Championship
Did the famous 24 hour race that gave the American Le Mans Series its philosophical and technical justification just eat the ALMS for lunch? Johnny Carson once said that television was the only business that "ate its young" but maybe you can add big time racing to that select group of carnivores.

In June, the FIA announced that the ACO, in combination with the FIA, will launch a new racing series for 2012 called the World Endurance Championship. The series will include two races in America, two in Europe, and two in Asia, along with the big one: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. All races will be at least six hours long. The ACO will act as the promoter for the first three years. The Intercontinental Le Mans Cup as staged in 2011 will form the basis for the 2012 schedule. The classes will include GTE-Pro, now the prominent class in ALMS (listed there simply as "GT"). Interestingly, 2011 GT3 spec cars will be allowed to run in the series, thus setting up a showdown between the Audi R8 LMS, the Ferrari 458 Italia, and the McLaren MP4-12C GT3. Importantly, this series will produce the first world championship for Le Mans spec cars since 1992.
Will it drain teams from ALMS? Yes. And as a World Championship series, expect it to enjoy major media coverage.

8. Talent Drain
In the last year, ALMS has lost an unprecedented number of experienced executives. John Evenson, the sometimes mercurial, but always professional head of ALMS television production left in the spring, between Sebring and Long Beach. Next out the door was Bob Dickinson, the genial public and media relations head of the Series, who helped to fashion ALMS' public image. Then Gordon Gratiot, in charge of paddock setup for the series and much liked by the teams, was let go in the spring.

One way to tell if a company is in trouble is to check on "insider selling", i.e. the number of executives inside the company who are selling the company's stock. In a company like ALMS, which isn't public, the way you found out if the pulse is healthy is to check the talent drain. Talented, experienced and necessary people are leaving, for whatever reason, and that does not bode well for the future.

Nor does the fact that Panoz Auto Group, the controlling owner/founder of ALMS, is selling assets (i.e. Mosport). Don Panoz has done a lot for sports car racing, but perhaps he is tired of the drama.

The American Le Mans Series is a series in retreat.

The top race teams are expected to improve their performance race by race, year by year. Should we not hold ALMS to the same standards as the teams that race in the series?

The 2011 ALMS series has rounded the corner and is now moving deeply into the second half of the season. In addition to the issues noted above, there will certainly be new challenges to face.

So what to do? As a fan, get out to one of the remaining four races and then hope for the best, because you may be witnessing the end of an era as one door closes and another one - perhaps one we had not anticipated - opens.

Miles Geauxbye

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