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Ingram: Sports Cars Refuse To Stall Out

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 28 2009
The Petit Le Mans race near Atlanta was more petit than hoped for on Saturday but was still quite entertaining. (Photo courtesy of the ALMS)

The Petit Le Mans race near Atlanta was more petit than hoped for on Saturday but was still quite entertaining. (Photo courtesy of the ALMS)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Despite heavy rains and the flooding of the circuit at Road Atlanta, once again the Petit Le Mans demonstrated the staying power of the American Le Mans Series.

The weather may have produced a premature end, but it also underscored the commitment of fans. An estimated 30,000 flaunted the elements to watch Peugeot versus Audi, another extraordinary match-up which ebbed and flowed according to the precipitation. Absent a red flag ending, the battle likely would have been sustained for 1,000 miles. The French cars ran better in steady rain or the dry, the German machinery was quicker in intermediate conditions.

Having recently witnessed the 115,000 fans who attended the Sprint Cup race in Atlanta and the 50,000 plus that attended the IndyCar race in Motegi Japan, there’s no illusion here that sports car racing is going to overtake these other branches of motor racing. But it appears the sport will survive the rivalry between the ALMS and the NASCAR-owned Grand-Am series.

The demise of the ALMS was predicted from the year of its birth in 1999, especially when the France family that owns NASCAR and the International Speedway Corporation launched its own sports car series in 2000. Initially, the Grand American Road Racing Association was an independent property, but it was folded into NASCAR ownership last year.

Despite the power of the France family and its ownership of major venues, the ALMS continues to thrive. All these years later, Laguna Seca, the spiritual home of sports car racing on the West Coast, has invited the ALMS to run a major new six-hour endurance event in late May of next year. That weekend was previously occupied by the Grand-Am, which speaks volumes about the, ahem, endurance of the ALMS. When the ALMS returns to Long Beach next year, it will be the fourth year since it displaced the Grand-Am at that glamorous street race.

The Grand-Am schedule for its Rolex Series is yet to be announced for next year. Like the ALMS, the Grand-Am is expected to continue with some joint weekends with IndyCar. The schedule could also include a preliminary event on the Brickyard 400 weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If so, that would speak volumes about NASCAR’s commitment to its sports car racing property. This year, the Grand-Am’s Rolex race was moved to the Saturday afternoon of the 400-mile Sprint Cup race at Daytona, no easy feat in terms of track preparation.

More significant to this discussion is the health of endurance events on both sides of this equation. The major long distance events are the heart of sports car racing. As they go, so goes the sport.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona, a Grand-Am event, continues to be a mega contest for teams, drivers and fans, in many respects healthier and more competitive than ever during the current era. The ALMS, meanwhile, continues to draw major manufacturers and crowds to its day-long races at Sebring and the Petit Le Mans. (Obviously there’s a strong link to the Le Mans 24-hour as well, even though it’s not officially part of the ALMS schedule.)

Whether Acura returns next year for a full season in the ALMS or its teams, Peugeot already has rooms reserved for Sebring and Audi is committed to a second year with its R15 TDI.

This is not an easy subject for any reporter to write about. Neither side in this rivalry is fond of the other. As usual in this circumstance, journalists by the nature of their jobs stand in the demilitarized zone.

For those who imagine that endurance racing is like watching paint dry, the question may occur: why bother?

Well, just like NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, IndyCar and drag racing at the NHRA, endurance racing is a lifestyle. You have to sample it to understand it. The major events in sports car racing are highly festive and the participants easily accessible. But, the competition on the track is fast and intense.

There must be something to it. Thus far, the existence of two major sports car series in North America has increased the number of long distance races and produced more sports car racing in interesting places on an annual basis. This has happened despite the fact each series was launched in one economic recession and both are currently weathering another.

Quote of the week: “Despite all those rumors which started some years ago, I’m still here. There’s no imminent demise and I haven’t been shopping for caskets.” So said Don Panoz, the founder of the Petit Le Mans, the American Le Mans Series and the owner of Road Atlanta, Mosport Park and the Sebring International Raceway.

Bons mots: Like all sports, motivation makes a difference in motor racing, maybe moreso. At Dover Downs, for example, once again the top ten was dominated by the participants in the Chase throughout the race. …In Singapore, motivation was evident when the Renault team made the Formula One podium for the first time this season after weeks of scandal have impugned the team’s pride. It might have helped that Renault driver Fernando Alonso was motivated by the upcoming announcement of his switch to Ferrari next season. Meanwhile, tenth place Kimi Raikkonen was highly demotivated, it seemed, while on the verge of having his contract bought out by Ferrari to make room for Alonso. …At the Metroplex in Texas, it seems that Robert Hight was highly motivated after being flayed in the laydown controversy of team owner John Force. Barely making it into the Countdown to the Championship as a result of Force’s questionable pass, Hight has gone to the Funny Car final twice since then.  …Just a few observations. Could be wrong. Maybe in all cases it really is a matter of peaking at the right time.

Other mots: Often the need to retain sponsors is cited when those in motor racing disdain the rules of sportsmanship to gain an advantage as a result of team orders. Perhaps the thinking on this subject will change after the withdrawal of ING from sponsorship of the Renault team after charges of skullduggery against the now resigned and disgraced team management. …Could we please get through at least one Formula One season without a distasteful scandal? Not in the last three years. Granted, Renault’s Pat Symonds telling (or allowing) one of his two drivers to crash on purpose happened last year at Singapore, but it wasn’t uncovered until this year.

Final Mots: Here’s another cliche to park on the shelf. All a female driver has to do is show up in a driver’s suit and the sponsors fight among themselves for the rights to a contract. If so, Danica Patrick would have a major new sponsor in her renewal deal with Michael Andretti’s team and the NHRA would not have lost so many women drivers and riders.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 28 2009