Ingram: Car Wars Return At Sebring’s 12-Hour
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:
There was a time when I often worried about a possible conflict between the NASCAR weekend in Atlanta and the Sebring 12-hour. Before that, it didn’t matter, because I was young enough to cover the sports car endurance race on Saturday in south central Florida on Saturday and drive back to Atlanta, if necessary, in time to catch the 500-mile NASCAR race on Sunday.
These days, it’s a no-brainer. Like the decision to drop the spring race in Atlanta from the Sprint Cup calendar.
(Allow me to clarify. No brains were employed in the decision to drop Atlanta from the NASCAR schedule and instead it involved a lot of money-grubbing and accounting, such as corporate tax considerations in terms of write-offs already taken versus future write-offs associated with new investments in Kentucky for track mogul Bruton Smith. Plus, there was the sweetener from Daytona Beach of moving the NASCAR banquet to Las Vegas in December, two months prior to the annual Sprint Cup event, which certainly helps promote ticket sales in that one-race locale owned by Smith. Finally, it was a matter of dividing up the territory between Smith’s home track in Charlotte and the NASCAR/France family’s home track in Daytona Beach.)
Alas, I digress, because the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring is a wonderful event in the most unlikely of places: the flat sand and rough runways of a former bomber base in one of America’s geriatric capitols. (In 10 years’ time, I’ll qualify as a full-blown, if not addled, honorary citizen.) This year’s
entry, in fact, includes the most cars since 2002, which was the fourth season of the now long-running American Le Mans Series.
It only makes sense to compare the current Sebring entry to the one in 2002 to judge just how well the American Le Mans Series has been faring (even though it acknowledges yet another decade, almost, has slid past.) Even if the gray matter is rapidly depleting during the onslaught of the technical marvel known as craft beer, it’s quite clear that the new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup has helped significantly pump up Florida’s longest-running endurance event.
Once again, the Audi Sport team will face off against the Peugeot Sport team in preparation for Le Mans at the Sebring 12-hour. But this time it’s more than a preliminary test. Points for the ILMC are at stake. Later in the year, the same will be true at the ALMS’s season finale at the Petit Le Mans in Atlanta, the penultimate round of the ILMC before heading to China.
The Intercontinental Le Mans Cup is a French phenomenon that grows out of the ongoing success of the Le Mans 24-hour, revived in recent times by American entries from the ALMS and the European Union, which has curtailed monopoly practices by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, otherwise known as the FIA and so often known as the financial playground of marketing man Bernie Ecclestone.
The total number of prototypes entries at Sebring this year will be 14, compared to 26 in 2002. (And compared to 18 starters at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.) As usual, the statitistics don’t tell the full story. In 2002, the European Le Mans Series had just died (due in no small part to Ecclestone’s monopolistic practices) and teams were desperate to find a route to getting an invitation to the Le Mans 24-hour. And, of course, the economy was different then.
This year, Europe’s re-born Le Mans Series is relatively healthy and obviously so is the Le Mans 24-
hour, now the centerpiece to the expanded seven-race Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, launched with a short, three-race schedule last year. And, it’s not just a matter of car count at Sebring. Audi was the only manufacturer with a fully committed program at Sebring in 2002, which put other factories to shame, such as the Cadillac Northstar program and the latter-day Panoz LPM-1 Roadsters. This year, in addition to the Franco-German faceoff, the factory entries will also include a full-blown works entry from Aston Martin and Honda’s spanking new ARX-01e, each also bound for Le Mans, plus Dyson Racing’s Lola-Mazda.
What else is new and different? The TV package has migrated to a new dimension.
To watch Sebring live this year on a TV, one needs access to ESPN3.com or the AmericanLeMans.com and a hook-up from the computer to the home TV screen. (Otherwise, it’s a matter of which device you want to watch ESPN3.com on.) The 12-hour race will be reduced to 90 minutes on Sunday, a day later, by ABC Sports.
The public reason given for these changes has been the effort by the ALMS to continue to break new technical ground. The private opinion here is that the ALMS feels compelled to break away from SpeedTV, which has become a minion of NASCAR, which also now owns the Grand-Am series. Time will tell how all this works out.
Other comparisons are interesting. In the GT class in 2002 at Sebring, the top 10 finishers were driving Porsche GT3 RS entries. This year, the GT class will feature what has become the customary
fraught battles among BMW, Corvette, Ferrari and Porsche (in alphabetical order) plus entries from Ford, Jaguar, Lamborghini and Panoz, which will race the new Abruzzi for the first time.
Given the battle at the head of the field by the world’s most incredible full-bodied technical marvels from Audi, Peugeot, Aston Martin, Honda and Mazda followed by the factory battles in GT, one has to conclude that this is an entry extraordinary by its numbers as well as content.
Alas, the total entry is pumped up by the amateur entries in what is known as the Challenge classes. Like the emperor who has no clothes, these are the LMP and GT entries for the physically challenged who are not as fast on the track but have been quick with income off it, enough to clothe themselves in interesting carbon fiber and sheet metal. Give a tip of the cap to the ALMS for creating classes to capitalize on this long tradition in endurance racing of gentlemen racers to help keep car counts up during a challenging economy. (The Challenge classes, of course, confirm the notion that the rich always get richer in the down times. We’re not supposed to say this because the gentlemen keep a lot of professional chauffeurs, i.e. co-drivers, employed, but there you have it. And you heard it here first and last, versus the pabulum offered by any of the TV contracts.)
Other news? This year the fuel of choice will include diesel, ethanol blends and isobutanol, timely choices given the current unrest in the Middle East. Alas, the hybrids have yet to arrive.
Other comparisons of interest include the lone Ferrari 360 Modena entry at Sebring in 2002. The Italian manufacturer has since followed Porsche’s lead by making customer race cars a profit center and will introduce its new F458 Italia, making its ALMS debut at Sebring, to the Grand-Am Series later this year.
In general, one has to admire the ALMS’s decision to go with a risky TV package at a time when its strength on the track for the series’ biggest endurance races is self-evident. Whether you’re talking NASCAR, sports cars or balloon races, the opinion here has always been the racing itself is what makes the difference, not necessarily the personalities or the promotion.
Quote of the Week: Duke 75, North Carolina 58.
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments