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Drivers: Merged Sports Car Series Facing Big Q’s

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 12 2012

Joao Barbosa of the Grand-Am Series tests the new infield road course at Kansas Speedway. Like many other drivers – and fans – Barbosa is wondering what kind of series will emerge from the merger of the American Le Mans and Grand-Am series. (Photo courtesy of Kansas Speedway)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – It took years of difficult start-and-stop talks before the leaders of North America’s two top sports car series could finally agree to a merger. But now, according to drivers from those series, comes the tough part: Coming up with a merged series that works for all parties.

“I wouldn’t want to be in their seats,” Joao Barbosa, a prototype driver in the Grand-Am Rolex Series said Wednesday during a tire test at Kansas Speedway about those who, over the next year and a half, will have to iron out details of what, when and where the new combined entity will race in 2014.

“It’s going to be tough. A lot of people are not going to be happy.”

The long-awaited, long-hoped-for announcement that the Grand-Am and the American Le Mans series would end their battle to be North America’s dominant series came a week ago during a televised press conference in Daytona Beach.

But other than saying that the two series would combine in 2014, very few other details were released. That, simply, because hugely important details have yet to be considered, let alone ironed out.

The biggest detail the new series’ officials – who come from ALMS and Grand-Am hierarchies– will have to nail down is car and engine specifications.

The two series run radically different cars; in both the prototype and GT classes. The ALMS vehicles tend to be higher-tech vehicles which have very little in common with the more off-the-rack Grand-Am cars. The importance of coming up with cars and classifications which will appeal to sports car fans can not be underestimated.

Bill Auberlen is a veteran sports car driver. This year, he drives in both series: He drives BMW M3s for Turner Motorsports in Grand-Am, and BMW M3s for the factory-backed Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan team in ALMS.

After Wednesday’s test at Kansas’s brand new infield road circuit, Auberlen, too, wondered how the merged series was going to appeal to two sets of fans.

Of Grand-Am fans, he said, “They’re basically NASCAR fans. It’s a different type of crowd. They love to have big wrecks and watch people push on each other and fighting and that sort of thing. A sports car fan knows what he’s looking at. In my opinion, a sports car fan knows what he wants to look at. They want to see technology. They want to see the latest in cutting edge performance, what a designer and engineer can come up with. From downforce to traction control, everything is there. Here (Grand-Am), they’re trying to make it NASCAR.”

Barbosa, of the Action Express Racing team, pointed out that all that technology and engineering which have been the hallmark of IMSA and the ALMS comes with a big price tag. Literally, as teams running in the ALMS tend to spend much more money on their people and machinery.

Those high costs, detractors would argue, are the reason for small prototype fields in the ALMS; fields that his year have meant three cars in the LMP1 and LMP2 classes.

While some in the sport hope that a merged series will help lure more factory participating and backing into the sport, others, like Barbosa, hopes that it will not.

“I hope we never allow that,” he said of full factory efforts in the new series. “Economics is always a problem.”

Bottom line, the two series currently embrace radically different philosophies when it comes to things like what and how much.

Also yet to be decided are venues for the new series.

Both the Grand-Am and the ALMS series currently hold races at a variety of circuit types. The current schedules of both series are heavily weighted toward true road courses. Classic, European-like road courses.

However, the ALMS Series also includes a couple of street courses and the Grand-Am Series includes a couple of circuits that are carved out of the infields of NASCAR ovals.

During a break at Kansas Speedway Wednesday, Barbosa got out of his Daytona Prototype Corvette and expressed satisfaction with the new circuit.

“This track seems very simple, not overly technical,” he said. “Except for Turn 1 (which is fairly technical). After that, it’s good brakes, the hairpin and it’s very fast.”

Barbosa said he really likes the Daytona infield course because it’s really fun to drive, “for some reason.”

But what he likes most about the infield courses is that they tend to be fan friendly. Fans of the races at NASCAR ovals can either sit in the grandstand and watch action at every turn, or they can tour the course on the inside.

Auberlen? Not a big fan of the infield courses. “This is NASCAR with a road course in the center,” he said. “I’m spoiled by the best (tracks) in the world. Tracks that are works of art.”

He said that t on race day at the new track, “Basically, what you’re going to see is a fist fight in the streets of Kansas.”

Barbosa and Auberlen personify the two camps of sports car followers in this country. And listening to them talk/lobby about the tasks which await those who will go to work on producing the new, merged series, you get a pretty good idea about the size and importance of the hurdles they will face.

But at the end of it all, both agree the announcement of merger was needed and welcome.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 12 2012
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