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Flat Spot On: Will Petit Remain Big in the Future?

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 19 2012

The future of one of the great American sports car races – the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta – remains cloudy. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It seems like a no brainer. Don Panoz helped revive the Le Mans 24-hour from its doldrums at the turn of the century and Jim France re-invented a sagging Daytona 24-hour. Combining the respective American series launched by these two men seems like a great idea for reviving the recently sagging

fortunes of sports car racing in the U.S.

As history can demonstrate, sports car racing generally fairs poorly when the economy goes sour, if not rancid in the case of the Great Recession. Factories find it easy to back out of sports cars when the budget crunch arrives and the wealthy team owners who help sustain the sport tend to fade into the night during economic hard times. It says a lot about the American Le Mans Series and the Rolex Sports Car Series that both sustained themselves reasonably well despite a recession far more severe than the one in the early 1990’s that killed GTP, Group C and put Le Mans on the skids.

It says a lot about Panoz and the president of Panoz Motor Sports, Scott Atherton, that they were able to position the ALMS for an eventual merger with France’s Rolex Series after the Great Recession hit with full force in 2008. Once Le Mans officials began their pursuit of a World Endurance Championship the following year, eventually making its American affiliate a feeder series, Panoz turned his attention to, ahem, greener pastures.

Reliable sources indicate the acquisition price for the key assets of Panoz Motor Sports including Road Atlanta and the lease at Sebring brought $22.5 million at the closing with NASCAR Holdings. The transaction underscores that Panoz is sharper than almost any businessman one is ever likely to meet. He was in the black after a decade of success at Road Atlanta with the Petit Le Mans and at Sebring with the 12-hour. He has now realized a return on much, if not all, of what he has invested as a track owner, team owner and series owner.

(As an aside, I wouldn’t mind having $100 for every time somebody said Panoz would never get his money back out of investments he made at his tracks or in the early days of the series he launched, much less make a profit.)

Along the way, Panoz brought fans, teams and manufacturers some great racing, not to mention some very interesting race cars carrying his name. It bears recalling that Panoz beat the redoubtable Audi R8 head-to-head with the Panoz Roadster LMP1 on more than one occasion in Europe and the U.S.

So what next with Jim France and NASCAR Holdings at the helm?

While the ALMS and the Rolex series were battling head to head for fans’ affection, it was remarkable how often the latter series imitated the series associated with Le Mans. The effort to make the Porsche brand a key player in the Daytona Prototypes, the introduction of Audi and Ferrari to the Rolex GT class, the re-model of the DP’s to sleeker dimensions were all acknowledgements that the ALMS had what fans wanted to see in sports car racing. But it remains to be seen if what fans want to see will be the key element in a new North American series.

At the top of the list for fans are extraordinarily fast prototypes at the front of the field. No matter what the car count, fans turned out in far bigger numbers for the ALMS events due to the opportunity to see the world’s fastest prototypes at full chat.

Next on the list: sports car fans prefer to see the same cars that have won the Le Mans 24-hour racing in America. It’s an age-old promotion formula in general to showcase the actual cars and drivers from the world’s most famous races in other events and has worked quite well for the ALMS. It’s not a formula lost on Jim France. One could argue that his father Bill France Sr.’s advantage in the early days of promoting NASCAR in the 1950’s versus a variety of competitors was the ability to bring the same winning drivers and cars from the sands of Daytona to the other NASCAR events.

Alas, the relations between the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which runs Le Mans, and the France family have generally run hot and cold according to mutual self-interest. One can hardly imagine the need by Jim France for a direct Le Mans link once fans in North America have only one choice when it comes to major league sports car racing. The decision will more likely be to make the Rolex 24 at Daytona the benchmark of American fan interest.

Will there be a revival of a direct connection between Daytona and Le Mans like the days when none other than John Paul Sr. won the endurance trophy posted by these two tracks? Well, maybe, if the builders of the Daytona Prototypes can somehow fathom the FIA’s bizarre science when it comes to crash testing.

Hanging in the balance is the Petit Le Mans, whose very name is linked with the famed 24-hour in France by contract and by contingencies for invitations to class winners to go to the big show the following June in the fields south of Paris. Will it survive absent the presence of the World Endurance Championship teams and if there is no direct link to Le Mans? Already we’ve seen a spring race at Road Atlanta for the Grand-Am in 2013. Will Road Atlanta become the scene of a major NASCAR support series/sports car weekend in place of the Petit Le Mans?

The opinion here is that the Daytona Prototypes are not compatible with LMP-2 cars in terms of how they race. The side-by-side formula prized by NASCAR, Jim France and the Grand-Am simply won’t happen with this mix. Also, an aversion to open cockpit cars for safety reasons is what resulted in the rather unattractive first generation Daytona Prototypes with the big greenhouses. It’s not likely the Rolex Series will suddenly welcome the idea of open cockpit cars in either LMP2 or LMPC.

As for GT, the opinion here is that the world is headed to a GT3 type formula, including Le Mans and quite likely the Rolex Series. That means the current generation of GT cars are doomed at both Le Mans and in the future North American series. Which manufacturers continue into the new era of GT, which should arrive around 2014 on both sides of the ocean, remains to be seen. Alas, there’s no need for Jim France and the North American series to pay $500,000 for a Le Mans connection if everybody in the world is running the same category of GT car and there’s not much interest in LMP-2.

Where does Porsche fit into the mix with its new Le Mans prototype – or any kind of hybrid for that matter? Well, the Daytona Prototypes are about affordable technology, not cutting edge technology. Besides, LMP-1 has already been cut out of the discussion.

So where does that leave the Petit Le Mans, whose strongest appeal has been the world’s fastest and most sophisticated prototypes – the same ones that win at Le Mans every year? Very petit it appears and likely without much of a French connection beyond next year and the last season of the ALMS.

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

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 19 2012
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • mike says:

    Very good article. hearing the whole deal didnt go down all that well among all the parties in daytona. you hear any of that too?

  • Jay Puskenalis says:

    Next year’s Petit LeMans should be marketed as the Last Dance. It will be the end of an era. Have no idea what Trey will be marketing at Sebring. Technology will be foresaken in favor of the NASCAR Technology Center in Charlotte. Will tube frame replace carbon fiber? The future may not be pretty.As the saying goes,”Be careful what you wish for”…………