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With Petit Over, Attention Turns To Future

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 24 2013

When the Petit Le Mans ended on Saturday, sports car racing in America entered a new era.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

As the 2013 Petit Le Mans wound down to a finish at Road Atlanta last Saturday night, as fans began pouring water on trackside campfires, as canvas canopies were folded and stowed, as the big old LMP1 cars were loaded onto haulers, an oh-geez moment struck.

It was a moment of; now what? The American Le Mans Series’ 15-year run was over. Did the Petit represent a death or a birth?

The obvious answer is both.

Without doubt, there was plenty to mourn as the ALMS crossed over the rainbow bridge on Saturday. The series which Don Panoz created a decade and a half ago maintained a form of racing which its admirers will tell you was the essence of racing.

It was a series that didn’t buckle its knees in front of the alter of the almighty “even playing field”. In the tradition of Gurney, Hall, Riley, Yunick and Shelby, it encouraged technological advance and mechanical innovation.

Wings, diesels, hybrids and delta-shaped chassis were all treated not as stability threatening fifth columnists, but as interesting influences that had the potential to make major contributions to the stew.

The test of the stew was speed and handling.

The oval racing crowd never has been able to understand why anybody would pay good money to go to a track where you can only see a tiny portion of  race. They just can’t see the beauty in glowing rotors, whining downshifts and a perfectly clipped apex. Seemingly impossible deceleration and acceleration, sports car fans know, are happy things.

American Le Mans was a series that featured GT cars that actually had something to do with the showroom, and it put them on tracks at the same time with prototype cars which had more to do with science than sales.

At American Le Mans Series events you saw something that has become all but extinct at NASCAR events: brand loyalty. Fans at Road Atlanta still wear gear that featured logos of Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari and Audi.

ALMS races were run to what their fans considered an unequaled and very necessary sound track. While stock car engines are just plain old head banging, heavy metal loud, sports car engines have the sound of musicians who actually know how to play their instruments.

Panoz’s series brought the old world to the new. Talk about a melting pot. Fans simply didn’t care about the country of origin of the drivers/cars. They cared about the skill and passion. They know what goes on at Spa and Road America, and, in Weissach and at Pratt and Miller.

And then it was all headed for the exits at Road Atlanta. And, now what?

The belief here: Potentially, plenty.

The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will debut next year. It’s the series that will result from the merger of ALMS and Grand-Am Rolex.

Absent, of course, will be some of the above. And to be sure, there are a lot of people in the paddocks and on the hillsides who fear that, and who are mourning the passing. There are those who have already said: Stuff it, I’m outta here. They’ve followed the details of what’s being planned, have formed opinions on the future and have adopted terms like “NASCAR-ization”.

But others see TUSC as a source of hope. A life line.

Yes, some of the above will be absent when American sports car racing hits the track at the Daytona road course next year. But some very important aspects will be in place.

Enough things to stir the soul? Depends on the soul.

Though the exact nature of TUSC’s top prototype class – P2 – has not been fully developed, it appears they will be more fun than outgoing DP, less fun that outgoing P2. The best thing: there will be more of them. The fact is, LMP1 got really, really ill when Audi and Peugeot moved back to Europe. Two R15s racing two 908s was worth paying for. An HPD ARX 03c vs. a Mazda Lola? Not so much.

In GT, not much will change. There will be classes for the current ALMS GT cars and also for current Grand-Am Rolex GT cars.

Great international drivers will assuredly still line up to pilot the cars in all TUSC classes. Last weekend, top shelf German german driver Lucas Luhr sounded pretty bummed about the impending demise of ALMS. But near the end of a telephone call with RacinToday.com, Luhr was asked if he would consider racing a P2 TUSC car. After a couple seconds of silence, Luhr said that he would wait until the final regulations for the class are determined.

But, he said, yes, he would be interested if the series evolved in a positive way.

Playing a role in the evolution of TUSC will be the thing that plays a role in all of racing these days – economics. Those opposing forces of what’s wonderful and what’s affordable will be in full play in the immediate future.

Those forces dictated the evolution of Grand-Am and also the de-evolution of ALMS. They have made sure that for the time being, the kind of factory-backed high-wire act that everyone  in sports car racing – everyone – wants to see just is not going to happen.

On the other end of the scale will be the high car counts which made Grand-Am Rolex a superb road racing show: When you are racing on tracks that can be up to four miles around, more is better – if not essential – when it comes to the number of cars on the track.

Boding extremely well for the immediate future of TUSC was the recent unveiling of the 2014 schedule. The new series’ will debut on the absolute best road racing circuits in North America.

The purists should be happy that places like Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Road America, Circuit of the Americas, Belle Isle and Road Atlanta made the list. It’s a list that includes the best of the old and best of the new.

An old road racing friend, a guy who grew up at Road America in the 1960s and early ’70s, was asked this week if he would follow TUSC.

He said that everything is complicated right now. He’s doesn’t have his arms around TUSC. He said he’ll wait until the stew is served before deciding.

That is, he, too is wondering: Now what?

Here’s hoping – and believing – that Jim France, Scot Elkins, Don Panoz, Scott Atherton and the rest of TUSC/IMSA officialdom have a great answer for that question.

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

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, October 24 2013
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