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ALMS/Grand-Am: Road America, Preview

The long awaited Road America event is just about upon us. Long a highlight of the schedule in both Grand-Am and the ALMS, this season the two series have combined for a double header – a shared event that has been what the fans in North America were clamoring for.

Unfortunately, those fans of the sport are pretty restless right now. I’d have to say that for the most part, the general sportscar racing fan is pretty much a half empty glass group. No matter what decision is made or announced, it is greeted with a serious amount of scorn, from fans of both sides. Sometimes you just can’t win.

That is the situation the ALMS/Grand Am/USCR management finds them in is. To many, change simply sucks – and combining Grand-Am and the ALMS into a single series involves change, which simply is not acceptable to many. Did they like things the way they were? Mostly no, they didn’t.

As a general statement, it appears as if the ALMS fan base has been the larger of the two, while Grand-Am has had an extremely vocal group of defenders. I’ll be honest – I’ve been a fan of the sport since way back – back to the Ford GT-40 days, and what I saw of the origins of the ALMS is a logical progression back to those days and even earlier. What I saw of Grand-Am when it was announced that the Daytona Prototype class was the future was far away from that legacy.

But as the years have moved on, I better understand the direction in which Grand-Am was headed. It was geared more towards sustainability, which is greatly needed in sportscar racing. Unfortunately, the sportscar racing fan doesn’t look at it that way. The visual aspect, technology and the impression of speed weighs heavily with the traditional fans. That was not present in Grand-Am, especially in the early years.

So here we are, in the 15th anniversary season of the ALMS and it will be going the way of the other great series of the past – to the scrap heap; as will Grand-Am. What happened?

For the ALMS, it was a couple of problems. First off, it carried the burden of international sportscar racing for many years. I, as well as many others, feel that if it wasn’t for the success of the Don Panoz-led group in the early 2000’s, we may not have seen either the WEC, the LMS or the struggling Asian series. I’d venture to guess that Le Mans would still exist as a race, but I’m just not convinced that there would be much else. The ALMS, as well as the presence of Audi, led the way to what we have now.

Unfortunately, part of carrying the burden of international sportscar racing in the early years led to a sense of importance, quite possibly self-inflated. When the economy tanked, so did the series. Instead of striking deals when the value of the series was high, it reportedly turned down some deals which could have allowed it to weather the storm. Instead, things tanked, Porsche, Audi and eventually Acura ended their high profile P1/P2 programs and things went downhill from then, to where we are now.

Like history has shown, the concept of top flight sportscar racing just wasn’t sustainable. The ALMS found out the tough way. Grand-Am opted to go another direction, knowing that the way to be sustainable was to not rely on the fickle factories. But they too struggled to be sustainable, as their concept of racing just didn’t win over the masses. Many found the series to be flawed – the cars unattractive, slow and technologically challenged. But despite the support the series received, it too struggled to find a big following.

So here we are today, looking at the end of an era and this upcoming weekend really marks the beginning of the end, but also marks the next step in the evolution of the USCR. Like all season, while we should be paying attention to the present, most of our attention will be paid to comparing lap times between the two series. This will be the first time that this has happened and it will go a long ways in showing what is required to come up with the desired balance for the 2014 season and beyond.

I expect that there will be lots to report back from this event…

Meanwhile, in the championship chase, there is much to look forward to. While the P1 championship chase is over, we can at least enjoy the spectacle of P1 cars one last time at Road America. Sadly the prospect of a showdown between Muscle Milk, Rebellion and Dyson Racing is no more, and we unfortunately won’t be able to witness any last second heroics from Guy Smith this season. Instead we’ll likely see Muscle Milk win yet again this season, in what may be their last season in sportscar racing. (As an aside, I was talking with a friend recently, who follows all sorts of racing, from motocross to F-1. I know we’d spoke about this earlier, but he recently heard that P1 was to be a thing of the past starting next season. He, like many fans across the country, was extremely disappointed to hear the news that the spectacle of the P1 cars was soon to be extinct.)

But, thankfully the other classes actually tightened after Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. While Dirk Muller was in the verge of pulling away from the competition, his BMW squad struggled and the rivals from Corvette Racing – Olly Gavin and Tommy Milner persevered though for a long awaited return to the top step of the podium. Their win tightened the points chase, where now the Corvette pair only trail Muller by five points, with the Magnussen/Garcia Corvette pairing another nine points back. Marc Goossens and Dominick Farnbacher rebounded from a tough Lime Rock to come oh so close to their first win in Canada. Their efforts kept them in the points chase – will the fast circuit that is Road America finally give them their long awaited win, on what is pretty much the anniversary of their debut? The way it looks, GT will go down to the wire for the championship, which will go a long ways in keeping the interest going to the end of the season.

Another positive for the series will be the return of Risi, after skipping the last race. The team hopes that the return to Road America will bring them a reversal in form as it is the scene of the last victory for the team.

Both PC and GTC are also shaping up to go to the wire. Colin Braun and CORE have returned to the top of the PC points chase thanks to strong post Le Mans results, while Mike Guasch and his PR1 Mathiasen team have struggled. Braun now leads the championship by a narrow margin of eight points, while in GTC, both AJR (Bleekemolen/MacNeil) and The Flying Lizards (Pumpelly/Canache) are all even. Early season leaders, MOMO/NGT have struggled in the last two races, scoring only a total of nine points, dropping them back in the standings.

P2, which will be a major part of the focus over the weekend, still sees Marino Franchitti leading Scott Tucker by three points, but the Cosmo/Sharp ESM pairing are only seven points out of the lead.

In Grand-Am, which will race on Saturday, the main two classes are in the midst of a tremendous battle. Based upon a relatively easy win at Indy, where they raced for the first time in quite some time with a BMW motor, Starworks now leads DP, leap frogging past a now struggling Wayne Taylor Racing. Such are the struggles for WTR, that they find themselves down to third in the drivers points chase, nine back of Gainsco, who are now 10 back of Starworks.

In GT, Stevenson has closed the gap to Magnus and now only trail by only 4 points. Robin Liddell recently summed up the Stevenson season thus far – “When we’re good, we’ve really good, but we’ve also had some pretty tough races too. Hopefully the good will outweigh the tough results the rest of the way.”

GTX is sort of a mess, as the drivers squads tend to mix from race to race. Currently Dr Jim Norman leads the drivers chase by a slim margin for BGB Motorsports, but with the diesel Mazda effort coming on strong, expect that to be short lived, as SpeedSource drivers fill the challengers positions in the points chase.

This promises to be one of the biggest weekends in sportscar racing here in North America in quite some time, which will hopefully give us a clue as to what the future may hold.

Gary Horrocks