NASCAR, owner of the Grand American sports car series (Rolex Sports Car Series and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge) has purchased the International Motor Sports Association and its American Le Mans Series, eliminating all competition within the sport.
NASCAR will formally announce the sale Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. The details of new sports car series, which should start racing in 2014, will also be announced.
Both premier series—Grand Am’s Rolex series and the ALMS—have been struggling financially. Grand Am survives because of NASCAR subsidies, and ALMS has been steadily declining in profitability. Rolex had better TV numbers (due to NASCARs’ purchase of time on Speed-TV) while ALMS had more fans but did not have a live TV presence after 2010.
The hope is that the purchase will bring together all sports car fans, teams, and sponsors into a single profitable and popular series.
No firm details have been released, but several sources, including nationalspeedsportnews.com indicate that the new series will feature Grand Am’s Daytona Prototypes as the top class, with drastically slowed ALMS LMP2 prototypes included. ALMS’s GTE class will transfer unchanged, and Grand Am’s much slower GT class will be opened up to ballasted and restricted FIA GT3 cars and ALMS GTC Porsches.
This class structure is designed to keep the DP class, which has about ten participants, plus the four or so P2 teams, along with the ALMS GTE class which provides what is generally considered the best road-racing on the planet right now, while still retaining the two dozen or so Grand Am GT teams and allowing others to join.
The deal reportedly includes the rights to the ALMS and IMSA names, all of ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz’s hotel properties, and the rights to the lease of Sebring International Raceway and outright ownership of the Road Atlanta track.
One of the prime points of interest is whether or not the new series will conform to international sports car specifications. One of the big draws of ALMS was that its cars met the ACO rules for participation at the Le Mans 24-hour race. This meant ALMS teams could race in the world’s most important sports car race, and that cars from other ACO series could race in ALMS events.
For years the Sebring 12-Hour and Petit le Mans ten-hour races attracted the biggest international teams, and therefore attracted huge hordes of fans, while some teams stayed in ALMS because it gave them the opportunity to race at Le Mans, which is essentially the Super Bowl of sports car racing.
Best information seems to be that the international connection will be abandoned when the current contract ends after 2013.
While all this is based on nothing but leaks from insiders who are unwilling to disclose much before the official announcement, some things are certain: ALMS will be absorbed into the Grand Am Rolex series in 2014, and the fastest ALMS classes will be eliminated or drastically slowed to fit into the new framework, and the new series will operate strictly in North America to its own rules, unrelated to the worldwide sports car community.
Some insiders speculate that an entirely new fastest class will be created in 2015, to replace the DP and P2 cars which will then be at least three years old. This new class might be defined in conjunction with the ACO/FIA international rules, but at this point that is pure—though hopeful—speculation.
Fans of both series are eagerly awaiting firm word of what the new series will look like. The philosophies of both series are drastically different. Grand Am favors rules stability, low cost, low technology and no development; the focus is on the drivers, not the cars or the engineers.
Traditional sports car racing as represented currently by ACO-sanctioned series like ALMS, promotes the cars as the stars. Advanced technology, engineering innovation, and constant development are the essence of the series. This has attracted major auto manufacturers like Audi, Peugeot, Chevrolet, Dodge, Toyota, and Honda through its HPD division.
The focus on technology has given rise to hybrid gas-electric and diesel-electric power trains, isobutanol, diesel, and ethanol as alternative fuels (liquified natural gas was planned for 2013—it remains to be seen if that project gets shelved.) It has also led to the development of new materials, advanced engine management and chassis telemetry, and even some completely out-of-the-box ideas like the tricycle-like DeltaWing which ran at Le Mans this year.
NASCAR believes its philosophy makes the best business sense, though it has never succeeded in winning over sports car fans. Notably, the new series will purportedly feature one of the more tightly controlled classes—P2—from the ALMS. Traditional sports car fans fear the new series will be fast food rather than gourmet cuisine—increased volume and lower quality.On the other hand, bad management (though helped by a bad global economy) kept ALMS from ever reaching its full potential (though anyone who saw the racing between 2006 and 2009 will never forget those days.) Conceivably the new series, with better management—and NASACR can certainly manage a racing series—could develop into a worthy replacement for ALMS.
It remains to be seen if the new series will accept the focus on engineering and development which has long been a sports car trademark, or will hew to the NASCAR Grand Am philosophy of identical cars. Equally, it remains to be seen if NASACR can attract enough fans from beyond the traditional fanbase to make up for the loss.
Possibly NASCAR will eventually realize that what works with stock cars won’t work with sports cars, and will change its approach to allow both traditional ideas and modern management and promotion. This would be the best of both worlds: North American sports car racing could resume its place on the global stage and North American manufacturers and teams could prove their worth against the best in the world, while still making enough money to pay the bills.