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Grand Am buys ALMS, wins sports car war

Published September 4, 2012

The announcement today – Wednesday – of a new North American sports car racing series could either be good news for the sport or bad news and I’m betting it will be more the latter than the former.

The American Le Mans Series and the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series will officially become one when the announcement is made. Although initial reports talked about a merger, it has since been confirmed that what’s happening, in fact, is the sale of the ALMS to Grand Am.

A merger is one thing. A merger is when two parties come together to create something that includes the best of both. A sale is when one party purchases the other and gets to call all the shots.

Much has been written in recent days about what the idealists in the crowd would like to see happen with this new series. The idealists kinda like the way the ALMS has been working and would dearly love to see the GT Class, in particular, included in the new series.

But I have news. The new series will be the present Grand Am Series with maybe – maybe – more participants. The Grand Am organization, which is owned by the France family/NASCAR, is not going to throw any of its current competitors under the bus in order to make anybody on the “other side” feel better. It’ll be the Grand Am way, or the highway.

I did an interview a few years ago with the saviour of Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) and the founder of the American Le Mans Series, Don Panoz. The ALMS and the Grand Am were both formed in the late 1990s as a result of the mess made of North American sports car racing by a guy named Andy Evans, and have been seen as competitors in much the same way as the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series were during their “civil war.”

During the interview, I asked Panoz if he’d ever tried to “make peace” with the Grand Am so that there could be one, great, sports car series on this continent and he replied that he had.

“We’ve talked from time to time,” he said, and then asked to go off the record. ”They want to run everything,” he said. “They want to do it all their way and I won’t go for that.”

Apparently, Don Panoz has now reached a point where he will go for that.

Which is understandable, considering the way the ALMS has evolved in recent years and which has, as a result, undoubtedly cost him a lot of money.

Sports car racing is made up of classes, with the unlimited prototype class – called Prototype 1, or P1 – at the top of the heap. The problem is that for several years now, there has not been any manufacturer factory teams in P1 and the class has been propped up by privateers.

While the ALMS has prospered in the Grand Touring class, with factory entries from Corvette, Ferrari, BMW and others producing tight, exciting races, the lack of glamour-puss entries in P1 from manufacturers like Audi has hurt the series.

Although some might disagree, the decision to brand the ALMS as a “green” racing series has had mixed results. Auto racing is loud and gritty (despite the best efforts of F1) and is most popular when presented that way. Many people were put off by the goody two-shoes promotion of the series as being “clean racing.”

And then there was the disastrous decision two years ago to put all of the races on the Internet, rather than continue on live television. Suddenly, the ALMS became an invisible series to all but truly hard-core fans.

It didn’t help that the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series races were all broadcast live on Speed Channel.

Now, it’s always been apparent that the ALMS is a bigger draw than the Grand Am when it comes to people actually going to the races. Last January’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona Grand Am race at Daytona Speedway attracted exactly zero spectators. None. Two months later at the ALMS 12 Hours of Sebring, the crowd was so big that it was difficult to get inside the circuit.

So the Grand Am organization might be inclined to accept some ALMS help in the area of marketing and promotion of the new series, but that’s about all.

Sure, some of the ALMS tracks – Canadian Tire MP, Lime Rock, etc. – will be part of the new series, but other than that, the ALMS as we’ve know it will soon be nothing but a memory.

And although there might be some platitudes mouthed about continuing the great traditions of the ALMS and its connection to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there is no way NASCAR will be taking direction from anyone, much less some sports car club in France.

Grand Am/NASCAR is the big dog now and they’ll do things their way. They won the war, so we’d better get used to it.

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