Exciting things are happening in sportscar racing at the moment. A succession of changes in outlo0ks is reshaping top line series everywhere.
Globally this is no better seen than in the reintroduction of a long-overdue World Championship for those competing at the Le Mans 24 Hours. On a regional scale the Blancpain Endurance Series is going from strength to strength in Europe, and although sadly FIA World GT1 had to be scaled back and relaunched next year as a Europe-only GT Sprint series perhaps that is the best format for it.
The biggest change at a regional level, and one which may have far-reaching implications, was the announcement that IMSA’s American Le Mans Series by Tequila Patron, and Grand-Am’s Rolex Series would be merging by means of a buyout. At long last!
The unexpected news was greeted with universal praise – just four and a bit years after Indy unity, ‘the other’ two warring American series were coming together. It was as if a big weight had been lifted from everyone’s shoulders. Just one thing.. how DID they keep it a secret?
Almost immediately after that came the worries. Grand-Am was making a purchase and Grand-Am is owned by NASCAR – does that mean the independent spirit of the ALMS will be lost? Are we going to get yellow flags for light debris, lucky dogs and green/white/checker finishes? Will they cut the link to Le Mans and lose those cars?
We are told repeatedly that this is NOT a takeover. We’re told this is definitely and defiantly not the same as the IndyCar purchase of ChampCar, in which anything related to the latter was mostly rubbed out, where just a few teams, drivers and events remained, and very few series staff and other assets. Some would later find their way in and others headed elsewhere (particularly to either sportscar series) but altogether it was a messy business.
This time it is very much an integration. The companies have ALREADY merged. They call themselves ‘ISCAR’. No, me neither, but they can change it later. ISCAR has both Grand-Am and IMSA/ALMS figureheads at the helm, with equal say, and a mantra of ‘open dialogue’ being the order of business: They are listening. To fans. To teams. To drivers. To manufacturers. And to each other.
We’ve witnessed the united approach for some months now and do you know what? I believe them. They really are considering the best – and worst – of both existing series and organisations. The biggest card in their favour is time. There is no rush for 2014.
IndyCar’s hand was forced by having to get it all done in a matter of weeks. Had the IndyCar deal happened a year ahead of the actual series merge it would’ve come out of it very differently indeed. Lessons have been learned that experience (and some now in sportscar racing were involved in the IndyCar ‘merger’ – they know what they are talking about), it isn’t an experience anyone wants to see repeated.
That said, there is a hell of a lot of work to do to merge two different organisations and philosophies. A year isn’t very long in that context. Indeed the teams and drivers need to have an idea of class structure fairly swiftly – and I mean very, very soon – so they can make their purchasing decisions for 2013, if they buy now can they keep their cars for the new series or will they have to buy again?
ISCAR also specifically state they want to keep the link to Le Mans. I’d like to see how that manifests itself. I reckon that means keeping at least two ACO-compliant categories and leaving a gap in the calendar for teams to go over, or allowing them to skip a round.
ISCAR will follow the existing plans to run a full Grand-Am season and a full ALMS season concurrently in 2013 using existing personnel. I assume the only change is they’ll be centrally-run though I don’t know if that’s right, or whether ISCAR is operating from Grand-Am HQ in Daytona or IMSA HQ in Braselton.
In 2014 a replacement series with a new name will replace both, featuring what are deemed to be the best car classes and specs at the best races. Imagine the best of both combining into one. Exciting!
Sadly yes there will be some losses at the end of 2013 at both series and in terms of entrants, and some good people are going to be let go. That’s sad and unavoidable. I hope as many as possible will be retained and used for things like officiating the support races.
Here’s a tip for ISCAR: guys, in 2013 put all your officials – both series – into the same ISCAR gear from Daytona on. When people pitch up at Sebring and realise the officials are wearing the same kit as the (probably different) officials wore at Daytona that’s when it’ll sink in for everyone that this stuff is REAL. Just a little thing that’ll say a lot.
What will this actually mean? Let’s take a look at the key elements.
What’s In A Name?
Okay let’s drop ISCAR. Irrespective of connotations to stock cars, it doesn’t sound right. A lot of people like IMSA. It has tons of history. Okay yes that’s what the ALMS people used so it might play favourites but let’s move past that. The fact is the France family started the original IMSA and Don Panoz revived it. That makes it the perfect choice.
A series name shouldn’t be too long and it needs gravitas without PR fluff. Let’s drop the ‘Presented By’ and ‘Powered By’ stuff, adding words needlessly, you make the name so long everyone drops the sponsor! Lest we forget the awful 10-word names ChampCar had by the end. Whatever happened to just saying.. ‘with’?
IMSA Grand-American Rolex Series
IMSA Grand-American Rolex Series with Patron
IMSA Rolex North American Sportscar Championship
IMSA Tequila Patron Sportscar Series by Rolex
My experience with these series is watching the ALMS and the Daytona 24, but few other Rolex Series races. It probably isn’t a surprise I think ALMS has better rules for things like yellow flags, caution periods, restarts and so on. My only complaint is the safety car ‘pass by’ procedure the ALMS uses, while it is scrupulously fair, it does take an age to run through.
I don’t like how keen Grand-Am can go full course yellow for relatively small amounts of debris. This makes complete sense on an oval but less so in this racing where a bit of debris way off line doesn’t really matter too much. The ALMS has also been guilty of this. Obviously you have to be sensible, sometimes other series can leave it too long, as I thought F1 did at Sao Paulo when they waited for a puncture (not that Force India agreed with me).
I like pitting the prototypes a lap ahead of GTs when under yellow, just to give everyone room to work, and both series do this already, however I question whether that’s needed at some venues, like Sebring which has a very long pitlane and a long lap.
I’d like it if teams had to switch the engines off at pitstops. Restarting them is a part of what makes this endurance racing.
I don’t care about wheel hubs and so forth so if it makes sense to keep the single unit for ex-ALMS GT and the cheaper 4- or 5-point version (assuming they’re cheaper) for ex-GA GT then so be it. I tend to think racing cars should have racing kit but I recognise the need to save costs in some classes.
Otherwise both series are run pretty well and I don’t feel I need to make mention of anything because I reckon they’ll get it figured out well enough. If they head along the wrong path we can mention it to them at the time!
I’m not based in the USA so the domestic TV rights aren’t crucial to me. I do watch ALMS.com streaming (sometimes live, sometimes delayed) so I am familiar with the various offerings and I’ve been happy with both ESPN and SPEED.
For me web streaming is essential. I can’t legally watch any other way. The ALMS was right to offer this feature, even if they were too early to narrow the live coverage to the format, and that’s why SPEED will show key long-distance races next year. I sincerely hope I’ll still be able to follow along live online as before during those SPEED races.
Live TV here in Europe is a nicety I’d like to see retained. Both existing series have deals with MotorsTV. I do know people who watch using MotorsTV and you still need that ‘stumble upon’ factor so it ought to remain on telly. I can’t get the channel as I don’t have Sky or Virgin TV, and there’s no MotorsTV web channel.
That means I’ll need to keep using an official streaming option to be able to watch. And I stress again, I love the archived races! They are a great way to time-shift the races to a more suitable time for me.
Hindy and Shaw do a great job for ESPN. It would be great if they could continue to do the web feed. If the TV people aren’t willing to fund it any more, I hope the money is there within the merged series marketing budget to bring back Radio Show Ltd (Radio Le Mans) so we can have their audio mixed with the pictures.
Races & Classes
I want to go into these in more detail so I will follow up with a second post about those later.
If this merger is done well it could grow to rival IndyCar within North America – and given how that is struggling it may even outgrow it. The racing could again be the best in the world even compared to the likes of the WEC. If it is even has half as good as the potential it would be a very good series. And don’t think 2013 will be as ‘lame duck’ as some say – people will want win the last ever Grand-Am Rolex Series and the last ever American Le Mans Series! And they’ll want to be ready to attack in 2014 and that means entering now. It’ll be frantic.
In the second part of this two-part series I will look at the potential car classes and review the enviable choice of available racetracks.