Thursday, October 06, 2011

Absolutely Epic.

Braselton, GA –

“Epic.” Quite possibly the most abused term of the last few years, thanks in no small part to various forums on the Internet. These days, even the talking heads on TV (most of whom no longer deserve the title “anchor,”) have fallen prey to over-using a term of supreme magnitude, to describe the slightest deviation from the norm. When the act of finding a $10 bill in the pocket of one’s jeans is described as “epic win,” and pretty much everything else that ever happens in the world earns the term “epic fail” by the internet fanboy intelligentsia, it becomes clear that an example – a true to life definition of the word – is needed.

This past weekend’s 14th running of the Petit Le Mans, the final round of the American Le Mans Series 2011 season, was the very essence of the four-letter word mentioned above. The season-ender started an event-record 52 cars (53 were qualified, but a Risi Competizione Ferrari was damaged beyond repair during the morning warm-up), and of those, 38 were scored as “running” by the time the checkered flag waved and Team Peugeot TOTAL claimed victory. The race itself featured as much fantastic display of driving skill and engineering prowess as can be seen in any form of racing today, though it remains a bit unclear just how many people – in the US and abroad – were able to watch the race.

The series’ “webcast/delayed broadcast” experiment, begun at the season-opener in Sebring, has been a mixed success. Neither “epic win” or “epic fail,” the experience many fans have had streaming the races via the Internet on in the US (or via overseas) has largely been… lukewarm “WTF?” We knew at the beginning of the ’11 season that the series leaving behind live TV broadcasting would be a huge gamble, and at season’s end, the result looks like a push. Next year will see the return of live broadcast on ABC and ESPN2 (ABC and the ESPN networks are owned by Disney) for four events, with the live streaming on to continue unchanged. Conspicuously absent from the big picture is Radio Le Mans, the web-radio network headed by John Hindhaugh, which had previously carried live coverage of all ALMS events prior to this year. I can’t think of any other group that has the mixture of dedication, proven talent, and sheer insight shown week after week by Radio Le Mans, and the edited-to-pieces and delayed TV broadcasts on ABC/ESPN2 have drawn criticism for everything from miserable editing to dull commentary, so something else must be at work there.

Petit Le Mans is no longer just the American sports car Fall Classic, either. As part of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC) – which is soon to give way to the new FIA-sanctioned World Endurance Championship – it’s gone from being a quaint little day-long event with a respectable fan turnout… to being a downright huge week-long festival with fan turnout so huge, even three years into economic times that are lackluster at best, the infield is packed full and overflow parking off-site is loaded. The running joke on the paddock is that there’s nothing much “petit” about the race anymore – and it’s genuinely arrived at a level where it rivals the 12 Hours of Sebring among great American sports car races, in must-see action and prestige, if not decades of heritage.

At, Peter DeLorenzo has talked about the need for sports car racing in this country to get its act together in a hurry, and force an end to the “split” between ALMS and the France Family’s Grand Am circus. When the crowd at Sebring or Petit on Wednesday practice is exponentially larger than the raceday crowd for the 24 Hours of Daytona, it’s pretty clear that the fans are voting loudly at the ticket booth. The fact is, when you put on a great race at a good circuit, featuring the world’s most fantastic-looking cars, people will want to see them run. Not just on TV, but up close.

At this year’s Petit Le Mans, the grandstands on the front stretch were either at or near full capacity for the duration of the entire race. Even NASCAR can’t get that together, these days. Seen the Brickyard 400 lately? 

So, why the urgent need for the teams to organize and determine a singular direction for themselves? In a word, politics – and the coming wave that is the World Endurance Championship.

The WEC, as it’s set to be next year, will replace the current ILMC, with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (the French governing body overseeing Le Mans) working with the FIA (that’s the other group of French rule-makers) to create a uniform global sportscar championship series. To borrow a quote from ALMS’ Scott Atherton from just a few years ago, those teams and sanctioning bodies not at the table, will be on the menu.

Will the frequently-repeated rumor of WEC’s stated desire for a date in South America mean stripping its sanction from Petit Le Mans? Not if the ACO and FIA have half a clue to work with. Still, this is racing on an enormous international scale, and stranger (and dumber) things have happened. And leaving ‘Petit’ off the WEC schedule would be – no exaggeration here – a screw-up of epic proportions.

That’s it for now; I’ll see you at the next pit stop.

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