Saturday, October 20, 2012

Petit Le Mans 2012: Wingin' it.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.” – Semisonic

Braselton, GA –

With the full assimilation of the American Le Mans Series into the NASCAR family of racing still more than a year away, this year’s Petit Le Mans is already showing some early signs that one era of racing is winding down; another is taking shape. Much of the talk on the paddock and infield centered on 2014 and what it means to everyone in sports car racing. Opinions were, well, what you might expect:

“At last, we can address the need for restrictor plates at Sebring!”
“Hey, wouldn’t it be great if NASCAR bought its way into a monopoly of road racing in America – no, wait, nobody’s ever asked that.”
“’ISCAR?’ Really?”

And then there’s the High Octane love-it-or-hate-it truth: “It had to happen, eventually.”

The pros and cons of the unfortunately-named ISCAR deal have been hashed-out for more than a month now, and will continue long into the year to come. What should be a clear plus for manufacturers and sponsors still leaves question marks lingering in the minds of various teams, tracks (none of whom is anxious to lose a date), and most of all, the fans.

It was, for some, easy to forget that we still have a full season of both ALMS and Grand Am to come next year – and we also had one pretty big ALMS season finale over the weekend.

Despite the absence of traditional European turbo-diesel heavy hitters Audi and Peugeot (the former gone to WEC, the latter just… gone), the crowds still turned out in huge numbers to see their perennial series favorites throw down on the hot Georgia asphalt (and sometimes red clay) with a sprinkling of European Le Mans Series regulars who made the trip, as the ELMS’ own late season schedule has been cannibalized by the FIA’s World Endurance Championship.

Also absent from the week’s racing schedule were some of the regular support series, so no SCCA World Challenge Touring and GT races, though the hole in the schedule was filled with some dramatic and close racing from the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup series.

With the ALMS GT title already decided (and LMP categories all but finally sorted), some of the most fun was in watching what were effectively exhibition and development entries – the first proper endurance race for SRT’s new Viper GTS-R team was a success, with the #91 car finishing a respectable 8th in class as SRT boss Ralph Gilles watched from his team’s pit box.

However, the bigger (no, biggest) fun-run of the week was without question the US competition debut of the Delta Wing. After being crashed-out by a competitor’s imbecilic move at Le Mans in June, the program was supposedly dead – only to be resurrected for Petit. The joy was momentarily put on hold, however, when another imbecilic move (this time from Green Hornet Porsche driver Peter LeSaffre, who later went on to take out the Muscle Milk HPD car during the race) wrecked the Delta Wing during practice on Wednesday. No strangers to rebuilding a wrecked car overnight at Petit Le Mans, Duncan Dayton’s amazing Highcroft Racing team reconstructed the car overnight – complete with the headrest tips painted high-visibility red to make the otherwise stealth-fighter black Batmobile easier to spot. It worked, and the Delta Wing not only went the distance, but finished an impressive 6th overall.

In an earlier era, another great American racing team once used the term “Competition Proven” on its cars. Decades later, the Delta Wing and all those involved in its effort, have made it Competition Proven.

That’s it for this season – I’ll see you at Sebring.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Heaven On Earth. One Hell of a Show.

Alton, VA –

Two weeks ago in Baltimore, the world of sports car racing was rocked by the news that the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am Road Racing were “merging,” before details were revealed that showed this was one of those “don’t-call-it-a-buyout” buyouts. In the short time since, countless experts – including a few who actually know enough to speak intelligently on the subject – have weighed-in on what it all means; for the combined series promoters, for the teams and manufacturers, the sponsors, and the fans.

The dust still has yet to settle, and the chatter remains: Is it good news? Is it bad news? The press conference on September 5th left open far more questions than it answered, but the inside line suggests this much: Come what may, the combining of the two series was probably the eventual outcome with the least amount of fallout (both economically and politically) for all those involved, as both groups had spent some 13 years fighting over a decreasing slice of the motorsports pie. NASCAR Holdings simply took the textbook corporate approach: If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em. No matter your take on the acquisition, it’s just one big wait-and-see for the next year or so – and there’s lots of racing to be done before the end of 2013.

This brings us, of course, to this weekend’s first-ever appearance of the ALMS at Virginia International Raceway, quite possibly the most astute definition of the word “bucolic” as you’ll find applied to an American racing circuit. The track is wrapped in Southern charm, and proudly bills itself what the late Paul Newman described as “heaven on Earth.” In basic terms, VIR is 3.27 miles of rolling hills, fast straights, one big beautiful oak tree, and as many turns as Sebring. It’s hard to ignore the red clay and down-home feel reminiscent of Road Atlanta – albeit with some uncommonly swank trackside accommodations for the “coffee on the balcony overlooking a motoring paradise” set.

With ALMS, of course, comes a huge crowd. By Saturday morning, overflow parking was loading up, and several track workers and local volunteers around the circuit were overheard stating “I’ve never seen so many people in all my life!” Not “people at the track,” but “people.” For a group putting on what had to be by far its biggest show ever, the friendly staff at VIR did a commendable job of keeping things moving along.

As has been the case for a few years now, the real show in ALMS is the absolutely fierce competition in GT class – and Corvette Racing was able to use the four-hour event to lock up the manufacturer and driver’s championships for the year, while class-winning driver Oliver Gavin celebrated his 100th series start: “For me, my 100th race, to win the race and win the championships, driver’s, team, and manufacturer, I don't think there is anything else I could have done today… We made our own luck. We clambered and put our self in the right position. We executed that 4 times this year, that’s why we won the championship.”

The series’ LMP1 class is set to enter the final round of the season at Petit Le Mans with the title still undecided. Greg Pickett’s Muscle Milk Racing Honda once again had the speed, and without the tight course and concrete barriers of Baltimore’s street circuit, Lucas Luhr and Klaus Graf were able to keep the nose clean and sprint to victory. The two-car Dyson Racing Lola/Mazda team, however, were never quite up to speed. Dyson used the VIR race to debut it’s “Flybrid” KERS system, which with the season nearing its end and the championship still within reach, seems quite a gamble. The KERS “works efficiently,” according to Chris Dyson, “when it’s working.” He added that the system is still in the early stages of development, and that it will return in the car at Petit Le Mans.

The grid at Petit, of course, has been hurt by the loss of the WEC sanction – though it’s also being bolstered somewhat by the addition of some entries coming over from the now-cancelled (or “on hiatus”) European Le Mans Series – which was utterly decimated by Euro-based teams flocking to the FIA-sanctioned series. To anyone who just plain loves sports car racing, however, Petit Le Mans is the last race of the year that matters.

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

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Baltimore Grand Prix 2012 - The Sequel

A flood of cautions, terrific action, crab cakes, and an announcement that will transform sports car racing in America? Yep, it must be Labor Day Weekend in Baltimore.

Baltimore, MD –

Last weekend’s 2012 Baltimore Sports Car Challenge presented by SRT was defined as much by off-the-circuit news as anything that happened on the 2.04-mile street circuit. We’ll get through the good, the bad, and the just plain weird of it.

For starters, following a blast of a successful debut in 2011, the original promoters – who delivered the goods in crowd turnout but blew it by having way over-promised on revenues – were sacked earlier this year by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Then, with the entire event hanging in the balance for months, eventually Andretti Sports Marketing was brought in to pick up the pieces and make the event happen – all in the span of about 90 days.

The first thing anybody noticed this year was the crowd; or, really, the lack of one. Where the 2011 debut had the streets flooded with people (many of whom seem to have gotten in free) the turnout was huge despite the lack of advertising in local media. This time round, even with ads running all over TV and radio in Baltimore and DC markets, it was considerably easier to get where you needed to go, and spend a lot less time waiting in line.  Andretti Sports Marketing’s Jade Gurss summed it up, saying “we may have fewer total numbers, but we more likely have a higher number of paying customers.”  
Sunday brought the biggest crowds, as Indycar seemed to have more of a “main event” feel about it. That’s what having a live TV contract gets you, even if it’s on NBC.

For an event so quickly cobbled-together, the Andretti group deserves a tip of the hat – as does the City of Baltimore itself. Last year’s abhorrent traffic tie-ups were made substantially better by routing traffic more efficiently, and the behind-the-scenes workings seemed to flow with better organization (for the most part) than last year. Also, while the track designer may have screwed-up by re-designing the circuit without last year’s dreaded chicanes (leading to several cars literally catching air while crossing the railroad tracks on Pratt St), the response to this foul-up was quick and decisive – the chicanes were put back in place, so that rather than cars flying through the air, we had cars getting loose and tagging the wall. If you’re going to have damage, better to contain it on the tarmac than launch it through the air.

Along with the road hazard carried over from last year, every race over the span of three days involved some kind of pile-up in the now-notorious turn 1. One local fan observed “I don’t think we need a race announcer for this one, so much as we need a traffic reporter.” Coupled with some light rain on Sunday, the track seemed to take on both the best and worst characteristics of Sebring and Long Beach. This time, however, the manhole covers stayed put.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the Baltimore race without bringing up the situation that threatened to overshadow the entire event: As this is being written, we are just a few hours away from the announcement that the Grand Am series and the American Le Mans Series have reached an agreement to “merge.” Anyone who watched the DaimlerChrysler “merger of equals” play out at the end of the last century, knows what “merger” means these days – and Peter’s insight on this deal really is the last word as far as its analysis is concerned. It’s far too early to know whether to throw roses or dead fish at the parties involved – or some combination of both – but one thing is certain: Sports car racing in North America just took a very sharp U-turn, and it will never be the same.

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

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sebring 2012: The Future is (still) Coming.

Sebring, FL – 

The closing lap of this year’s 60th running of the Sebring 12 Hours was a showcase for some of the most exciting wheel to wheel racing ever seen on our shores. Sure, Audi’s legendary trio of Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, and Dindo Capello had already wrapped up the overall and LMP1 win with time to spare and little competition outside of their Joest Racing teammates, but the battle in GT was once again the knock-down street brawl we’ve come to expect from the production-based class. 

So, who won? 

The answer to that would seem to depend on where you’re counting from, how you score it, and possibly where you watched the race. The #16 Dyson Racing Lola B12/66-Mazda, which finished outside the top 3 overall, still took the ALMS P1 win. The American Le Mans Series GT win went to Joey Hand, piloting the #155 BMW Team RLL E92 M3, with the #03 Corvette Racing C6-ZR1 some six seconds back, followed by Olivier Beretta’s #71 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia in third. At least, that’s what we saw on our web browsers or internet-connected TVs, right? 

While the BMW team got the trophy for the ALMS GT win, top honors for the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) went to Beretta, in a guest drive with the AF Corse team in LMGTE Pro class. So, third place overall can still be considered a win. If you’re feeling a bit lost in the esses, you’re not alone. 

Following last year’s successful run of the ACO’s Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, this year the ILMC was taken over by the FIA and turned into the WEC, ostensibly because the powers that be in motorsports prefer three letter series over those with four, and because the FIA is the be-all/end-all of motorsport sanctioning – at least, they think so. This involves, among other things, removing Petit Le Mans and Imola from the schedule and adding races at Sao Paulo, Mt. Fuji and Bahrain. The biggest downside of all in this is the loss of Petit Le Mans from the great big international series, a move I predicted in these pages last Fall to be unconscionably foolish but seemingly inevitable. 

Peugeot was among the manufacturers that had lobbied heavily for the formation of the WEC, before the company ran out of money and hastily dismantled its entire Le Mans racing team, even recalling the remaining 908-series LMP race cars from its factory team and privateers, and destroying them. 

Ah, don’t you love the smell of politics in the morning? 

I could spend a thousand words breaking down the reasoning put forth behind the FIA/WEC screwing the ALMS sideways to run a race in front of six camels and some rich men in the desert, but this sentence effectively accomplishes that in under 40. 

Since its inception at the end of the 20th century, Don Panoz, Scott Atherton, and the rest of the American Le Mans Series have worked tirelessly to promote Le Mans-style racing in North America, occasionally benefiting from the direct tie-in to the Le Mans 24 Hours, but sometimes suffering for it. This raison d’etre was not lost on anyone, and the series highlighting of not just “Green Racing” but the transfer of technology from race car to passenger car has made it the high-tech rock star of the motorsports world. That the ALMS is habitually treated as the ACO (and now FIA)’s red-headed stepchild is a crime.

Sure, starting the season with a 64-car mega-race sounds cool. The racing all day into night was as great as ever, whether you call it LMGTE-Am, LMGTE-Pro, or just call it like it is and say that Joey Hand kicked everyone’s ass on the last lap and won GT. What the WEC means to ALMS audiences is 9 classes, 27 trophies, and, post-race champagne spraying that seemed to last half as long as the race itself. As someone who’s never been much for “March Madness,” the concept of 192 drivers in 64 cars (well, 62 actually started and 58 finished) divided into 9 classes isn’t racing, it’s a bracketing headache. 

But here’s the even bigger question: Did you see it? No, I don’t mean the 90-minute highlight reel hastily cobbled-together for ABC. That’s just a joke that nobody gets, or ever will. I mean the full 12 hours, as webcast by From the feedback we’ve been getting, the series second season of Brave New World internet-only delivery is off to no better a start than we saw one year ago. Back then, it was charitably called a limited success with lots of room for improvement. In March of 2012, however, the only great sports car race in America is still a fantastic event in search of a way to reach its fans. 

Complaints from fans on the ALMS official Facebook page during the race started early and never lifted – most of them from fans in the USA complaining, “why can’t I watch this race?” Indeed, technical difficulties abounded involving the internet feed and ability to log on, and the ALMS own website didn’t seem to provide much help to viewers who wanted to watch or otherwise needed help getting hooked up. Even watching a replay on – a great idea in concept at least – is fraught with issues ranging from Internet provider licenses to browser caches to ESPN’s own web servers occasionally just being… slow. 

Is web streaming the future of TV? Of course it is. The key word however, as it was in March of 2011, is “future.” Online coverage of qualifying and the race itself is a great idea that should never be abandoned. Following the work ethic of the top racing teams, it is a work that needs to be continuously refined, sweated-out, and perfected. 

As shown by a full season and two Sebring 12 Hours, the future still has not arrived. 

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