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.