Saturday, October 19, 2013


Braselton, GA – 

Fifteen years. Compared to NASCAR’s 65 years running, not a big number. Compared to Indy and Le Mans’ ACO and FIA at or above 100 years each, barely a flash in the pan. Yet, in 15 years – the last twelve of which I’ve spent covering the American Le Mans Series – we have seen storied battles on pavement between global manufacturers and upstart privateers. We have seen a showcase for future technologies being tested in competition. We have seen history being made at high speed all over North America. In 15 years, some of the best racing anywhere has taken place in ALMS. 

With the series to be absorbed into the Tudor United Sports Car Championship in 2014, this year’s Petit Le Mans closed out the ALMS season – and the series itself – on an unusually wistful note. 

“It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? I mean… it’s an end of an era.” So said Muscle Milk Pickett Racing’s Lucas Luhr, prior to the start of Saturday’s last-ever ALMS race, which summed-up the overall feel on the paddock last week. Adding to the tinge of sadness in the air was the pain of loss within the motorsports family. Famed young Porsche ace Sean Edwards was killed in a crash in Australia on Tuesday while instructing a student, and his team made the decision to remove the No. 30 MOMO Porsche 911 GT3 from competition. The Porsche’s livery was redone in a tribute to Edwards, and taken for a solitary lap prior to the race. 

The undercurrent of sober reflection was inescapable. Edwards was a popular driver and proven talent in GTC class. At 26, likely not yet into his prime, he was leading the Porsche Supercup Championship points race at the time of his death. 

Thus, it was almost poetic that the 1,000-mile contest began with a somber backdrop of light rain, which continued for most of the daylight hours, before eventually giving way to clearer skies and cool October breezes for the finish. 

Among the other points of interest from Petit: 

All week long, it seemed much of the discussion on the paddock and trackside seemed to center not so much on the race itself, as what we might expect for next year. That is, because so little information has been made available to the teams competing in TUSCC starting in just 3 months. The series schedule was only recently released, and car specifications have been slow to come. As a result, a number of top teams have been slow to commit – Greg Pickett’s Muscle Milk Racing, Dyson Racing, and Scott Tucker’s Level 5 Motorsports are just three out of a considerable number of ALMS regulars who have yet to announce plans for 2014. 

As one division in sports car racing is coming to an end with ALMS and Grand Am becoming one series, another rivalry of sorts is apparently developing: The FIA’s World Endurance Championship, responsible in no small part for drawing talent away from existing Le Mans-style racing series in the USA and Europe, has events scheduled in conflict with the new combined series. Since the first weekend of October is the new black, apparently, WEC’s Fuji date on the same weekend as TUSCC’s Petit Le Mans in 2014. 

NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series made an appearance at the track, though rain forced the series to spend most of their scheduled time idled on the paddock. Unable to account for the damp Fall weather (read: no wet tires), the “stock cars” completed a brief practice session early in the week, only to have later practices and qualifying rained-out. They did run a full race on Friday, which was still good fun to watch. 

While the NASCAR teams were frustrated by moist track conditions, the IMSA Lites and Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup series put on an excellent show in both wet and dry. Most notably in MX-5 Cup, a last-lap battle between Elliott Skeer, John Dean II, and Patrick Gallagher brought fans – and announcers – to their feet, with the three finishing in the aforementioned order. Skeer won the final race of the season, but ended up 4 points shy of series championship winner Christian Szymczak. 

An item that’s surfaced in the last day or two: According to sources within IMSA, one possible change for 2014 may be in the series’ safety team. That is, there might not be one. While IMSA for years has had its own dedicated safety crew traveling with the series, “the NASCAR way” has always been to have a series liaison to coordinate with local firefighters, EMTs and paramedics at each of the tracks – and this is said to be the policy TUSCC wants to adopt. NASCAR claims this is due to “risk management and the series’ insurance policies,” which is shorthand for “this is how we always done it on the cheap, and we don’t like changin’ things.” Outside the world of France family racertainment, however, it’s a travesty. Ask any driver. It is one of many points of contention that need to be settled before the green flag drops at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January. 

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

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Street Giveth, and The Street Taketh Away

Baltimore, MD –

Ten years ago, while working a stint for the Mayor’s Office in Baltimore, the thought occurred to me as I was driving home through the streets, “it sure would be cool to see a sports car race through here some day.” Of course, I’ve probably said that about ¾ of the cities I’ve driven through over the years – and who would ever think of doing a race on the streets of Baltimore, anyway? In those days, the city was known nationally as little more than the backdrop for HBO’s The Wire, a show sometimes criticized for being too true to life. Too gritty. Too brutal. Too real. If Los Angeles has a polar opposite, it’s covered in Old Bay seasoning, hon. Baltimore is a picture of working class hard times, and not unlike Detroit has suffered economically for decades. The city’s got scars, ugly ones, and they’re front-and-center.

Of course, there was no way a major race could ever happen. Baltimore, for all its picturesque aerial shots of the Inner Harbor, has way too many counts against it. It’s one thing to whip-up a concrete canyon in a city where snow is something you only see on TV (that’s you, Long Beach & St. Pete), but here? With streets in such characteristically mid-Atlantic shape, they’ll turn a new car’s suspension into crab cake mush in a few months. It’ll never work.

Except that, for the last couple of years, it mostly did.

In the face of local media trashing the race weekend at every turn, and mixed support from the surrounding community (some businesses won, others lost), the first two years of the Grand Prix of Baltimore at the very least showed some promise. That is, literally the promise that much of the hazardously bumpy street surface at the rail tracks would be remedied. Hastily-poured chicanes on the Pratt St. front stretch were problematic in 2011 and 2012, but assurances had been made from all sides that “next year” the chassis-crunching curbs and rail gulleys would be tamed and the track would be so much better.

This year, all hell broke loose. Every series that showed-up – Indy Lights, ALMS, and IZOD Indycar – saw critical damage to numerous cars in every class, the chicanes and tire-barriers turning the circuit into a stunt course more worthy of “Ironman” Ivan Stewart’s off-roader than Patrick Dempsey's Porsche. Starting with a massive crash at the beginning of Saturday’s ALMS race before the field could even take the green flag (resulting in an hour-long delay that shortened the race duration from 2 hours to 1 hour 15 min), and Race Control for each series that seemed to be watching a NASCAR race somewhere, nearly everything that could go wrong, did. For every driver on every team, the ALMS race was hardcore penance for all sins real or imagined that have ever been committed in the name of competition.

As long as we’re complaining, even the humidity was awful. Again.

Sunday’s Indycar race may not have seen half the field turned into a carbon fiber modern art sculpture before it could even get started, but was yet another carnage-laced crash fest. With virtually no suspension travel, the Indy cars simply launched off the chicane curbs – and sometimes plowed into the tire barriers, keeping pit crews at the ready with new nose-pieces. On the dramatic side, the ongoing soap opera between Scott Dixon and Will Power added another chapter, courtesy of Power’s brain-fart which crashed-out Dixon’s car. It wasn’t good racing, but it was still a better story than Twilight.

Indycar may be comparable to vampires vs. werewolves, but for 2014 USCR is taking the shape of a hastily-cobbled together Frankenseries. As yet, teams and suppliers are still awaiting crucial specifications, schedules, pretty much the whole framework they should expect to be working with… and it’s not there yet. Memo to the offices in Daytona Beach: You’re late, and it looks bad.

Back to Baltimore: For all its faults, the city known for gritty TV shows, Super Bowl champs, and white marble steps, still has something to work with. Other circuits have gone through growing pains, and the harsh reality is that more of them are consigned to the scrapheap of history than on an active schedule.

We’ll know, soon.

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

Sunday, March 17, 2013

“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!”

Sebring, FL –

This year’s Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours brought with it two major dramatic themes. Both involve the closing of an age.

For nearly as long as the American Le Mans Series has run, one of its biggest attractions has been the super high-tech presence of Audi’s LMP team. Their drivers have always been among the world’s finest, often with Formula 1 pedigree (indeed, the years-old joke on the paddock is that F1 is the “feeder series” for Le Mans sports cars), nearly as diversified as the UN, or at least Angelina Jolie’s nursery.

Thus, with the FIA World Endurance Championship continuing to play to the more sterile but market-friendly circuits (its only US date for 2013 being COTA in Texas), and with the LMP1 class departing from the series after this year, the Audi team returned for a Swan Song run – a thank you and farewell to the fans and the series, and as always a tune-up for Le Mans 24. What’s remarkable about Audi’s run last Saturday was not that they won, but how they continue to make it look so easy. It isn’t. Just completing 12 Hours at Sebring is a conquest of its own; winning it, and winning so convincingly for so long, leaves Audi with an overall streak to rival the greatest ever.

Then, there’s the story of the Series itself.

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!” 

The words of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters may have been intended as a joke, but no less hyperbole has been spent in recent months on next year’s integration of the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am into one combined program.

“This NASCAR thing? It’s gonna’ suck!”  – (echoed comments from any number of ALMS fans in the crowd and via the internet, on next year’s unified series)

We’ve had all Winter to grouse about it; to complain and prognosticate on what it all means to the future of racing, but with both series’ 2013 openers now in the books, it’s time to more seriously consider: What’s the United SportsCar Racing series going to mean?

Everything – the new name, the loss of LMP1 class, the inclusion of Daytona Prototypes, the mixing of various GT classes – everything has been under scrutiny, and not just from the fans. Team owners Rob Dyson and Greg Pickett, both longtime LMP1 competitors as well as great friends, held a joint conference with the motorsports press during the week, and both seemed to have more questions about 2014 than answers. How exactly will the specifications shake out? Where will the tires come from? Will P2 be competitive with DP? Right now, less than 11 months until the United SportsCar Racing series goes live in Daytona for 2014, there’s still a ton of scaffolding in place, lots of “we’re working on it,” and not too much else to go on.

However, there are several things we can count on:

The relationship with ACO will be preserved. This was pretty obvious, as ACO has benefited greatly from ALMS over the years, and had very little liability in the deal. It’s a win for ACO no matter what, so they’re in.

IMSA sanctioning is being kept in place, another obvious move. The “big reveal” ceremony showed a somewhat revised IMSA logo, which wasn’t broken to begin with, but someone’s market research must’ve concluded it was the way to go.

Manufacturers and sponsors will no longer need to hedge on which series will provide the best return. One top-level sports car series means we no longer have a split in that slice of the pie. It also means TV networks can present a more cohesive package – even though Speed channel is going away later in 2013, other networks are bound to take notice. Velocity, are you listening?

For the ALMS-faithful, the biggest complaint seems to be about NASCAR running everything. While that’s certainly valid on some fronts, the Walmart of racing in the US does do some things incredibly well. Turning racing into money is the France family specialty; it’s what they DO, before anything else. Also, as evidenced by the extreme makeover at Daytona International Speedway, they don’t mind spending real money on the fans’ experience at the track. As the USCR schedule forms, a few circuits are sure to lose out, obviously.  Those that remain, however, will stand to benefit in ways previously unimagined.

In Steve McQueen’s movie Le Mans, his character Michael Delaney famously said:  “When you’re racing… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after, is just waiting.”

It’s time to stop waiting, and go racing.

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