Merging Traffic Ahead
Like many other American sports car racing fans, my memory of the sport doesn’t go further back than the last 10 years; even parts of that get fuzzy. What I know of sports car racing, especially in North America, is that it’s a niche sport with many confusing elements to the casual fan. Let’s not kid ourselves; in order to survive and be entertaining, simplicity is key. Currently, top-tier sports car racing in North America offers the “casual” fan seven different classes of competition to follow on a regular basis. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover all seven for two different networks, and even I get them confused.
So now that a merger between the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron (ALMS) and Grand-American Sports Car Racing (GRAND-AM) is official, what does it mean? Well, to me, it means a few things:
1. Schedule. The absolute best schedule a team, driver, fan, reporter, official, you name it, can ask for. To start off the season with the Daytona 24 Hours and continue onto the 12 Hours of Sebring with the same equipment is something few have had the luxury of doing. A championship that includes the streets of Long Beach, the history of Watkins Glen and Road America, as well as the red clay of Road Atlanta and the infield of Daytona is in fact a fantasy, but is becoming a reality.
2. Simplicity. If it’s been said once, it’s been thought of a million times: There are too many classes to follow! For the casual viewer or the hardcore fan, P1, P2, DP, PC, GT, GT, GTC … it’s too much! There’s only so much people can process at time. That doesn’t mean they aren’t smart enough or interested enough to get it; it means that that there aren’t enough hours to follow along. Can you imagine if all of a sudden the NFL and MLB decided to split into different leagues with different classes of players and teams, then expected fans to find the time to understand and follow both? I can image that 15 years from now we would be having the same merger conversations. Fans will now have one place to go to get the technology and competition that they have come to love in ALMS and GRAND-AM races. This will make it easier on all of us.
3. Uncertainty. There, I said it. It’s not all kool-aid drinking optimism. There are a lot of unanswered questions in the mix. Things like class structure, complete schedule, coverage, partners and manufactures, etc., remain unknown. This causes nervousness for all of us. Like the mechanics and drivers, I too make a living of covering both championships. Having the two coming into one means that we will all have only one opportunity for employment and that is scary. However, it also means that if you are fortunate enough to secure a coveted spot, the future could look a lot better.
4. Certainty. It’s no secret that both series have been struggling for sponsors and therefore survival. Just look at car counts in the more costly categories. When it’s confusing to sell seven different classes to a “fan” on TV or in the paddock, it is doubly confusing to sell sponsorship to a “suit” in a boardroom. Will all of the involved teams remain racing? I doubt it. Is the purity of the sport retained in the merger? I believe it.
5. A tie to Le Mans. In addition to covering the action in GRAND-AM and ALMS, I have also had the good fortune of covering the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I can say first-hand that linking sports car racing in North America to that one event is crucial for both. It validates what we all know, love and believe about the sport. Manufacturers need the clout of winning just as much as fans need the entertainment of watching. This means that the new group needs to secure the link – but they know that and are working on it already. I believe this will happen.
6. The best of the best! ALMS has produced the best GT racing around the world for at least two years now. That is a known factor to ALMS, GRAND-AM and Le Mans fans. Scott Atherton (President and CEO, ALMS) alluded to this class remaining untouched. To me, this means UNTOUCHED. It means open to auto and tire manufactures alike. It means development and manufacturer competition. It means being on the edge of your seat watching it unfold and enjoying every second. I can also see a similar platform in the current DP category. It is close action with manufacturer involvement – what is there to change? Yes, there is one tire allowed and yes there is limited room for technological advances – but that doesn’t mean little room for innovation. That means that teams and drivers have to be at the top of their game at all times in order to be competitive. I don’t care who you are or who you think you are, that is exciting to watch.
7. #TheFuture. While the press conference announcing the merger was happening, this was trending. In our age of social media driving social status, this is a big deal. It means that it started a conversation. It means that fans, media, drivers, all of us, united to speak and share. It means we are interested in what is going on. It also means that our voices are being heard and our thoughts are being shared. As Leigh Diffey, my fellow commentator and the emcee for the announcement said, “Negativity is so destructive. Positive attitudes really are infective.” Don’t allow yourself to be a spark that stirs negative thoughts. If you have read this far, you are somewhat interested in what happens. Share that interest and follow along.
The next year will be a busy time filled with rule-making and announcements. Don’t forget that there are also still races to watch and championships on the line for both championships… this year and next. I ask, as someone relying on it, that you remain interested in the sport and follow along as this historic merger unfolds in front of you. Share everything that you love about the sport with your friends, co-workers, neighbors, kids and grandkids. But don’t be afraid to share with them what tomorrow offers as well.