The US sports car racing split is history... but the parties involved must still endure a long, difficult road remains ahead. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
I have to say that while I don't know nearly as much about the inner workings of sports car racing as I do about other series like IndyCar and NASCAR, I have always been turned on by sleek prototypes, supercars, and even the "lowly" touring series.
And, it turns out, I have a lot of friends in both the Grand Am and American Le Mans Series. Some of them emigrated there from other disciplines; others have spent their entire careers in sports cars.
There is, too, something sublime about being around an endurance race. In a world where success is largely governed by TV ratings and what concerts filled with has-been or B-list rockers you can attract to your race, a day-long festival at a racetrack like Sebring or Miller Motorsports Park or Road Atlanta is a pleasant no-frills indulgence of your inner petrolhead.
All of this is why I was very interested in the big announcement that in 2014 the two biggest sports car racing sanctions - Grand Am and ALMS - would merge into a single entity. Interested, and somewhat hesitant to join the throngs of celebrants cheering the news.
Why was I so loathe to blow the party horns and fire off the bottle rockets? On paper, this deal is the greatest thing to happen to sports car racing in decades. Ever since the IMSA Camel GT series went up in smoke and first ALMS, then Grand Am leaped into the breach to fill the void, sports car racing has been a house divided - not nearly as acrimonious as the IRL/CART split of the same era, but certainly not partners in crime or, indeed, in philosophy.
To simplify things enormously, ALMS was the wine and cheese, while Grand Am - owned by NASCAR's France family - was the greasy hamburger. The exotic and innovative carbon fiber ALMS cars were the stuff of Le Mans, that storied and legendary French Valhalla of endurance racing. Grand Am's tube-framed, stock-block wonders, meanwhile, were more in the vein of Daytona's rough-and-tumble biker culture - destined more for close-quarters, hard-impact battles than the more surgical Le Mans-style racing.
ALMS, by rights, should have had the upper hand all along. The sexy cars, the links to Le Mans, the Petit Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring... it made Grand Am look like a cheap knockoff - which, in point of fact, it kind of was. But Grand Am had the France money, the political power to wrangle a TV contract, and the giant hammer of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona - an endurance race which, if it did not have the haute couture of Le Mans, made up for that with an influx of star power of teams and drivers from all areas of motorsport, not to mention its primo timing as the first major racing event of the motorsports season worldwide.
Unlike the IRL and its "Indy hammer" which it used to force unification in the middle of the last decade, ALMS could not leverage its assets and its connection to Le Mans to gain an advantage. Also, the high-dollar formula did not prosper in a global recession, and without a solid TV contract the hemorrhaging was impossible to stanch. Not that Grand Am was a world beater itself given its attendance and ratings, but the France clout and coffers ultimately proved to be too much for Don Panoz and his cabal to withstand.
So we have a merger. But don't call it a unification, because it isn't one.
You could call the IRL/CART combination a "unification" for more than just PR purposes. It wasn't just a bringing together of teams from both sides, it was also the culmination of a unification of philosophies. The CART/Champ Car side had eventually needed to acknowledge that open-wheel racing in the US without the Indianapolis 500 was a doomed prospect, as was the idea of a series made up entirely of "rock star" street festivals. The IRL, on the other side, saw its foundational platform eroded by reality - a low-tech, all-oval, all-domestic series was enticing no one outside of the faithful, and by the time unification happened the series resembled CART far more than it resembled its own origins.
ALMS and Grand Am will not have as easy a road to merging their two operations as IndyCar had - and considering the shoddy state that IndyCar still finds itself in at present, that is saying quite a bit. If it were not for Le Mans, it seems likely that Grand Am - the entity that is essentially buying out ALMS, regardless of all this "merger" talk - would prevail and consign the exotic paradigm to the trash bin. The Frances have made their fortune on the low-tech, high-debris niches of racing, and since they are the ones holding all of the cards at this point, their predominance in philosophy seems inevitable.
But can the tube-framed, stock-block Daytona Prototypes be accepted into the Le Mans paddock as anything other than an amusing curiosity? Can a US sports car series survive if they do not have representatives challenging for top honors at the world's greatest endurance race? From a layman's perspective, it is hard to see how the unified sports car series could be relevant on an international stage otherwise.
Already some of the ALMS-side manufacturers are making subtle policy statements about that element of the series' future. Honda Performance Development, for instance, made no less than three allusions to "innovation," "technology," and "forward-thinking" in their press release about the merger - clearly, the manufacturer has little interest in changing their philosophy from using sports cars as an exercise in engineering innovation to another glorified badging opportunity (similar to the one they engaged in with the IRL for so many years).
In other words, there will be a lot of work, sacrifice, and most likely endured pain to be expected in this merger if it is to come off without looking like a bunch of hopelessly-tangled Christmas lights.
It is to their credit that so many of those involved are still so enthusiastic about the future. But I must caution them to not only be realistic but to watch their step in the upcoming months. Mergers and unifications are symbols of hope in theory, but as IndyCar has shown all too painfully of late, even a united front sometimes is only good enough to keep one's head above water.
No, it may be years before the spoils of this merger can be enjoyed. Until then, there is just another long, hard road to endure.