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Pit Notes: A Merger of Equals?

Pit Notes: A Merger of Equals?

It came seemingly out of nowhere.

Over the Labour Day Weekend, without any prior build-up, rumours began to fly in Baltimore – which was playing host to IZOD IndyCar Series and American Le Mans Series street races – that a deal had been struck to unify the top level of sports car racing in North America and a confirming announcement was imminent.

At first there were only denials.

When asked about it just before the race, Scott Atherton, President and CEO of the ALMS, said no deal had been struck with their chief rival, Grand-Am's Rolex Sports Car Series (owned by NASCAR), to form a unified sports car series.

Despite Atherton's straight-faced denial and similar comments from Grand-Am, the done-deal reports persisted throughout the weekend, mentioning that a formal announcement had been scheduled for the following week at NASCAR's headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Sure enough, less than a week after the reports first surfaced, the official announcement was made during a joint press conference featuring key players on both sides.

As details began to dribble out – almost all of the assets owned by ALMS parent company Panoz Motor Sports Group will be merged with Grand-Am, including the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) sanctioning body, Road Atlanta and the long-term lease attached to Sebring International Raceway  – the ‘unification' of sports car racing began to resemble the deal that brought an end to the split in open-wheel when the former Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League were finally united in February 2008.

And, there are some striking similarities between the two.

Although both were couched by the principals as a merger of equals - a coming together designed to serve the best interests of the sport - both are really about one side eliminating its competition and taking control. In 2008, the IRL emerged as the victor in the costly 12-year civil war that plagued open-wheel racing and Grand-Am has bested its chief rival in sports cars.

Just as open-wheel racing was rebuilt in the victor's image – IRL cars, tracks, rules and regulations and a grid made up of mostly its teams and drivers have dominated the sport since the beginning of the '08 season – so too it will be for sports cars when the yet-to-be-named unified series begins competition in 2014. Grand-Am will own the elite level of sports car racing in North America and the ALMS will be consigned – much like Champ Car was in 2008 – to the history books.

This reality wasn't acknowledged by the participants during the Daytona Beach news conference, but the tone of the announcement and its staging – Jim France, founder of Grand-Am and uncle of NASCAR CEO Brian France, spoke first and he, along with Series President Ed Bennett, book-ended ALMS founder Don Panoz and Atherton on the dais – at Grand-Am headquarters spoke volumes about the new arrangement.

While the balance of power seems to have been settled – the new board of directors will be comprised of four Grand-AM / NASCAR executives, plus Panoz and Atherton – there are several big items on the to-do list before the 52nd Annual Rolex 24 at Daytona kicks off competition for the new series in January 2014.

Chief among them are the class structure the series will utilize, the tracks it will compete on and the future relationship with the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A new media deal will also have to be worked out as the existing contracts for both series' expire after next season.

At press time, no specifics on a new class structure had been revealed, but it would be surprising if Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype class didn't make the cut. The rules governing the Grand Touring (GT) sedan class could be shaped to accommodate teams that currently compete in the GT classes of both series.

One current Grand-Am team owner told PRN that he had been advised that a new class structure could be revealed by next January. He also indicated that Grand-Am management has asked team owners to provide feedback that could help shape the new series.

As for the tracks the series will race on, Canada could end up with two races, as both Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (formerly Mosport) have strong Grand-Am / NASCAR connections: Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is already on the Grand-Am calendar and Canadian Tire Motorsports Park co-owner Ron Fellows has strong NASCAR ties and is pursuing a top-tier stock car race. With Daytona and Sebring already locked in, tracks such as Road America, Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen are likely to remain on the schedule.

The relationship the new entity will have with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO), organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is uncertain. The current arrangement the ALMS has with the ACO, which enables its teams and drivers to compete at Le Mans, does not extend beyond 2013. France, Panoz and Atherton insisted during the news conference that the new series will extend the relationship ALMS built with the ACO and Le Mans, but admitted that a new agreement has not been signed.

In sum, much still remains to be settled before the 2014 season begins. The one thing that isn't in doubt however, is where the balance of power will reside in the new sports car world.

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