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The Way It Is/ Scott Atherton on the ALMS's 2009 challenges

by Gordon Kirby
Last Saturday's 57th Sebring 12 Hours witnessed a fierce, racelong battle between the Audi and Peugeot teams. Audi and Peugeot were making their only planned North American appearances this year as they used the rough old Florida airfield race as a full-dress rehearsal for June's Le Mans 24 Hours. Audi's brand new R15 turbo diesel triumphed in its race debut with Allan McNish driving a superb final stint, thoroughly outpacing Franck Montagny's Peugeot.

The new Audi is a much-improved development of the successful R10. It's lighter with a turbo V-10 rather than a V-12 engine, and also enjoys better front/rear weight balance and a longer wheelbase. The new Audi had been tested in Europe only in damp or cool weather but the R15 quickly showed its pace at Sebring as all the Audi drivers raved about how well-balanced the new car is and how much more aggressive they can be with the car compared to the R10.

Acura's new ARX-02a LMP1 car also made its debut at Sebring. Scott Dixon surprised many people by snatching pole aboard Gil de Ferran's ARX-02a, but neither of the two Acuras could run with the Audis or Peugeots in the race. The Acuras handle well but lack power and torque in comparison to the European P1 cars. Neither Acura finished the race at Sebring as both cars ran into reliability prolems. De Ferran's car broke a front suspension mounting and also had a fuel leak while the Highcroft/Patron Acura was stopped by a massive gearbox failure.

Aside from the superb debut of Audi's R15 and the obvious potential of the Acura, the big talking point of the weekend was how the ALMS will fare this year without Audi P1 or Porsche P2 cars. ALMS boss Scott Atherton sat down with a small group of reporters at Sebring to talk about the challenges the ALMS faces this year with car counts and without Audi.

"The race was truly what we expected with the caliber of the entrants we had," Atherton commented. "The race for the overall lead fulfilled every hope and expectation we had. The crowd, as I think everybody could tell, was down a little. I spoke to Tres Stephenson, who's the general manager here, and he said when all is said and done he expects the crowd to be right about a 2007 crowd. So we've backed up a year.

"Now, I remember in 2007 we were celebrating because it was a record crowd. Only because we had another record crowd in 2008 is that possibly seen as a disappointment. But in light of everything that surrounds us all right now we're very proud we've generated this level of attendance."

Atherton confirmed that no ticket discounts were offered at Sebring.

"The prices were the same this year as last year," Atherton said. "We didn't feel that it was possible to discount them enough to make any appreciable change. I don't believe any individual made a decision to come or not based on ticket prices."

Atherton insisted that whle the overall number of starters was a record low, the quality of the Sebring field was up.

"I can't think of a time when we've had more quality," Atherton declared. "Certainly there are lots of times when we've had more quantity. I think the measure of this year will be literally the quality of the cars, drivers and teams that are out there.

"I feel like we were truly fortunate in light of the circumstances to have both the Audis and the Peugeots here. That wasn't a guarantee up untl recently. There was always some speculation and even earlier in the week there were concerns with Peugeot's mechanical issues and questions about whether both cars would be able to race. So we feel fortunate that all those cars started."

Atherton freely admits it's going to be difficult to pull together a strong field for the next two ALMS races at street circuits in St. Petersburg and Long Beach.

"Clearly the next couple of races are going to be very challenging for us in terms of car count," he observed. "There's no positive spin at this time to try and put on that. I don't think Audi is planning any racing other than Le Mans for this year, at least officially. Everyone on that team from management to the drivers are very hopeful and optimistic that they will return for Petit Le Mans if not Petit and Laguna as part of what would be a commitment in total to 2010.

"We have some entries that will become viable for St. Pete and Long Beach and Salt Lake that actually aren't here today. We know of at least a handful--three, four, or five cars--that are certainly capable of racing in the series. There are ACO-homologated race cars that exist that could easily be activated to race and I know of at least two cars that will be on the grid at St. Pete that are not here today. There's an LMP example and there's at least one GT2 car. The prototype that is expected for St. Pete is the Corsa hybrid. The expectation from the owner is that is when the car will return to the series as a proper hybrid.

"The challenge is that in North American right now there are very few homologated LMP cars. There's a Porsche RS Spyder that's in the Dyson shop right now that urgently needs to be competing with us. One of the main focus of my efforts is to activate that car.

"Our expectations right now for the next three races would be high teens with the potential for low twenties," Atherton continued. "If everything that's available and all of these hoped-for expectations come into place, it could easily be low twenties. I think St. Pete will most likely be the most challenging event we have just because of the timing of it. The other cars that are planning to compete are simply not going to be available for that race.

"I think the other issue we're facing is that there's some reluctance on some teams to not place themselves in a steet racing environment simply because they can't afford the potential for the crash damage that goes with it. You can make a big mistake in the Utah desert and live to fight another day whereas that mistake at a street circuit could ruin the rest of your season."

Atherton believes as many as twenty-five cars, most of them GT2 entries, may start some races later this year.

"Our expectation at the top end would be mid-twenties. Most of that will be in GT2. The GT class may be the strongest it's ever been when you look at the strength of the Porsche teams, the Ferrari teams, the BMW team, the Corvette and Panoz teams. I believe there will be one marque that will be added to that list at a time when I don't know of any racing series that's adding manufacturers. I know very few racing series that are adding sponsors right now and when we're in a position to be doing both gives us great reason for optimism."

Atherton said the ALMS's television contracts do not specify a minimum number of starters.

"We as an organization have a self-imposed minimum," he commented. "These are extraorindary times we are all operating in and I think you're going to see extraordinary measures on our part to insure that we continue to put forth a quality show that's consistent with the investment that's been made by our event promoters, by our television partners and by all of our sponsors.

"We understand that the car count is an easy target. You can't make something up. It is what it is and we recognize that in the near term this will be our biggest challenge. But we will get through this and the future does have many reasons for great optimism.

"As we go through the season we're actually going to be adding to our car count. There will be teams that will start competing with us after Le Mans. We know that because they've made their intentions known to us. Le Mans is their focus until they get that race behind them. There is right now an expectation of a completely new team joining us after Le Mans.

"We're not in survival mode," Atherton added. "We're not teetering on the brink of survival or no survival. The car coints are going to be down. That's a given and it's something that I'm literally spending the majority of my time on. I'm talking on a daily basis to team owers, drivers and manufacturers. I think you'll see some of our teams start to run incremental cars. One-car teams will become two cars and some two-car teams will have three. There are examples like that that are in place. For me, it's remarkable and very pertinent to see the response that our paddock has had and the willingness to go the extra mile to assist.

"Everybody that I've spoken to this weekend, if there's one phrase I've heard over and over, it's, ‘I'm just glad to be here.’ When you look at the crowd that's assembled and you look at the quality of the racing we make no apologies for anything. I think we've assembled the best possible example we could be putting forth of this (type of) motorsport."

The current GT1 factory Corvettes will race for the last time at Long Beach next month before the new GT2 Corvette debuts later this year.

"When Corvette returns, which we understand will be at Mid-Ohio, they will be a GT2 competitor," Atherton said. "And they are as enthusiastic about that as we are about them coming into that class."

Atherton said he believes GT1 is dying a natural death.

"I wish it was a different scenario, but I think we're the canary in a coalmine on this one. I don't believe the GT1 category has a longterm future in any form of the sport. The LMS series in Europe has more GT1 content. There are obviously more cars over there but I don't see that continuing past this season. We are not abandoning GT1. It is a process of natural selection. If a proper GT1 car entered the American Le Mans Series we would accept it."

Series godfather Don Panoz last weekend showed some people an artist's rendering of a new front-engined Panoz LMP1 car he intends to build, but Atherton professed no knowledge of the plan.

"Don said he'd been misquoted," Atherton comments about rumors on the web about the car. "If I even hinted that such a program existed I'd be on a plane home right now!"

Atherton pointed out that both the ALMS series as a whole and Sebring specifically enjoy new sponsorships this year.

"When you look at what's in place with the Michelin Green X Challenge, and the announcements that were made this week. With Mobil One a title sponsor at Sebring for the next three years along with Fresh from Florida, the future of Sebring for the next three years is golden. Tres Stephenson is the luckiest guy in the business right now because he has his two primary sponsorship positions already booked for the next three years. That should send a very loud message that one of the largest corporations in the world has invested in this event and this series in the most difficult of circumstances. And we've got more good news that's coming that's going to materialize in the very near future."

Atherton said three executives from Ford were at Sebring to help plan a mooted Ford ALMS program as well as new representatives from the EPA and DOE.

"The stimulus package and the mandate that's coming out of Washngton, DC to ‘reinvent the auto industry’ in the President's words, is absolutely playing right into our hands because we are a working body of exactly that. The technologies and alternative fuels in our cars and all the elements that we represent potentially can play a role in reinventing the future of mobility.

"Now that's a big, bold statement to make and it doesn't happen like that. We've got the makings with the raw materials that are in place with what was started last year with the Green Challenge. I think opportunities will now be afforded to some of our teams like making applications for grant money that can help fund their activities which are consistent with the President's vision for how consumers are going to become educated on new technology and how the kids in college are going to be educated."

In closing Atherton said the combined ALMS/IMSA operation is profitable.

"Because of the many intercompany relations that we have--owning the sanctioning body, owning the series, owning three of the racetracks we race at--it's a question of how we account for a lot of overhead that's shared between the ALMS and IMSA. IMSA, of course, sanctions six or seven other series that have nothing to do with the ALMS. Collectively the company is profitable. It's self-sustaining, cash-positive and net profitable for at least the past two years."

One way the series saved money for the Sebring weekend was to ask its employees to drive rather than fly to Florida.

"We all drove to Sebring this year from Georgia," Atherton reported. "Nobody rented a car because we all brought our own. When it's a single example that's not that big a deal. But when you multiply that out times 200 or 300 people that we had on the ground at Sebring it suddenly is a big deal."

Frugality, it appears, is a key byword in the ALMS these days.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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