Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ The ALMS and the Delta Wing

by Gordon Kirby
Lime Rock's verdant hills were as packed as I've seen them last Saturday as the American Le Mans Series returned to action post-Le Mans for the second half of its season. At his home track, Rob Dyson's Lola-Mazda team scored an excellent one-three, a just reward for the effort Dyson's team has put into developing the Lola-Mazda package.

In the furiously competitive GT category featuring factory-backed teams from Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Jaguar, Rahal-Letterman's BMW team made it three wins in a row with Joey Hand and Dirk Muller leading all the way. We also learned more at Lime Rock about Don Panoz's interest in building the production Delta Wings and the ALMS's plans to run a Delta Wing class.

One of the ALMS's strengths is it races at most of North America's best road courses--Lime Rock, Mosport, Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake, Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta plus Sebring and Long Beach. It's the leading annual attraction at these tracks for road racing fans who tend by nature to be strongly anti-spec car folk. Road race fans are drawn partially by the variety in cars, engines, sights and sounds in which the ALMS revels and it's interesting that the ALMS remains as strong as ever despite the its shortage of major factory teams or star drivers these days.

"I'm the first to admit and to say right up front that we need more prototypes involved, and we will," insists ALMS boss Scott Atherton. "But we've got the most spectacular GT grid we've ever had with plenty of manufacturers and really great racing and our ticket sales and our fan response continues to grow."

© Gary Gold
On raceday morning at Lime Rock, Atherton could not have been more pleased with the turnout.

"Lime Rock's advance sales were up notably and they had a larger gate on Friday than a year ago despite the weather," he remarked. "And I guarantee you today's crowd will be up over last year."

Atherton takes pride in the ALMS firm commitment to encouraging different cars, engines and technology.

"There are a lot of examples of other series trying to claw their way back from being spec car series," he commented. "Yet it wasn't that long ago that articles were being writtten that the ALMS's approach was soon going the way of the dinosaur. People said there was no way we could control costs and keep competition and cost in check without going to a spec-car environment.

"We were told by some people that simply had to happen. And I'm proud to say that we have stayed the course without flinching and ironically, many others are now trying to come back toward our direction."

Atherton is sanguine that the ALMS will contine to attract more manufacturers.

"Look at the manufacturers represented here--primarily now in the GT category--and it's encouraging to me at a time when manufacturers are starting to get healthier they appear to be looking more so than ever our way. Two other manufacturers are very advanced in their plans and preparations to engage. Representatives of both are here at Lime Rock taking an informal look.

"We've done our homework. Our board has tasked us with doing the job correctly and through our green initiatives and the opportunity to bring technologies that truly are relevant and develop them in racing. From the eighteen-nineties when racing began, that's what auto racing has always been about.

"So we're going to go from strength to strength," Atherton added. "Our engagement with the fans, with the manufacturers and with new technology is increasing, not declining. We need more prototypes and we will get that. That will be solved. But the GT product has never been stronger."

Last month the ACO--organizers of Le Mans--and the FIA announced the revival of the World Endurance Championship. The FIA series will include Le Mans but there will be a separate LMS series in Europe and at this stage it's not clear that Sebring nor the Petit Le Mans will be part of the new WEC. Atherton explained his view of the WEC.

© Gary Gold
"I describe it as literally the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup with an FIA World Championship label attached to it," he said. "The reason you can say that with confidence is because the ACO continues to be in charge of the rules and really nothing changes, at least from the back of the house standpoint, from what we have this year.

"What I think will change over time is anytime you bring the FIA in they're going to have an effect. I think in this case it can be a positive effect because sports car racing has not had a true world championship status for twenty or twenty-five years. And it's happening at a time when manufacturers seem to be looking to alternatives to Formula One. And I think the positioning of sports car racing and the level of relevance is ideal, especially as it relates to 'green' and true innovative technologies that can be created and generated in racing and applied to road cars."

Atherton also expostulated on his concerns about the negative impact the WEC could have on the ALMS.

"We've been cautious supporters of the WEC from day one and the only hesitation we have is we don't want the succes of the World Endurance Championship to come at the expense of the American Le Mans Series," he observed. "I think that's going to be a classic example of we have to split the baby."

He says the ALMS is working hard to help encourage a major manufacturer field a current LMP1 car with an American team.

"If I had a choice for sure I would prefer to have an Audi LMP1 R18 racing in the American Le Mans Series at every event, as we had historically," Atherton said. "If they as a manufacturer have made a decision that the world championship is where their factory program will be focused, we will continue to work closely with somebody like Audi North America to have what was in place a few years ago where you had the equivalent of a factory-supported program run by Champion Racing.

"They would run full-time, using equipment that's not quite state-of-the-art. But for everyone other than the most astute students of the sport it looks like an absolutely current, state-of-the-art prototype. And when the factory program comes to town twice a year they blend right in with them. That, to me, would be the best of both worlds. We don't have that right now, but that's something we continue to be very much focused on."

Atherton also discussed the ALMS's role in convincing the ACO to take on the Delta Wing as its first '56th Garage' entry in next year's Le Mans 24 hours.

"From a year ago when the decision was made that the Delta Wing concept was not going to be the selected future of IndyCar we worked diligently to make sure that car had an opportunity to come to fruition. Personally, I was surprised indyCar didn't select it because I had followed that process as a fan and as someone who's involved in the industry. The Delta Wing generated plenty of interest from the moment they took the cover off the car and personally I was surprised IndyCar didn't make that choice.

"But that said, I was contacted at that time--I won't say specifically by whom--but the inquiry was made asking if the Delta Wing concept potentially could have a role in the American Le Mans Series and if so, how could we go about doing it?

"I hadn't thought about in that light until that moment. So we pencilled out a strategy that would involve educating the ACO rulesmakers and the technical staff at the ACO, first to understand the car and secondly to gain their favor.

"The first meeting took place at Petit Le Mans last year at the end of September and first of October and I have to say to my pleasant surprise it was immediately embraced. From there the opportunity to have this car considered for the 56th garage became the focus and the goal.

© Gary Gold
"When we knew we had the traction with the ACO we knew from talking with Ben Bowlby that we needed to surround the project with a team and an organization capable of not just designing the car but completing the project and then competing with it, which triggered the opportunity to bring Highcroft into it."

Highcroft Racing's Duncan Dayton joined Atherton at Lime Rock to talk about the unfolding Delta Wing project.

"I want to emphasize how pleased Highcroft is to be involved in this exciting project," Dayton enthused. "We are all convinced that it's going to be a revolutionary car that will change the face of motor racing for the better in the future. So it's a great bonus for us to be part of it. We will work hand in hand with the ACO to demonstrate the fuel efficiency and overall economies that this car represents.

"The original design parameters are for half the weight, half the horsepower, half the aerodynamic drag, half the tire consumption and half the fuel consumption, yet still maintaining premier status performance. So it's a pretty tall order but Ben has done a great job.

"As you know, there's quite a controversy as to whether or not it will turn. I'm one of the many who believe it will turn but there are many disbelievers. So it will be interesting the first time the car goes out because a lot of people will be watching at turn one to see if the car turns!"

Dayton said the Delta Wing Le Mans project has created huge interest.

"Since we made the announcement at Le Mans there have been 127 million hits on the story," he said. "So that type of exposure for Highcroft and the ALMS is extraordinary. It's off the chart."

Dayton emphasized the difficulty in getting the first Delta Wing built, tested and ready to race in less than a year. He would like to race the car at Sebring but that depends on how well the test program goes.

"One year is an extremely short timetable to have the car running and performing and being reliable at Le Mans. Normally, a manufacturer takes eighteen months, if not two years, to design, develop, build and test a car to make it ready for competition. But we've had some success in the past implementing some new programs with Acura in a very short time frame so we feel we're very much up to the challenge. A lot of people are extremely excited about the opportunity and a lot of hard work is going on as we speak.

"It's important for us to put our best foot forward at Le Mans and to be able to do that adequately it would be very important for us to be able to run the car in racing conditions against competitors that we might see at Le Mans--other GT cars, other LMP1 and P2 cars and so on. It's important for the team, the car, the drivers, for all of us to engage in competition. So we're hopeful to be able to do that at Sebring.

"That said, the timeline is so short to get ready. The car is in finalized design as we speak and probably won't get delivered to us until the end of October or beginning of November. Then we'll get it ready to run and it probably won't hit the track until December. We've pencilled in 22 test days before Le Mans. That's an appropriate number, but obviously a lot of things can get in the way of doing that. But that's what were shooting for and it would be good to get a good run in competition before we have to take it to Le Mans."

© Gary Gold
Dayton believes the Delta Wing can make some valuable contributions to improved efficiency from the modern internal combustion engine.

"Certainly, the technology of hybrid, hydrogen and electric and all those types of vehicles are all very interesting," Dayton said. "But the technology is not yet at a state that can really be translated into road-going cars that we drive. 99.9 percent of all the propulsion in the world is the internal combustion engine fuelled by liquid fuel. So if we can find a way to half the consumption it will extend the useful lifespan of the internal combustion engine by a considerable amount.

"Those other technologies will become more and more important over time but they're not yet at the stage where they're going to make a significant impact on fuel consumption or energy consumption around the world. But lightweight and efficient design like we're proposing with the Delta Wing has a meaningful impact on that kind of consumption."

Scott Atherton said the ALMS is looking forward to the Delta Wing racing regularly in the ALMS following its Le Mans debut next year.

"We have discussed it and Scot Elkins and I have differing opinions," Atherton commented. "My original expectation was that this car with its scale, size and configuration would require an extensive list of waivers. But Scot doesn't agree with that assessment and from our perspective today the Delta Wing will be eligible. It's certainly hoped that it will compete not just in selected American Le Mans Series races but we'd love to have it for Sebring next year."

Dayton confirmed that Don Panoz is likely to build the production Delta Wings at the Panoz facility in Georgia.

"Don Panoz is very interested in the project and has been instrumental in getting us here," Dayton said. "If the car is successful down the road it's quite feasible that you would see a production run of these cars. Don and the Panoz Motorsports Group are potentially interested in doing that."

Atherton waxed on about the interest in the Delta Wing.

"I think the example was set by the amount of interest and curiosity that was generated in the prototype form when it was under consideration as the future Indy car," Atherton remarked. "The Delta Wing is an automatic magnet for young people. It's a magnet for everyone, whether you're a race fan or whether you're just curious about what is that incredibly odd-looking piece of equipment.

"And I think the performance of the car based on what Ben Bowlby has described will add that much more to it. How can something that appears in this form work so unbelievably well? Next year is the 80th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and there's no question in my mind that if in fact the Delta Wing is there running out of the 56th garage it will be the story of the race."

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page