Presented by Racemaker Press

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

The Way It Is/ Getting the formula right

by Gordon Kirby
Last week's announcement of NASCAR Holdings' purchase of the ALMS series and plans for the ALMS and Grand-Am to come together to run a unified North American sports car championship in 2014 have been greeted by cheers almost all 'round. Some folks fret that the 'Evil Empire' has expanded its domination of American racing and will produce an unappealing, dumbed-down form of sports car racing with little international flavor but I'm hoping for something much more exciting from the yet to be named organization.

Jim France and Don Panoz will run the combined series with Scott Atherton and Ed Bennett handling the daily chores. France is NASCAR and ISC's senior man, of course, and a longtime supporter of sports car racing and founder of the Grand-Am. At last week's announcement he offered some convincing words about the direction the new series will take.

"We want to see a full field of exciting sports cars with a lot of international flare with all the international and domestic manufacturers that you would want to be part of a successful sports car series," France said. "We really need to work with the stakeholders--the teams and manufacturers--to get some input about the relevance for them and there needs to be a lot of respect for the investment that's been made by the teams so we don't obsolete significant hardware in the process.

"It's a collective effort, one that we really look forward to, and one of the best things about this relationship I think is the human capital that we both have to be able to manage that process together. It'll be a very compelling, powerful championship and I believe will truly have some global recognition."

© Gary Gold
The day after the announcement I talked to Dan Panoz and Scott Atherton to explore the worries of some participants and fans that the ALMS's spirit of open competition will be lost amid the merger. Panoz and Atherton quietly refuted that belief and have nothing but good things to say about the new arrangement.

"I think it will be good," Panoz said. "I've spent a lot of time with Jim France. I hadn't really seen him or spent any time with him since 1998 but we got along okay and as we started talking we realized we had a lot of the same ideas in building a good, strong American sports car series. At the end of the day, I think we like each other.

"I think they realized that we have a lot of good points in what we do and we realized they have a lot of good points in what they do," Panoz added. "If we can put them together it will be good for the sport. We don't have the promoters or TV people playing us off each other and we simplify everything for the OEMs. We saw that in our road show. We talked to the top executives at every major car company and everyone of them their eyes got big and they nodded their heads and said, 'Yes, this is really good.'."

At the announcement Panoz emphasized that France is in full agreement with him for the new group to maintain and further develop the ALMS's relationship with Le Mans and the ACO followed up with a strong statement of support for the new organization. Panoz said he wants the new championship to allow teams to drop one race result from their point tally in order to encourage the American teams to race at Le Mans.

The goal is to distill the new series into a schedule of a dozen races, all potentially big events on most of America's best road courses and a few street circuits. Starting with Daytona, Sebring and Long Beach, one can imagine the series visiting Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, Mosport, Elkhart Lake, Laguna Seca, Montreal, Mid-Ohio, Indianapolis and Road Atlanta. Other options include the Barber, Virginia and New Jersey road courses, Homestead/Miami's road circuit and the Detroit and Baltimore street circuits. So it will be interesting to see how the schedule takes shape. Atherton said he believes this is exactly the right moment to bring the two series together.

"If someone had handed me a blank sheet of paper and asked me to write down all the details if you had your choice of how this would all come together, it would be very close to what has happened," Atherton remarked.

"When we first attempted this five years ago--and that was the only other time we looked into this despite the annual rumors--I think we've come a long way since those days and have a much more equal partnership approach than might have been possible back then. The experience that Don and I have had in getting to know not only Jim, but also Ed Bennett and some of their other key executives has been a very positive experience."

Atherton said he's received universally positive responses to the new partnership.

© Paul Webb
"The volume and veracity of the positive feedback we've had has been tremendous," he said. "Our in-boxes are blowing up and the Tweets, Twitters, text messages and Facebook posts have been off the hook."

A substantial collection of manufacturers including Chevrolet, Ford, Porsche, BMW, Ferrari, Audi and Mazda and tire companies like Michelin, Dunlop, Falken, Yokohama and Continental currently are involved in the ALMS and Grand-Am. This is a very healthy situation from which a unified, well-run series should be able to profit.

As everyone knows and acknowledges the big challenge will be writing effective equivalency formulae to achieve performance parity between a range of different car/engine/aero packages and it will be interesting to see how the prototype rules evolve in the longterm. Meanwhile, Atherton affirmed that the ALMS's commitment to green technology and technology development in general will continue.

"Our commitment to green racing and all that embodies is firmly intact and I believe it will continue to be a priority in the unified series going forward," Atherton commented. "The EPA and DoE couldn't be more pleased with the progress that we're making and there's no doubt the Delta Wing is the absolute embodiment of every wish they had when we started this process.

"We had the leadership of the EPA and DoE with us at our race in Baltimore when the news broke of this agreement. We immediately got back to them to first of all hear the news from us and then agree that we would talk again in the very near future to confirm our way forward."

Atherton will chair a panel discussion at this week's International Environmentally Friendly Vehicle Conference in Baltimore to discuss racing's role in helping develop green technology. This is the first time the IEFV conference has been held in the United States and representatives from the EU's climate change department will be there as well as people from the EPA and DoE and many auto manufacturers. Atherton's panel will include the renowned Ulrich Baretzky from Audi's racing department, Scott Clark from Michelin, John Doonan with Mazda, Mark Kent with GM and Delta Wing designer Ben Bowlby.

© Highcroft Racing
"I asked the people in Daytona Beach if they still wanted me to be there at this very high profile event," Atherton said. "And their reaction was, 'Absolutely. That's exactly what we want you to be doing.'."

Atherton said the new organization will continue to follow the ALMS's lead in introducing alternative fuels to the sport. He added that Pat Patrick's move to bring natural gas to next year's Prototype Challenge category continues at full speed.

"The practical application of the natural gas alternative in a motorsports environment is another component in encouraging alternative fuels in American sports car racing," he commented. "The opportunity to add another alternative fuel is what we are looking for and also what our partners at the EPA and DoE would like to see.

"And the fact that the Grand-Am has announced that the clean diesel Mazda will be competing in their series next year is a good example of the Grand-Am's open-mindedness. This is exactly the kind of thing the manufacturers want to showcase their motorsports programs."

I also discussed the Delta Wing with Panoz who confirmed he's moving ahead with plans to build a small run of cars to race in next year's ALMS prototype category.

"Part of the transaction and the contract with Jim and his people is that the Delta Wing will be a part of the prototype class in 2014 and will be part of the ALMS in 2013," Panoz said. "That is part of the agreement.

"We're working through the logistics of building cars. We are designing installations for different engines and we're trying to conclude one or two engine deals so customers have options. We've been working on a new tub for the production car and we're moving along on all fronts. We'd love to have a car that could test and participate next year."

Panoz wouldn't confirm that the Delta Wing will race in next month's Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta but he said testing and planning for that eventuality have been going ahead.

"The car tested in the UK last week and will be here in Georgia on the 18th or 19th of September," Panoz admitted. "We are making a few components to adapt the car from what was needed at Le Mans to the set-up we need at Road Atlanta. We need to get those pieces on the car and do some testing."

An announcement is expected by the end of this week that the Delta Wing will compete in the Petit Le Mans and designer Ben Bowlby is excited about racing his baby once again and preparing the Delta Wing for a full season of racing next year. Nor could he be more pleased with the ALMS/Grand-Am merger.

"I'm glad to hear the news," Bowlby said. "I think it's going to be very good for the sport. One healthy, strong sports car series with a lot of manufacturers and tire companies, different types of cars and different fuels. It's all good. It's the best thing that's happened to American racing in many years and I'm delighted that the Delta Wing will be part of it."

It will be fascinating to watch the Grand-Am/ALMS merger come together. There are plenty of challenges to getting the formula right but there's also tremendous potential to restore road racing and sports car racing's historical role as a major force in American automobile racing.

 • It was with deep sadness that we learned of Scott Roembke's death on Saturday. Scott was a good man and a huge racing enthusiast who was the Chief Operating Officer of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He struggled with serious medical problems in recent years and took a turn for the worse a few weeks ago before passing away over the weekend.

Scott grew up in suburban Indianapolis and became a student of the Indy 500 and Indy car racing in general. He began his racing career in 1986 when he joined Patrick Racing as logistics manager working closely with team manager Jim McGee. Scott later became Patrick's assistant team manager and joined Bobby Rahal's new team Rahal-Hogan Racing in 1991 as general manager. He was promoted to the COO's job at what is now RLL Racing in 2000.

"Scott was truly passionate about motor racing and particularly Indy car racing and was a wealth of knowledge about the sport," Rahal said in a statement. "He was a great leader, a confidant of mine and a dear friend. Scott was selfless when it came time for the betterment of the Sport and the Sport is now poorer for his passing. Our prayers and sympathies are with his wife Darcy, son Chris and the entire Roembke family. Scott will always be a part of our team, now and in the future."

The racing world grieves for Roembke and his family. We will always remember him as the kind of man every good-hearted human being aspires to be.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2012 ~ All Rights Reserved