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

The Way It Is/ Looking at the real challenge for the ALMS & the successful debut of NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow

by Gordon Kirby
First of all, I was pleased to hear so much positive reaction to my call last week for the sport to follow the lead established by Audi and the American Le Mans Series in pursuing green fuel technology. Based on what I heard last week many people in the sport agree and of course, the IRL is making a start of its own in this area this year by switching to ethanol. It will be particularly interesting to see which sanctioning bodies are best able to exploit the need over the next few years for racing and its competing automobile manufacturers to develop more efficient fuels and engines.

Obviously, the ALMS has established a clear lead in this department and the organization was crowing about it last week, issuing a press release that made fun of NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow and declared that the real cars of tomorrow were racing in the ALMS. The press release also reiterated the comments made during Speed TV's Sebring coverage by Audi North America's executive vice president Johan de Nysschen who emphasized the value of using racing to develop green fuel technology that will soon be available in Audi's passenger cars. De Nysschen also trumpeted the value of the relevant technology under development in the ALMS compared to Formula One's preoccupation with electronics and aerodynamics.

"Formula One may have high technology," de Nysschen remarked. "But participants and manufacturers in Formula One will one day have to be held accountable for the lack of relevance in automotive applications for every day driving."

ALMS president and CEO Scott Atherton is excited about the prospects for his series. "Embracing new technology and innovation hasn't always been popular," Atherton told me in an e-mail last week. "Until recently, being the only series where nothing was 'spec' has been a challenge. However, the ALMS and its ACO/Le Mans technical specs represents an excellent and perhaps the only opportunity for manufacturers to develop solutions to the global issues we are facing."

Atherton was also pleased that the Motorsport Industry Association decided to hold its conference on energy efficient motorsport at Sebring during the 12-hour week. "The content of the conference was outstanding," Atherton said. "It featured detailed presentations from several manufacturers as to what they are doing with their racing programs to assist in the development of alternative fuel technology, energy efficency and related topics."

Atherton reported that a couple of EPA employees attended the conference on behalf of the federal government to see what the sport is doing to develop and promote more efficient, cleaner sources of energy. "I have never been more convinced that our positioning is correct," Atherton commented. "The overall relevance of the technology and the opportunity to exploit a practical application of it with a direct link from race track to showroom floor is what separates the ALMS from all other alternatives and is what is going to continue propelling us at an ever increasing rate forward to even greater success."

I admire Atherton's optimism, but the challenge for the ALMS is to rise to a new level of professionalism in its eternal game of 'equalizing performance' by messing more effectively with the rules on weight, fuel capacity, air intake volume, etc., so that the series can build and retain longterm working relationships with its manufacturers and teams. A serious inability to make these things happen resulted in the original IMSA's failure, but more than a few people I know shake their heads and remark that the latest version of IMSA (the sanctioning body for the ALMS) is equally inept. "IMSA makes CART or IRL look totally professional," my friends say sorrowfully.

Let's not forget that for all the buzz around this year's ALMS and the successful arrival of Acura, there are only four LMP1 prototypes and nine LMP2 cars. Aside from a few Corvette and Aston-Martin GT1 cars, most of the ALMS field is made up of GT2 Porsche 911s plus a few Ferraris and the odd Panoz.

Meanwhile, the rival Grand-Am series shares pretty well the same field of GT2 Porsches but enjoys a much larger number of customer car Grand-Am prototypes. More restricted and less powerful than their ALMS brethren, the Grand-Am cars are cheaper, more pedestrian, much more plentiful, and are run by a bunch of independents rather than factory-backed teams. The ALMS and Grand-Am represent two very different philosophies and realities.

But the fact remains that if sports car racing is to seriously take advantage of its latest manufacturer-driven boomlet the ALMS and Grand-Am need to come together. Unfortunately, this seems about as likely to happen as reunification between IRL and Champ Car. Yet the lesson of IRL/Champ Car is that dueling series destroy each other. Of course, one of the key driving forces behind the ALMS's boomlet is that the failure of American open-wheel racing has compelled the manufacturers to search for alternative venues to compete in. It's great to see Audi, Porsche and Acura embracing the ALMS, but there's little doubt that unless sports car racing can project a united front to the American public and media, all the current buzz and potential will be wasted.

If sports car racing wants to get seriously back on the map in America, the season must begin with the same teams, drivers, cars and manufacturers competing in the season-opening Daytona 24 hours and again at Sebring six weeks later. This was the situation forty years ago in the grand old days of the World Sports Car Championship and with interesting cars and engines designed for ever-greener fuels a combined series would enable sports car racing to become a modern, professional sport.

So the key question is this: Can Scott Atherton and Don Panoz work with Jim France and Roger Edmondson's very different philosophy to bring this vision to life, or is American sports car racing doomed to continue, like open-wheel racing, as a bifurcated, fourth-rate sport with no traction or position in the American media?

NASCAR's much-criticized and ridiculed Car of Tomorrow made its debut on the half-mile Bristol bullring this past weekend. By most accounts and to the surprise of many it was a successful start even 'though race winner Kyle Busch complained in victory lane about the feel of his Hendrick Chevrolet. "I'm still not a very big fan of these things," Busch grumbled. "I don't like to drive them. They suck."

All the teams have plenty to learn about the new cars, but no essential problems were revealed at Bristol. The tether fo the rear wing and deck worked well in Dale Jarrett's early accident and worries about the splitter getting knocked off or otherwise littering the track proved groundless although the splitter may have been responsible for slicing the sidewalls of a few tires when cars were running close together side-by-side.

Bristol and Martinsville next weekend are too slow to properly evaluate the CoT's controversial aero package which won't be tested in race conditions until Phoenix in four weeks. Drivers and teams already complain that the car is 'finicky' and 'aero sensitive', and allow me to repeat some points made in this space last month.

Many observers, from four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears to a handful of engineers I've known for years, believe NASCAR has made a critical mistake and made the CoT a much more aero-dependent vehicle than the current car. The splitter and rear wing means the CoT is more aero dependent than the current car. I'm told the spec rear wing is a poor choice of shape. More importantly, it's located too close to the rear deck so that there won't be any useful airflow between the lower wing surface and the bodywork, making the wing act more like a spoiler. Some engineers have also told me stories of having their aerodynamic warnings and recommendations ignored by NASCAR.

I'm told the current Cup car makes 800 pounds of downforce and that the CoT makes half that. The CoT will run the same aero package at all tracks so the new car will make much less downforce at all the tracks, short tracks and road courses included. This could result in a scenario much like CART saw five or six years ago when it experimented with running reduced downforce, speedway-like setups on the one-mile ovals.

To CART's dismay, they discovered that nobody could pass. Once the leader caught the last-placed car, the field drove around in a long, unchanging train. It was literally as exciting as watching paint dry and some aerodynamicists think a similar plague will further infect NASCAR's many medium-speed tracks with the CoT.

NASCAR believes it is adapting the theory of the truck to the CoT. NASCAR believes the CoT's front splitter and tail wing as well as its enlarged greenhouse and overall shape will act like the truck and make for exciting side-by-side racing. But my aero engineering friends tell me the truck makes much more downforce than the CoT because it's got a big nose with a lot more surface area as well as a long tail and substantial spoiler. The trucks are similar to IRL cars in that they make plenty of downforce and can run side-by-side at many tracks. I'm told not to expect that with the CoT. We'll get our first serious reading on how effective or problematic the CoT's aero package is at Phoenix on April 21.

The arrival of the CoT probably represents the biggest change in NASCAR's long and successful history and it will be interesting to watch the transition to the new car unfold. Critics note that rule changes in racing historically cost the teams lots of money and usually result in the richer teams pulling away from the little guys, and many people say the same things will happen with the CoT. At Bristol, the big, multi-car teams led the way with three each of Hendrick and RCR Chevies and two Roush Fords making it into the top ten and Tony Stewart's Joe Gibbs Chevy dominating the race until hitting fuel pump trouble.

One test of the theories behind the CoT will come over time as we discover if it's true that the big teams will reduce their inventory of cars because the spec-car nature of the new car means it proves less critical, or even possible, to build cars customized to individual tracks. This is one area where NASCAR theorizes that the little guys will be more able to compete with the big-buck operations. As ever, time will tell.

Dan Wheldon and Chip Ganassi's team dominated the IRL season-opener at Homestead on Saturday night. Wheldon scored his third straight win at Homestead, winning easily despite losing time during a mid-race pitstop. Teammate Scott Dixon was the only man to keep the flying Wheldon in sight, completing a Ganassi one-two sweep as he crossed the line just over six seconds behind winner Wheldon who has repeatedly shown himself to be the bravest and most aggressive driver in the IRL. If Homestead is any kind of precursor to the season, Wheldon is going to be hard to beat this year.

Defending IRL champion Sam Hornish finished more than half a lap behind in third place with Vitor Meira again doing a great job for Panther Racing to beat Tony Kanaan into fourth place. Everyone else, led by Ed Carpenter and Dario Franchitti, was lapped. Marco Andretti pulled his evil-handling car out of the race after twenty-five laps while Danica Patrick crashed entering the pitlane. In her return to the IRL, Sarah Fisher qualified eighth and finished five laps down in eleventh place. Round two follows next weekend on the St. Petersburg street circuit.

By the way, despite only twenty cars running at Homestead, Brian Barnhardt reports that he's confident there will be a full field of thirty-three cars for May's Indy 500. Barnhardt believes there will be more cars at Indy than in recent years and expects as many as thirty-six or thirty-seven runners for the month of May.

My deepest sympathies go out this week to Eric Medlen's family, his father John and everyone at John Force Racing. Medlen, 33, died last Friday after crashing heavily the previous Monday while testing one of Force's Funny Cars at Florida's Gainesville Raceway. He suffered a severe head injury and underwent surgery the following day to relieve pressure on his brain and hemorrhaging, but his doctors said Medlen never showed any improvement before passing away at the end of the week.

Medlen worked his way up with John Force's team from from crewman to driver and he rewarded the team by winning a race in his rookie year, 2004, and taking rookie-of-the-year honors in the NHRA's Funny Car division. Medlen added three more wins in 2005 and won twice last year, and his humble manner and sharp driving made him one of drag racing's most popular drivers.

I had the pleasure to meet Eric last year while working on a drag racing technology story for Road & Track. He was a wonderful guy, hard-working and entirely without pretension, and I was delighted and amazed at how much time and effort he put into educating me about drag racing. His father John was equally open, amiable and informative. John is one of drag racing greatest master mechanics and was his son's crew chief during Eric's short and ultimately tragic run in the cockpit of one of Force's Funny Cars.

Eric was an extremely analytical man with a keen, dry sense of humor who was happy to ply his trade in the shadow of John Force's huge personality. He quickly established himself as one of drag racing's sharpest, most competitive and most popular drivers, and will be eulogized and remembered warmly for years to come by many, many people.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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