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The Way It Is/ More grist for the 'Green Challenge' mill

by Gordon Kirby
My gentle joking earlier this week about the American Le Mans Series' 'Green Challenge' prompted a call from ALMS president and CEO Scott Atherton. Atherton appreciated both the humor and the dialogue but he wanted to emphasize how serious the ALMS is about developing and expanding its unique position in American motor sport.

"I just wanted to stress the bigger picture," Atherton said. "We are cutting a trail through uncharted territory with our alignment with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. There isn't any racing series anywhere in the world that has joined forced with governmental agencies that are charged with their responsibilities. We've actually been sought-out to help further their initiatives.

"So while the insiders can chuckle that this is a modern day, computer-driven, software-based Thermal Index of Performance, the fact is we are just scratching the surface of what lies beneath this initiative."

Atherton pointed out that the 'Green Challenge' is not about, 'creating an exciting competition'. "Who has the lowest 'green' score is something the scientists and environmentalists will get excited about," Atherton commented. "The ultimate deciding factor about the success or failure of this initiative will be, what do the manufacturers bring to the party? Will there be enough prestige and will it be significant enough to do something positive?

"Will it cause the manufacturers to want to bring technology that is maybe not ready for the consumer just yet, but here's a way that they can either educate the consumer or rapidily develop this system, or part, or approach, in an extreme environment that can't be replicated."

Atherton says the 'Green Challenge' already has generated some serious interest from more than one manufacturer.

"I can say with absolutely sincerity that we have been approached by two manufacturers, neither one of which are currently racing with us, because their interest was piqued by this opportunity. Both of them have vastly different agendas but one in particular said to us that the reason they want to be here is because the technology they're considering is intended to be applied to their production cars, but the first time and place anybody would hear about it, or see it, would be in a racing environment. And for us, and the EPA and DoE, this is the ultimate validation of what all this means."

It was encouraging to hear this because it's evidence of a return to racing's roots and the concept of 'improving the breed'. As I've written repeatedly, it's exactly what the sport needs to save us from the malaise of spec cars and the persistent dumbing-down of technology in racing.

In fact, Atherton says the mainstream media no longer think of motor sport as an arena for technical development. In an age when NASCAR is king, racing is seen merely as an entertainment device.

"In the past week I spent a day and a half in New York City talking to non-motorsports media," Atherton related. "We sat down with Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes, etc. And these guys kinda got it. But then I explained to them that there was a time when racing was all about 'improving the breed'. I told them that things like rack and pinion steering, McPherson struts and disc brakes were all revolutions that occured as a result of racing. I told them that for many years racing was about 'improving the breed' but that in recent times racing has evolved to a point where it's all about entertainment.

"The race car has been reduced to an appliance of parity," Atherton added. "And we stand alone in not just allowing but in encouraging manufacturers to bring new technology and innovation to the sport. We're putting the auto back in auto racing."

The ALMS boss is right in those declarations and he's equally realistic about the difficulties in introducing 'green' technology and successfully managing equivalency formulae to maintain a reasonably level playing field and keep the competing manufacturers in the fold as happy longterm players.

"Admittedly, it's a slippery slope," Atherton said. "This makes it the most complex and complicated arena to play in, but it's the only one that we see as having real relevance.

"Maybe we are going to get bruised occasionally," he added. "But I'd rather take the hit and be a lap up on the field--which I believe we are right now--than sit on the sidelines and say somebody needs to do something about this."

Atherton emphasized the importance of having the federal government's stamp of approval as a feature of the ALMS's 'Green Challenge'.

"The EPA-DoE connection should not be discounted," he said. "The trophy to be presented at the first event at Petit Le Mans is not our trophy. It's going to be presented by top-level EPA and DoE government officials that are going to acknowledge who did the best job first time around and it's going to go forward from there on an ongoing basis."

After an eight-week break in the ALMS schedule to properly accomodate the teams who competed in last month's Le Mans 24 hours, the series resumes next weekend with back-to-back races at Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio. The Connecticut road course has been substantially refurbished for this year's ALMS race on July 12th.

"They've stepped up to the plate," Atherton commented. "The weatherman has thrown them curve after curve so it's not complete and won't look particularly pretty. The final grooming and green grass is still to come but the fundamentals of the racetrack and the safety systems will all be in place. We're looking forward to it."

Under Atherton's direction the ALMS has taken a clear lead in the American motor sport industry in coming to grips with green issues. Thanks to some forward thinking the ALMS has attracted an influx of manufacturers, fans and overall interest. NASCAR aside, it's a bright spot on the American motor sport landscape.

On the 'green' front, the ALMS is light years ahead of NASCAR which lags miserably, an apparent non-starter in motor sport's green revolution. It will be interesting to see five years from now if any other American sanctioning body has responded to the ALMS's 'Green Challenge'. And ten years out, some substantial green changes surely will have begun to take over the entire sport.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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