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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/ Why the ALMS is America’s best hope

by Gordon Kirby
John Ward is one of America's most accomplished race car designers. Ward worked for All American Racers for many years designing Indy cars, IMSA GTP cars and even a successful Formula Ford. More recently, Ward has worked as a race engineer freelancing for some IRL teams, then serving from 2006-'09 as chief engineer for Adrian Fernandez's Acura LMP2 team. After Acura pulled out of the ALMS at the end of last year Ward joined the Falken Tire GT2 team to engineer the Porsche raced by Wolf Henzler and Bryan Sellers.

"The ALMS appealed to me because as an engineer you like to do engineering," Ward grinned. "Most of the other series that are out there are very restrictive in what you're actually allowed to do to the car. They're basically specified cars and over the years the specification list has grown longer and longer to the point that even rear view mirrors are specified so you're left with a very short list of what you can actually do to the car to make a difference in how fast it goes.

"But the ALMS series is more open," Ward continued. "Obviously, they have rules and there are some restrictions. But it's amazingly open and it's amazing how creative you can be and what you can do within the scope of their rules. And that's very appealing to me. I like that. I don't like the idea that I have to run something a certain way because somebody said so, especially when you're having trouble and you think you have something that will actually fix the car and make it go faster.

"Obviously, there are restrictions. There have to be some restrictions on what you can do, but for the most part I think they're sensible restrictions. There's still some scope for doing things to the car. I like the ALMS because it's a little more open and friendly than other racing categories and it's fun to do."

© Gary Gold
Ward loves the ALMS's variety with a number of competing marques and manufacturers.

"My team is racing a Porsche and there's obviously a rivalry with the Ferraris, BMWs, Corvettes and anyone else who joins in," he remarks. "That's what I remembered racing was always about. You're on a side and you have a favorite which is your own car. The ALMS is super interesting to me from that standpoint with both the GT cars and the prototype cars."

Falken Tires North America is based in Fontana, California and the tire company's Porsche ALMS team is operated by Rod Everett out of his shop in Lake Elsinore. Ward is impressed by the team and its talented pair of drivers.

"Wolf is a factory Porsche driver and he's extremely good but Bryan really gives nothing up to Wolf," Ward observes. "We all acknowledge that in our book Wolf is one of the masters of GT Porsches but Bryan is right there with him. So we've got two great drivers."

After Ward was invited by Everett to visit Lake Elsinore to talk about joining the Falken Tire team he was quick to take a job with them as an independent contractor.

"I got a phone call and went over and talked to Rod and I liked what I heard and decided to do it," Ward says. "There were several things that were appealing. It was still the ALMS and I didn't see much opportunity in the prototype cars at that point but the GTs looked to be flourishing as much as anything is these days. It's a good challenge too and I always like a challenge. To be with a team that's developing a tire as well as a car seemed interesting and I decided it was something I wanted to do.

"Every manufacturer keeps their tire technology closely-held. It's not a Michelin or a Dunlop or a Yokohama. It's a Falken tire. Obviously it's a radial tire but within that definition there's a lot you can do. There's a lot that goes into a tire design and the material, compounding and construction. It's a very complex job to engineer a tire for a race car.

"If you're the only tire supplier it's not a big deal. You make a tire and by definition it's the best. But in the ALMS you have an established tire manufacturer in Michelin so they are your target. Michelin has years and years of experience so Falken has a tall order to build a tire that will compete with them. I think they will but you can't underestimate the task. It's a big task and that's one of the appeals of the ALMS because you have four tire manufacturers and you have all the chassis manufacturers going at it too, which is just great."

The wide range of competing tire companies and auto manufacturers also provides the ALMS with marketing money and platforms.

"If you can have various car and tire manufacturers and different types of fuel suppliers you open yourself to the ability to have money coming in from those corporations to support the sport and that's a key element to having a successful series," Ward observes. "It's the opposite to almost any other series you want to name in the United States because it's so open to all these different technologies, different companies and products."

© Gary Gold
Ward is impressed with the job the ALMS does in maintaining a reasonably level playing field for its wide variety of competitors.

"It's amazing how competitive it all comes out," Ward comments. "Most sanctioning bodies today have a fear about opening up the rules. They say spec racing is close or competitive racing and I suppose it is because they manage to restrict it so much that there's very little improvement that you can make to the car.

"So it's amazing how competitive both the prototype and GT classes are in the ALMS. It's good, close racing and entertaining to watch. I'm busy during the race but I'm also a spectator and it's really fascinating racing across the board. Obviously with all the different tire manufacturers and different chassis they have to somehow try to manage that to keep everything competitive. That's the ALMS's job and I think they do a good job.

"I would say a measure of that is up and down the pitlane nobody is really too happy with the situation which means the ALMS has got everybody in the right place from their perspective. We're all having to fight real hard to get to the top which is good. Nobody is dominating."

Ward thinks the ALMS is also doing a good job of keeping costs in check.

"Costs seem to be as much under control as they can be," he says. "As always, cost is a critical element, but somehow through it all the ALMS has come up with a way to manage this thing properly so that it stays competitive. I think they've learned lessons from the past. We all saw things happen in the old IMSA where one team dominated and that essentially ended the series. It escalated out of control in all aspects but the ALMS seems to be better managed. I think they do a good job of it.

"It's a tough job to manage that and, like I say, the management of the ALMS probably gets a brow-beating daily from somebody who's not happy with the situation. But when you look at it, I have to say it comes out okay. It's competitive and people can compete on a reasonable budget and actually win. There are no runaways or domination. In GT there's not a dominant car right now. It's just amazing how good it is and hopefully they will be able to continue to grow it so it just gets better."

Ward points to last month's great battle at Elkhart Lake's ALMS race between four different car/engine combinations--Drayson Racing's Lola-Judd, Chris Dyson's Lola-Mazda, David Brabham's Highcroft HPD ARX-01b and Klaus Graf's Cytosport Porsche RS Spyder. These four packages were able to race closely and pass each other in the closing laps because of different performance characteristics in acceleration, braking, cornering and straightline speed. It was a stark contrast to spec car racing.

"I think race fans enjoy it," Ward says. "You see more passing and the ebb and flow of the race changes. I think the knowledgeable spectators, and there are quite a few of them, they know about the differences in the cars, that this one has a better top speed than that one and this other car corners better and this one uses more or less fuel than that one. It makes for a fascinating race and if you're not really a close follower of racing it still looks good. You may not understand why, but it's still going to be interesting to watch. I think it works out so that it's very cool and entertaining.

"A unique feature of the ALMS and sports car racing is you've typically got different classes of cars competing and when you throw them all together in one big pile you've got high-powered prototypes all the way down to a GTC car. So there's a huge range of speeds which seem to be accommodated reasonably well."

Of course, the wide range in performance places special demands on all the drivers.

© Albert Wong
"It obviously adds to the interest for the drivers. They've got to be watching so they don't hit somebody or get hit from behind. When Adrian (Fernandez) first came into sports car racing from the IRL in '06 one of the hardest things for him to learn was how to pass the slower cars. Adrian is a great race car driver but he'd never been in that situation. He picked it up fairly quickly and if you're a good race car driver you figure out how to pass the slower cars. It's not so easy for anybody, either the slow car or the quick car."

Ward believes today's great spec car plague underestimates the intelligence of most race fans. For one hundred years from its birth at the turn of the twentieth century through the arrival of the twenty-first century racing was about innovation and diversity. But then the bureaucrats who've taken over the sport and live in fear of technology turned their backs on the essence of the sport and went down the dreaded spec car route.

"I think that ALMS fans are intelligent race fans who are capable of understanding these things and I think that's a good thing," Ward says. "It's a complex sport and it always has been. It's never been spec car racing until the last decade or two where everything has drifted towards spec cars. But prior to that it was always about different cars and different approaches. The sport had diversity and it grew. It brought different styles of cars and driving--you name it. There were tire battles and fuel battles and manufacturer battles.

"The sport thrived and the fan base was growing and you wonder if we haven't insulted the fans by saying that everything now has to be a spec car. It seems like everyone has tried to beat NASCAR at their own game, but in fact we may be seeing NASCAR beat itself at its own game. It's still the big animal in the room, no doubt about it, but NASCAR is struggling to maintain what they have. I think NASCAR's product has lost a lot of its appeal.

"When you're a fan and you see a Porsche, Ferrari, Corvette or BMW running out there the cars look like and are related to production cars, which you can't say about anything else at the moment other than the Grand-Am's GT category. NASCAR stock cars are not related to the road-going product anymore. Like so many other series NASCAR has made their series a spec car formula.

"If you look at the ALMS," Ward adds, "a Ferrari is a Ferrari and a Corvette is a Corvette and so on. In the GT category they're very, very close to what you see on the road. But if you look at a NASCAR stock car they're not related to whatever they sell. As they've gone down the spec car route they've lost that identification. The fans are smart enough to realize they're not looking at a Ford or a Chevy. They're looking at a spec car where everybody's got the same thing.

"Does it produce close racing? Well, yes it does and maybe it is the fairest test of driving. But we're supposed to be about trying to increase our fan base and people don't seem to want to see spec car racing."

Ward is befuddled by IndyCar's fascination with a formula that clearly has little or no fan appeal.

"I did some IRL racing and the mentality there seems to be, 'Look at how wonderful this racing is.' But the obvious question is, where are the fans? It seems like the only people who think it's great racing are the officials and the people inside the series because nobody watches.

"In the end, how incredibly close can a finish be? To me, it's artificial. Think back to the days when we really did have wide-open racing which some of us were lucky enough to be involved in back in the seventies and eighties. When you did have a close finish in those days it was rivetting because it wasn't always that way and when you had a close finish like Mears versus Johncock at Indianapolis in 1982 it really got everybody's attention.

"Of course, you had diversity in those days. Everybody was interested to see what new car would come along. That's what brought people to the races and the bonus was when you had a close race because you didn't expect it to happen every race. Mears versus Johncock was one of those magical events that people still remember."

© Porsche Cars North America, Inc.
Indy car racing was always about extremely powerful cars that were spectacular to watch on their own and produced superb racing with the cars rocketing past each other, battling furiously back and forth.

"People say ovals are simple but I don't agree with that because you spend so much time in the corner," Ward observes. "In the old days if you didn't corner well you just had to be a little bit off and you were quite slow and if you went off on your handling a little bit from dead center it would tend to get worse. Sometimes it got so bad you couldn't drive it.

"Ovals magnify your problems so if you have a problem with your handling you're in a corner for so long that your speed really drops off. In the old days when we had much less-restricted cars you had quick guys coming through traffic, which was always so interesting to watch. It presented plenty of passing opportunities as one guy could get through traffic so much better than the other guy. So it was interesting to watch, but that's pretty much gone these days."

Indeed, today's restrictor plate-style IndyCar racing results in bunches of cars jammed together barely capable of inching up beside each other and more often than not incapable of passing as everyone keeps to the bottom of the track, desperately protecting the inside line. Inevitably, spec cars drone around in packs with all the cars emitting the same noise lacking any variety either aurally or visually. It's fearfully exciting for the drivers but not very attractive to most longtime fans, witness the poor crowds at most IndyCar oval races.

"All that's true," Ward notes. "But that's not to say it's easy. It's not easy, but it's not exciting to watch. They've just dumbed it down too much and added more and more wing so anybody can do it.

"What the fan doesn't see because it's hidden from view is the fact that some people are faster than others droning around the inside of the track because they're able to be more neutral with the car because of the technology hidden inside the car. That's because of things like less friction in the wheel bearings and transmission. Those are good things in themselves, but they're not exciting are they? If everybody has these low friction bearings, so what?"

It has little or nothing to do with improving the breed or making the sport relevant to today's fast-developing new automotive technologies.

"There are some wealthy entrepreneurs who don't spend their money on racing because there's no interest in new technology," Ward comments. "But if you said you can develop a hybrid car or some other new technology in racing then those kinds of people might be interested. These are the kind of people who want to send a privately-funded rocket into space or chase something like the X Prize. They'll spend a lot of money to do that but they don't want to go racing in the IRL because it's not interesting technically.

"In contrast, the ALMS is open to hybrid technology and different fuels and so forth and I hope that continues because it's relevant to what's going on today. It's a way to attract the car manufacturers and the fuel companies."

Hybrids and other forms of new technology would also attract a wider audience, including some who have no interest in contemporary racing and may well be opposed to such a highly consumptive, fossil fuel-burning sport. Porsche's hybrid 911 GT3 R has already raced successfully in Europe and will make its American debut at the ALMS's Petit Le Mans season-closer in two weeks.

"It would be great if Porsche would bring that car to compete permanently in the ALMS," Ward says. "Wolf Henzler has driven it and he says it's quite a quick car, so they'll have to find a way to control it. But it would be great to see it competing here on a regular basis.

"I think Don Panoz, Scott Atherton and the ALMS management are to be commended for seizing the opportunity. There's a vacuum in the sport and the ALMS is the only series that is welcoming this type of thing with open arms. Sure, it's difficult to manage but at least they're willing to take on the task.

"Back when it was IMSA when I was in it with Dan (Gurney)'s team in the early nineties most series were relatively open. To me, in those days IMSA was similar to CART in what you could do. There weren't that many restrictions. What IMSA had in those days was the funding from the factories, which was huge. But of course, what comes one day goes the next."

Despite IndyCar's summary rejection of the Delta Wing, Formula One is preparing to embrace the concepts of the Delta Wing when it goes to a new 2013 formula with a 1.6 liter four-cylinder turbo engine and a substantially revised aerodynamic package with much smaller external wings and more downforce generated from the underwing to encourage more passing.

"I guess Formula One is going to go to more ground effect and less wing, which is the obvious thing to do," Ward comments. "It's been obvious for quite a while. I don't know why they haven't done it because that seems to be relevant. You don't have front wings or even much of a rear wing on street cars and aren't likely to. But you certainly can have ground effects on a road car. They're also going to that little four cylinder turbo engine, which I think it's good. Again, it's relevant to what's going on in the automobile industry."

F1 is also likely to adopt a fuel flow limit for 2013. Cosworth has developed such a device and other engine manufacturers are working on their own fuel flow limiters. Ward would love to see the sport's sanctioning bodies take an even bigger step and try to design a formula based entirely on energy consumption.

"The dream would be to run a racing series based on energy," he grins. "That's easier said than done but it's a dream for many of us engineers to have an energy-based series. It wouldn't necessarily be close racing but it would probably be interesting because it would produce more efficient engines. Again, it would be relevant to what's going on in the auto industry."

In closing, Ward says he believes the ALMS is America's only hope for the future.

"The ALMS appears to be standing out in the field on their own," he remarks. "It's our best hope for racing in America. They seem to be forward-thinking. I didn't think that some years ago, but I do today. I hope they succeed because I want to see the sport succeed. I don't want to see it fail, which appears to be happening everyplace else. Let's hope we haven't seen the best of racing in the past and that the future will bring a real rebirth of the sport."

We all hope the ALMS can attract more prototypes in the coming years. It's the primary thing the series lacks at the moment. Meanwhile, this year's Petit Le Mans will feature the Audi and Peugeot teams plus the Porsche 911 hybrid, the new Panoz Abruzzi and a furious GT2 battle between Porsche, BMW, Ferrari and Corvette. More than fifty starters are expected for America's biggest and most important international motor race of the year. Here's hoping the weather cooperates and a great race takes shape.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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