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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/ Highcroft's second straight ALMS title

by Gordon Kirby
The ALMS's Petit Le Mans season-closer was all about the factory Audi and Peugeot teams with the French team prevailing to score a one-two sweep with Pedro Lamy/Franck Montagny/Stephane Sarrazin. But in the shadow of the big European guns Duncan Dayton's Highcroft team came through to wrap-up its second ALMS championship in a row. David Brabham/Simon Pagenaud/Marino Franchitti drove a perfect race to finish fourth aboard Highcroft's HPD ARX-01c well clear of championship rival Greg Pickett's Cytosports Porsche RS Spyder which spent most of the race on seven cylinders. It's worth noting that the Highcroft car completed the race without a single mark on its bodywork and even more remarkably ran the entire season without incurring any bodywork damage.

"We've got the best drivers and we believe we've got the best car and the best team," Duncan Dayton declared. "I'm not saying that we're the cream of the field but we certainly have a well-run team and great drivers. I would have been disappointed if we hadn't won the championship.

"It was great to see the Audis and Peugeots here," Dayton added. "Their presence may have overshadowed the championship battle but they're the big dogs. They bring the fans and emphasize that this is the pinnacle of the sport in technology and engineering. It was fascinating to see those guys duking it out and weaving their way through the other cars. It made for a really exciting race."

Early this year in its eternal quest to equalize the competition the ALMS granted Pickett's Porsche RS Spyder a 25 kilogram weight advantage over Highcroft's HPD ARX-01c

"We don't agree with that," Dayton said. "But it made for some exciting racing and the championship came down to the wire between us and that's pretty cool. Penske's Porsches and our car and other Acuras were built to the same configuration two years ago so we've been fighting with one hand tied behind our back. But the team has performed really well.

"We didn't think we had a chance to win at Long Beach, Laguna Seca or Miller in Utah but through excellent engineering, great strategy and brilliant driving we were able to win those races and we've been able to fight for the championship throughout the year. The team has functioned at a very high level. I couldn't be more pleased with them and what they've done this year."

Dayton is an unabashed fan of the ALMS series.

"I have to say that the racing has been spectacular in the ALMS in every year that we've been involved," he declared. "Look at the last lap passes and battles we saw at Long Beach and Elkhart Lake and at Laguna Seca where a six-hour race wasn't decided until the last twenty minutes. To have that incredible competition among a bunch of different car and engine combinations is fantastic.

"When I go to the racetrack I go and find the coolest cars and I think that resonates with the fans. You certainly want a big car count and plenty of participation but it only takes two cars to make a race. But we've seen some great multi-car battles this year all the way up and down the grid in all four categories.

"The ALMS has been very competitive this year in LMP and GT and all the way down the line. If you look at the variety of winners in the prototype class it's been the most competitive year in the ALMS's history with multiple different chassis, motor manufacturers and teams winning which makes for spectacular entertainment for the fans. So from that standpoint it's been an unqualified success."

Rob Dyson's Lola-Mazda was allowed a bigger air restrictor this year so the Lola-Mazda is some ten mph quicker in a straightline than the Highcroft car. Also, the Lola P1 cars run by John Field and Lord Paul Drayson's team are unrestricted so they are much quicker by as much as thirty mph in a straightline. Dayton takes a philosophical approach to these differences.

"That's what made Elkhart Lake in August such a fascinating race," he observed. "It was unfortunate with all the yellows early in the race because each of Cytosport, us and Dyson had to throttle back and save fuel. We all made only one stop to Drayson's two stops so that made it a fascinating race. It was a question of whether Drayson's car was going to be able to stop in that long pitlane, take on fuel, go back out and hunt us down and they were able to. Congratulations to the Drayon guys for winning their first race. I think it's great that an open rule book allows interesting racing.

"But I would hope that the teams or manufacturers who build a better mousetrap are rewarded for their ingenuity and creativity and engineering excellence. The better organized and run teams with the better drivers ultimately should do well. But you also want to encourage privateers and encourage them to take on the manufacturers and be successful.

"We haven't necessarily always agreed with the performance-balancing that's taken place but I think by and large the ALMS has done a very good job. It's inherently difficult to balance cars that were designed to specific formulas--900 kilos versus 825 kilos of whatever the number is, and with different-sized wheels, tires, wings, brakes and all the way down the line. To try to balance that is something you never get perfectly correct but I think the ALMS has done a good job of attempting to do that and it's made for some really exciting racing. I think it's great from that standpoint.

"The other thing is that the LMPC and GTC entries have grown and it was outstanding to have all four championships still up in the air through the last race. It was great to see forty-five entries at Petit Le Mans. It made it very crowded out there, but it also made an exciting race."

Dayton believes deeply in the ALMS's commitment to encouraging new technology.

"I think the ALMS is the only relevant form of motor sports in America today," Duncan said. "Clearly the presence of the manufacturers and their interest in the series demonstrates that it's the only venue where they can showcase and develop their technology and bring it to the marketplace very quickly.

"Look at the interest in Porsche's 911 hybrid. Porsche have made a relatively modest investment but they've had a huge response. It's been on the cover of almost every automotive magazine in the world and the hits on Porsche's website have gone over the top. And the ALMS is the only series in America where Porsche could attempt to showcase this type of technology.

"I think you will continue to see the manufacturers invest their R&D dollars heavily in the ALMS because it is applicable and relevant to what they are doing on a day-to-day basis. A lot of other manufacturers have hybrids in the pipeline and the ACO is going to allow them in the coming years at Le Mans. I think encouraging hybrid technology is going to bring a lot of excitement to Le Mans and the ALMS series and will energize a lot of other manufacturers to get back into racing.

"I'm very pleased and optimistic that the ACO and the ALMS are embracing open competition. I have to say that spec racing holds no appeal to me and I don't believe it holds any appeal to the majority of the fans out there. Personally, I'd love to go back to the old Can-Am of 'run what you brung'. To me that was the most exciting racing I've ever seen."

Highcroft was among a handful of top teams who negotiated with Audi to run a factory-backed pair of Audi's latest LMP1 cars in next year's ALMS, but the Porsche Group's board decided a few weeks ago that the program would not happen as hoped in 2011. Audi's racing boss Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich commented on the decision at Road Atlanta last weekend

"The only thing I can say is that the business case could not be made so there was no agreement from the Audi board," Dr. Ulrich said. "It was an opportunity and it may come again. We will see what happens. Next year is another chance."

Dayton said he believes the new Intercontinental Cup sports car series may not be the best thing for the ALMS.

"It's great for the sport when Audi and Peugeot and the big manufacturers come to Sebring or the Petit Le Mans," Duncan observed. "But the Intercontinental Cup will allow the manufacturers to cherry pick and not support the series and I think ultimately that's a detriment to the series. I think that's problematic and I think ultimately it's what allowed Audi to not return to the ALMS."

Dayton said he has been talking to a handful of manufacturers about putting together Highcroft's 2011 program.

"We were honored and thrilled to be involved in the process with Audi," Duncan remarked. "It was a compliment to be mentioned in the same breath as Penske, Reinhold Joest and Wayne Taylor Racing and we hope to have an opportunity to work with them in the future. We always knew that it might not be something that would happen so we decided very early on that we would pursue multiple options."

Highcroft's plans for 2011 remain unresolved.

"I'm not at liberty to say anything right now," Dayton commented. "We've had an illustrious partnership with Honda and HPD. We wouldn't be where we are without them and we think they wouldn't be where they are in their development program without us. Our alliance with Nick Wirth and HPD has been very successful and we'd love to keep that partnership together. It's very appealing to us but we've got to wait to see because it's got to fit strategically with what HPD wants to do.

"But we've also been in discussion with several other manufacturers that would be new to the series and would bring great presence, engineering and excitement to the series. Those discussions are continuing and we're pleased that we've been able to talk with multiple manufacturers about representing their brand.

"This is where we want to be in the future," Dayton added. "We like to entertain the idea of potentially going to IndyCar one day and doing well there, but the timing really isn't right until the new chassis comes on line. But the most important thing is our relationship with our sponsors and delivering for them so we'll take any move to IndyCar as it comes. Right now we're committed to the ALMS. As I've said, I think this is the most relevant series in America today and this is where we want to be."

Patron has sponsored Highcroft's car the past three years but Petit Le Mans brought an end to the partnership. Patron's Ed Brown and Scott Sharp set up their own team to run a Patron Ferrari 430 GT2 car this year. Brown and Sharp's team fielded a pair of Patron Ferraris in the Petit Le Mans with Brown driving with Guy Cosmo/Joao Barbosa and Sharp driving with Johannes van Overbeek/Dominik Farnbacher.

"We signed a three-year deal with Patron and we knew very early on that it was a single term contract and would not be extended," Dayton said. "We knew they wanted to set up their own team and that's up and running. That was Ed's goal and Scott and he have done a great job of putting their program together."

Dayton and his COO Bryan MacDonald brought on General Electric as an associate sponsor this year and GE will be Highcroft's primary sponsor next year. The sponsorship package includes both GE Global Research and GE Capital. Other Highcroft sponsors include Forbes magazine and Acero, a precision engineering and machining company.

"When we looked into the future a couple of years back we knew we would need a new title sponsor and GE totally fits that bill," Dayton remarked. "When we looked around and realized that the electrification and hybridization of the automobile was coming we thought we couldn't find a better technical partner in the world than GE. Nobody knows more about electricity than GE and they represent a fantastic sponsor and technical partner for us.

"Research is a huge part of GE's internal structure. They put huge resources and effort into their research lab and I'm sure you'll see a lot more coming out of that relationship in the future. GE is an extraordinary company and we are really excited about building and expanding our relationship with them."

Dayton hopes to re-sign all three of his drivers to new contracts for next year and beyond. Brabham is at the end of a three-year contract with Highcroft while Pagenaud has an existing relationship with Peugeot, winning this year's Spa 1000Ks with the French team. Pagenaud won the American Atlantic championship back in 2006 and is interested in going IndyCar racing but only if he could find a seat with a top team.

"David is an absolute rock solid pillar of our organization from the get-go," Dayton commented. "He's a tremendous driver and so is Simon. They've done fantastic jobs for us. They're extremely fast, very disciplined and we would love to sign new contracts with them as we would with Marino who's been a fantastic addition to the team."

Dario Franchitti's younger brother Marino joined Highcroft this year as a third driver for Sebring, Laguna Seca and Petit Le Mans. Marino has raced in the ALMS series since 2007 and drove for Rob Dyson's team last year.

"We've watched Marino for many years and known him for a long time," Dayton observed. "I've always thought that given the right environment he could really shine and he's certainly done that this year. He's come to every race and worked closely with the team and with David and Simon. He's been involved in all the engineering meetings, listening and contributing. I think that's been a great benefit to him and to us, and he's proved to be really quick. He's right there with David and Simon. All three of them are superb drivers, really quick and smart."

Dayton hopes to run two cars next year but it all depends on which manufacturer Highcroft partners with for 2011.

"Again, we believe we have the three best drivers in the paddock," Dayton declared. "We feel very blessed that they all want to continue with us. Obviously, we get a lot of calls from a lot of drivers who would love to join us. Depending on our sponsorship and who are technical partners are we might be able to expand to a two-car team next year. If that was the case we would look forward to bringing on a couple more drivers and making our team even stronger. We'll have to see what the budgets allow."

Dayton wanted to have his 2011 program wrapped-up prior to the Petit Le Mans.

"Our ideal time frame was a few weeks ago," Duncan said. "But it depends on what program we pick and their timetable. There are multiple new manufacturers wanting to get into the series and looking at it seriously, but it may be for 2012 rather than 2011. But our objective from the get-go has been to try to become the Reinhold Joest of America and to become the go-to guys to run a factory program. We've been successful with the Acura and HPD program and were engaged in discussions with Audi to run their factory program and we feel we are ready to tackle the best possible program with the best possible partners."

Dayton achieved a long-standing goal when Highcroft competed for the first time at Le Mans this year. He hopes Highcroft will race at Le Mans again next year.

"Le Mans has always been a definite on the wish list even as far back as 2007 when we started the Acura program," Duncan said. "Our goals will depend on the strategic objectives of our partners. If they want to go to Le Mans and it fits their objectives we'll go and represent them to the best of our abilities. So we certainly hope we will compete at Le Mans again but we'll have to find out what our program is. If we go with a new manufacturer it may take a greater time to get the package up and running and reliable, but again, we want to be there and build on what we learned this year."

Duncan Dayton has built a first class team led by vastly experienced guys like Rob Hill, Dave Luckett and Will Phillips. Highcroft sets the standard for the ALMS in preparation, presentation, engineering and racecraft, and in the absence of behemoths like Audi or Penske the ALMS is very lucky to have Dayton and his team as their standard-bearer. My personal congratulations to Duncan and his team on a job well done.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2010 ~ All Rights Reserved

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