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SPEED Report Says American Le Mans and GRAND-AM Merger Imminent

According to SPEED’s sportscar racing beat reporter John Dagys, talk around the garages at the ALMS round in Baltimore suggest that a merger between America’s two major sportscar racing series is in the works. Such a move would be huge for sportscar racing in North America and something that would certainly weigh on Audi racing efforts.

Launched in the late 1990s, the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) took the specific strategy of adopting Le Mans rules and classes and applying it to a series of races at great American tracks like Sebring, Road Atlanta, Laguna Seca and more. In an era when major manufacturers had built some very significant racecars with few more places to race them outside of Le Mans, the formula proved incredibly successful. Audi raced its own R8 and R10 LMPs here throughout the years of their campaigns though the R15 and subsequent R18 eras have seen Audi abbreviate its presence and race solely at rounds that have been part of the ILMC and now the WEC world series.

Audi’s departure, combined with the departure of factory efforts from Porsche and Acura have left the ALMS on hard times. So-called ‘Challenge’ classes helped fill the grids at races with more affordable cars but these don’t quite drive the same level of excitement in the grand stands.

Over the years GRAND-AM has taken a different route. Throwing world standards out the window, this series run by NASCAR has gone its own road. The series’ spec-style prototypes have come to be known irreverently as “prototurtles” by some fans, hardly pretty nor as fast as the LMPs running at Le Mans. Similar to the ALMS Challenge Class, the affordable GRAND-AM prototypes helped fill grids but failed to fill seats in the stands.

GRAND-AM’s GT field has grown in recent years. Last year saw the arrival of several new marques including Audi and the R8. Even here GRAND-AM refused to go with a standard set of FIA rules, forcing Audi to significantly re-engineer the car… changes that made it less fast and completely detracted from the car’s aerodynamics. So-called “performance-leveling” has also not helped the car’s racing dominance. In fact, the R8 GRAND-AM has not performed very well throughout the season despite a comprehensive effort from APR and a second APR car driven by two Audi factory drivers at the Watkins Glen round. In the meantime the second R8 Audi sold to Team Oryx has found itself in limbo while the third at Limitless Racing has been doing more club track days than actual GRAND-AM series racing.

If the merger reported by SPEED is more than just a rumor, this could be significant indeed. This would mean more teams competing at more great races on more tracks. It would mean more motivation for manufacturers like Audi to consider a serious investment in American sports car racing.

No doubt this will all have to be negotiated, and things like that are not always so easy. We’re certain this will mean no lack of opinions by organizers or fans. Even amongst our staff there’s no shortage of ideas. Here are a few suggestions we’d have for those envisioning a series beyond a merger.

1. Go forward using the GRAND-AM name. It flows a little better than ALMS or American Le Mans and giving NASCAR the nod on the name might make them more open to going with a more world standard approach on classes.

2. Adopt FIA classes with a few exceptions as the ALMS has done in the past. Work with the ACO/FIA going forward to keep one set of rules so that things remain simple for manufacturers. We envision LMP1, LMP2, GA-P (next-generation GRAND-AM prototype made for this series to replace LMPC), GT (today’s GT pro), GT3 (replaces today’s GT-am).

3. Make a feeder series to run on same weekend to replace Continental Tires or World Challenge Series. Adopt Nurburgring class rules so that more teams could step up and learn GT3 and the more serious Le Mons teams could graduate into more affordable lesser classes like those run at Nurburgring.The top GT3 classes would be invited to compete in the headline GRAND-AM race in the following season. Even better, teams with the resources could ship their cars over and compete at the 24 Hours of Nurburgring just as teams like Krohn and Flying Lizard go to Le Mans now.

Given the large geographic territory of the US versus the single track used by VLN (at the Nurburgring only), this could be set up in regions for the lesser classes with other regional races in more of a College Football style of league organization.

4. Track and race selection could and should be amazing in a merger. Likely it wouldn’t make sense to run both the Daytona 24 Hours and the 12 Hours of Sebring both in the very beginning of the season. Perhaps one of these could shift to the end of the season… even late November or early December given the warm Florida climate. This might also work in adding more time for another American round in the WEC.

As a long time ALMS fan, the idea of world class cars competing in places like Daytona, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis and returning to Infineon is very exciting. If they’re smart, they’ll also find a way to incorporate the two F1 tracks being developed in Texas and New Jersey.

Yes, we’re sure we’re armchairing quite a bit here. These are just a few ideas we’ve had. As this merger begins to play out or until it is completely disproven, we’d encourage our readers to share their own opinions on how one single merged sportscar series might be enacted in America. Also, do you think Audi could or should return with its prototypes if such a thing were to happen?

Read the SPEED report by John Dagys HERE.

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