A Couple Of Race Series Called Le Mans
*If one were to gauge media coverage of motorsport beyond Formula One and NASCAR, it would appear to be nonexistent. There are internet forums, fringe coverage and dozens of filler spots on Speed TV over here and on Motors TV over there. However, it's the powers that be (follow the money) that dictate where the interest should reside. NASCAR is still the 800-pound gorilla as far as major hype, and the FIA unfortunately has used the world governing body to keep F1 atop the scandal sheets.

Top-level sports prototype and GT racing has survived largely on its own by solid core fan enthusiasm and a clever strategy of incorporating the "Le Mans" brand as a standard means of identification. Much the same as "Indy Cars" running circuits far from Indianapolis, racecars considered Le Mans types compete at major circuits and tracks throughout the world. Using a modified set of rules that the ACO issues for the classic 24 Hours of Le Mans, two separate series have been able to not only survive, but have grown in stature and in manufacturer interest. Both F1 and NASCAR are really all about drivers championships; you can't pedal an F1 car down the street, and good old boys drive cars with shapes based on fleet sales for rental cars. Le Mans is and will always be first and foremost about brand identity. The drivers are important, but it's their mounts that will allow them to put their names in the history books.

The American Le Mans Series has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. The roots of the ALMS are those of the original IMSA series that was the playground for production turbo cars such as the Porsche 935 and big-block Greenwood Corvettes, and then the prototype era of the Porsche 962, Nissan, Toyota and Jaguar. The ALMS has been a proving ground for a number of innovations and manufacturer developments, none more important that the Audi R10 diesel sports prototype. The 2008 season was one of the most competitive yet, with close racing in all of the four classes that make up the series. The LMP2 and GT2 groups were the big crowd pleasers. Acura and the Penske Porsches went to the mat for each round in LMP2; in GT2 it was the classic Porsche-versus-Ferrari battle. Porsche won both classes but had to stand on the throttle in terms of season development to capture the titles.

Although Audi was the dominant force in LMP1 and Corvette made up GT1, those classes were no less thrilling. The addition of the Peugeot 908 diesel prototype for Sebring and Petit Le Mans (10 hours or 1,000 miles) at Road Atlanta underscored the importance that the series has garnered. The fan-friendly and mandatory driver autograph sessions held before each race have helped build a solid base among the public. The ALMS may never eclipse NASCAR in popularity, but it has showed a tenacity to keep the product alive, even in a down market.

The Le Mans Series is based in Paris. After a brief run as the LMES in 2001, organizers got their act together for a full season in 2004. Centered around the classic formula from the past of offering up 1,000km endurance races, the LMS has ventured out to include Brazil and a round in Istanbul. The LMS truly hit its stride this past season with races at the most legendary circuits. Spa, Monza and Silverstone were among the battlegrounds that pitted German versus French technology in the form of diesel development, Peugeot and Audi going after the production-car market share by showcasing that diesels can be hip and fast.

Both the ALMS and LMS, while benefiting from a common source for rules and guidelines, have put their own unique stamp on their events. The LMS has a broader entry for the GT1 category, where the Ford-powered Saleen is competitive against Corvette, Aston Martin and even Lamborghini. The emphasis in the GT classes is on private teams, whereas the ALMS has more direct factory affiliation with a select amount of teams. Both series are making an effort to go green with bio-fuels and grab a share of the headlines, showcasing new technology while giving off the vibe of being responsible. At the conclusion of Petit Le Mans, a press conference was held that featured heads of the U.S. EPA and Department of Energy. Racing has seldom made such inroads with bureaucrats. Technical developments are indeed necessary to keep both series relevant in the face of budget cutbacks and limited hard media outlets. In these days of Tivo, making the case for tape-delayed races when the final results have been known for days, let alone minutes and hours, is difficult for the average fan to understand. A set of consistent regulations are the lifeblood for any race series and the ACO has done a decent balancing act that has given enough leeway for the ALMS to present Euro-centric racing with an American face. In a strange way, it's almost a throwback to the old Cal Club racing of the 1950s where American specials mixed it up with Ferraris imported by Chinetti or John Von Neuman. From the roots of hot rod shops came the might of the Reventlow Scarabs. Just another round of the circle game.

This month we take a graphic look back at some of the highlights of the 2008 LMS and ALMS seasons with images from longtime ec contributors from the scene, John Brooks and David Lister.

For a full photo gallery, go to www.europeancarweb.com.

Grid Fillers
Random happenings in the world of motorsport

Formula One: Despite bad decisions issued by FIA stewards and blown calls by the McLaren team (even by the newly crowned World Champion hisself), Lewis Hamilton is numero uno, having beaten the Ferrari of Felipe Massa at the final race of the season by getting back to fifth place and claiming enough points. It even took the final corner to play out. Massa was champion for, oh, about 30 seconds. There's a saying that the award you get is for your previous work that went unrewarded. Hamilton had a better run in 2007 and lost; this was the payback although Massa had the better '08. I always hated the clich: to win a championship, one must lose one first. At least the stewards didn't have a say in the outcome. F1 is becoming a shadow of the greatness once displayed. The GP of Canada is off the schedule, and even in the "we invented motorsport" capital of the world, the British GP is in danger of going away. Money, greed, hype... get ready for more races in the desert. Aqaba is over there, it's just a matter of going.

Porsche: The Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen automaker continues to make news. Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean all those articles from the financial pages. The whole issue of Penske and should-I-stay-or-should-I-go from the ALMS is purely based on what the Porsche board decides whether or not Weissach should get in to LMP1 with a possible hybrid. Porsche has always based its reputation on engineering excellence, and showing up at Le Mans or the ALMS with a purely petrol powerplant just isn't newsworthy anymore. As Wendy likes to say, profits! Penske would still like to win the 24 Hours of Daytona and a Porsche-powered Riley would do nicely, although Penske's participation in the Grand Am series won't make much of a difference as far as attracting more interest from the average fan. The cars are still ugly. The production GT cars that Porsche produces are another matter. When the world economy takes a dive, history has dictated that the more expensive prototypes are ditched for less expensive production-based GT cars. Porsche has done quite well in that category. However, it may have glutted the market by producing too many GT3 Cup cars. One-marque series are profitable in good times but tend to suffer when the purse strings are tight. More traditional GT venues such as the LMS and ALMS, even Grand Am, will have Porsche participation, although there well could be fewer purpose-built mounts such as the RSR and Grand Am versions of the GT3 constructed by Weissach. That leaves the RS Spyder from the LMP2 class looking for a home. Dyson Racing bailed on the Porsche connection at the end of the 2008 ALMS season after having a rather uncompetitive run. But what did Dyson expect, the same treatment afforded to Penske? That was never in the offering. Dyson does better with going it alone and grabbing the headlines with an occasional upset over the factory teams, such as when they beat Audi with the little MG power at Sears Point a few years ago. Those moments are forever.

BMW: Finally, the new GT2 car has arrived and underwent testing at Sebring. Even in these difficult economic times, Munich gets it that a presence back in the ALMS is needed for the enthusiast base. Just ask Corvette where the car club corrals are always packed.

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