Who would have thought back in 1998 at the inaugural Petit Le Mans race, that Don Panoz's idea would take off and retain its initial outlook on endurance racing to the point of being one of the top sportscar racing series in the world. Well, folks, that is what the American Le Mans Series is: a vital arena where top teams can show their products, designs and development programs on race tracks throughout North America.
The top of the line Prototypes, LMP 1 and LMP 2 are specially built by manufacturers such as Lola, Audis, Riley & Scott, Panoz. Bentley and Cadillac have also competed in the past and won.
The class names have changed for this year with minor modifications from the previous 900 and 675 Le Mans Prototypes, but the game is the same: Will Dyson Racing be able to topple the Audi teams as they did last year on occasion, based on the LMP1s' weight advantage over the more powerful LMP2 cars?
It was not just the inconsistency of the rules that motivated Panoz to start the series, it also was "the fact that nobody paid any attention to the fans!"
The term "For the Fans" was developed and survived, not just as a coined term to draw fans but, in all honesty, the fans are a highlight of the series. They can be seen walking though the paddock talking to teams, drivers, series officials, and being allowed to really take a good long look at the racing machines.
The fans vote for the "From the Fans" award given to the person/group they feel made a difference during the season - last year's winner was Rob Dyson, owner and former top-notch endurance driver of Dyson Racing. They also vote for "Most Popular Driver", an award that Jan Magnussen has garnered two years in a row. This series is "For the Fans".
Nine events are scheduled for the 2004 season starting with the historic Sebring 12 Hours on March 20 with an entry list that is Who's Who in racing. Lime Rock will host their first ALMS event and the season ender will be at Laguna Seca. Due to the Le Mans 24 Hours testing, qualifying and race, the ALMS takes time off to allow the invited teams to prepare and run Le Mans. Thus, the calendar is blank after Sebring until the June 25th when they return to Mid-Ohio for the race on June 27.
The legendary drivers who have won the event include Stirling Moss, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Bob and Al Holbert and Phil Hill. More recent winners are: Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen, Emanuele Prirro (Audi), Rinaldo Capello, Michele Alboreto, Laurent Aiello (Audi) , Johnny Herbert, Rinaldo Capello, Christian Pescatori (Audi), and Frank Biela, Marco Werner, Philipp Peter (Audi).
Which now leads to the question, will Audi win its fifth consecutive Sebring victory? Odds are no doubt in their favor but one cannot count out the Dyson Racing team who challenged Audi for bragging rights last year.
Biela, however, will not be returning to the series to defend his championship. "I will be racing in the DTM (German Touring Car Masters) for Audi again this year and so only have the opportunity to race the Audi R8 at Sebring and Le Mans. Both of these races are 'classic' sportscar races and I would love to win them again - especially for my new Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx outfit. Sebring was the venue of my first sportscar victory - four years ago."
Co-champion and former teammate Werner will return, this time with Champion Racing. "I am very happy to be back and driving for Champion Racing this time. It was a good first race for me last year so I am hoping it will be the same. For Sebring especially, I would like very much to be on that podium in first place again, that is my goal."
Sebring is not an easy road course, built around and on an old World War II training airport in central Florida. The track itself still run on the old concrete used by the airfield, leaning itself to why it is a very unique event. There is no huge light fixtures so portions of the track are still in the dark, allowing one to see the streaks of just the racers headlights which is amazing to watch. The drivers however have to manipulate their fast sleek vehicles through the dark areas. Sebring is one tough endurance race. Surviving is a major goal.
"You don't even think of doing anything risky early in the race," commented Darren Law, co-pilot of the Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche. "But if you have an hour left and a win or podium finish is in sight, then maybe it is worth taking risks. That's when you pat yourself on the back for doing your part to make sure the car has something left."
Alex Job Racing has been the top team and GT class winner three years straight. Driver Lucas Luhr might have extra pressure for this event as he is currently tied with four consecutive class wins at Sebring with Bob Holbert. A win this weekend would give Luhr the sole holder in the record books, "Bob Holbert is a legendary Porsche driver, being recognized in the same history book as him will be a special memory in my career," expressed Luhr who already feels that in itself is an honor.
Editor's Note: Motorsport.com's Richard Sloop interviewed Don Panoz, the quotes from Panoz are from that interview.