When the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and the American LeMans Series announced they were going to merge, it caught the sports-car world by surprise. Rumors are a way of life in racing and rarely does a major change take place without a whisper or two preceding an official statement. While the merger story did leak out, it was only by three days.

“Even though it broke through before we intended it to, it is a point of great satisfaction that it was kept quiet for so long,” said Scott Atherton, the president and chief executive officer of the ALMS. “It has been quite a week since then. Some will tell you that knew it was coming but most didn’t. When the factual news came out, there was still new information being released.”

ALMS President Scott Atherton, Patrick Dempsey and Joe Foster
ALMS President Scott Atherton, Patrick Dempsey and Joe Foster

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Atherton’s comments along with those by other ALMS participants were made last weekend at the Virginia International Raceway.

Sports car racing rarely makes national and international headlines, but in this case, there has been non-stop coverage since it was announced. As the executives indicated at the time, the merger has been agreed to but the extensive details that have to be incorporated into the program have yet to be addressed.

“We have formed management teams to begin defining requirements, but there are no deadlines at this point,” Atherton added. He went on to say that a list of priorities has been defined with the first priority being to define the technical rules and regulations for 2014. “And the sooner we can do that the better off the teams and manufacturers will be as long lead times are involved.”

The second priority will be to address the 2014 schedule. According to Atherton, each organization is being contacted by tracks, some of which are coming from existing venues and others are from new parties. Of course, the 2013 schedules, although not announced by Grand-Am or the ALMS, are thought to be status quo or nearly so. He did confirm that the current class status will remain the same for 2013 ALMS season.

I view the merger as being inevitable.

Rob Dyson

With the 2014 season not that far off, Atherton recognizes that considerable ground has to be covered prior to the debut race at Daytona 15 months from now. “As far as I am concerned, the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2014 is coming on like a freight train, and we have a lot of work to do before then,” he noted.

The ALMS executive believes the overall reaction is overwhelmingly positive. “It has been a long time in coming, and I am one of those who believe it should have happened a long time ago, except that it wouldn’t have worked then. In my opinion, this is ideal with a spirit of cooperation in place, although the glass half-empty group is weighing in that it is not a merger but an acquisition.” He says he would argue against that, as it is a true merger between two strong groups. “If it looks and acts like a duck, it is a duck,” he quipped.

Rob Dyson has competed successfully in Grand-Am and in the ALMS and at present, his team runs two P1 cars on the ALMS side. As expected, he’s more than casually interested in the upcoming proceedings. “I view the merger as being inevitable,” he said. “But I hope they appreciate the diversity that exists and preserve as much as they can, to include engine and chassis combinations, tires, body types and classes.” The former driver and current owner will be offering his services to the planners, attempting to provide as much input and guidance as possible. “With my 35 years in sports-car racing, we will try to do what we can to create more demand for the new series.” Having been in 19 Rolex24s, the articulate owner didn’t rule out returning to the grueling race for the 2013 presentation, calling it a wonderful race.

I think it is fantastic, and I am all in.

Kevin Buckler

Kevin Buckler, another former driver and current owner, is known to willingly offer opinions on changes, and he’s ready to do so again. Responding to a barrage of post-merger emails, Buckler said he issued a statement saying, “This is, without a doubt, the best thing that has happened for sports car racing in my 20 years of doing it.”

Discussing the merger, he noted that sports-car racers have been waiting for a long time to be able to speak with one voice as a powerful group. “I have never thought sports car racing has gotten its due because the stock-car stuff has taken off to a new high,” he commented. “I believe the merger will be a game changer for all of us. It will make it clear as a bell to the corporate sponsors the things that can be done around our races. And they will be epic races. I think it is fantastic, and I am all in.”

Buckler believes one of the top priorities is defining the rules as quickly as possible, so preparations can be made for both 2013 and 2014, calling the upcoming season a lame-duck one. He, too, will offer his input and believes he can add value to the formulation process.

Canadian Ron Fellows wears multiple hats in sports-car racing as a semi-retired championship driver, a goodwill ambassador for Corvette Racing and co-owner of Canadian Tire (Mosport) Motorsport Park. Said the businessman/driver, “Long term, the merger is very good for sports car racing, the manufacturers, the teams and especially the fans -- a unified sports car body is beneficial for everybody.”

Ron Fellows wearing one of his racing hats in Montreal 2011
Ron Fellows wearing one of his racing hats in Montreal 2011

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

For the short run, he’s not sure how to merge two organizations with considerable operational differences. “I guess you take the best of both and off you go,” he said. “I see value in that the ALMS has multiple tire manufacturers, which is great for teams and tire companies, and you wouldn’t want to see that go away. I have never been a fan of spec tire racing, but there are benefits of efficiency, although the needs of our stakeholders (manufacturers) need to be looked out for.”

Wearing his ownership hat, Fellows believes Canada has three major metropolitan areas to be considered for race dates – Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton/Calgary. “We have six million people in the Toronto area, and our track is only an hour away,” he noted. “Montreal is a different market (NASCAR’s Grand-Am and Nationwide Series, and F1), and Toronto and Edmonton are too. Reducing the schedule may not work and the economics of the merger should be able to support an 18 to 20-race schedule.”

Scott Sharp has a positive outlook on the merger and is looking forward to the new beginning for sports-car racing. “Bringing the ALMS and the Grand-Am together can only be beneficial,” he said. “We all have good venues and when you bring them together, you have the best of the best. Great teams and competitors produce great fields. Also, with Grand Am and NASCAR’s media abilities, you can end up with better television package. I think it is super positive.”

Sharp knows there will be hurdles to vault, but believes they can be addressed as long as teams can run for a year or two with their existing cars without having to make near-term investments for new equipment. “I would like to see it happen sooner rather than 15 months from now,” he said.

#01 Extreme Speed Motorsports: Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek
#01 Extreme Speed Motorsports: Scott Sharp, Johannes van Overbeek

Photo by: Richard Sloop

Sharp hinted that team owner and entrepreneur Ed Brown helped bring the two sides together. “Ed had Jim France’s ear plus those of Don Panoz and Scott Atherton, and they just carried the ball from there,” he commented. “Everyone worked hard to make this happen, and I believe sports-car enthusiasts will have a field day with the new series. We can have mega sports-car weekends with eight or 10 races taking place. It will be the best of the best as great teams and competitors produce great fields.”

From the driver perspective, ALMS star Lucas Luhr seemed guardedly optimistic. “Generally, it is a good thing, as we saw it work out with Champ Car and IndyCar,” he said. “When they merged, it gave the series a big boost. And I think we have the opportunity to do the same thing with sports-car racing. Personally, I hope they don’t do the Daytona Prototypes as the top class because I don’t think that’s what people want to see in sports-car racing. Fans like fancy, high tech and quicker cars.”

Even though the ALMS is running primarily with three P1 entries, Luhr doesn’t believe that is a matter for concern. “It doesn’t matter how many cars you have, you can still produce very good racing. I personally I think the DPs don’t produce exciting racing. I have raced there and I never saw a race where it was real nail-biting stuff.”

Bill Auberlen races with both Grand-Am and the ALMS and he sees the positive aspects of the merger. “Anytime you merge two sports to make one big one, it is great for the sport,” he said. “The big question is with the format we are going to run under – I think the ALMS format is amazing in terms of competitiveness of the GT class and the factory support. If that goes away, it would be a shame. I am hoping they pick the best of both worlds and make a super series.”

Not surprisingly, there are lots of opinions floating around and it will be up to the leaders and overseers to make it all come together. As with any new big-time merger, there will be kinks in the road but once addressed, the sum will be greater than that of all its parts.

Story by: Joe Jennings

#95 Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b: Scott Tucker, Luis Diaz, Ricardo Gonzalez
#95 Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b: Scott Tucker, Luis Diaz, Ricardo Gonzalez

Photo by: Richard Sloop