IN HIS OWN WORDS: SCOTT ATHERTON The second half of the American Le Mans Series officially starts this weekend with the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. There has been plenty to talk about both on...
IN HIS OWN WORDS: SCOTT ATHERTON
The second half of the American Le Mans Series officially starts this weekend with the Acura Sports Car Challenge at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. There has been plenty to talk about both on and off the track with new manufacturers, teams, corporate partners and venues highlighting the first six rounds of 2007. Series President and CEO Scott Atherton took a few minutes to discuss those topics and others.
Question: Can you give us your thoughts and impressions on the first half of the 2007 American Le Mans Series?
Answer: We would be hard-pressed to come up with a better first half by every measure. If you think back to Sebring, even though we seem to have been plagued by some challenging weather, each stop this year has seen record-breaking crowds, outstanding racing, some new faces on the podium and some debut efforts that went better than anyone could have expected. We came through with new events at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, then success again in Houston. We've seen new teams, new venues, new sponsors, new manufacturers . all of which have turned out to be better than expected. And this comes at a time where others in our industry are dealing with the opposite; they are suffering from manufacturers making decisions to no longer compete, having teams close down completely or go elsewhere and in some cases sponsorship coming to an end or being challenged. The entire Series and the constituents that make up the American Le Mans Series can be very proud.
Q: Brian France recently took the position that NASCAR had to continue its leadership role in developing alternative fuel strategies. With that initiative being such an integral part of the American Le Mans Series, what was your initial reaction?
A: Honestly, I can't imagine where they are coming up with these ideas. Charging into the 70s with the introduction of unleaded fuel this year, still running through carburetors is humorous in a certain sense but maddening in another. The American Le Mans Series has always prided itself on being truly on the cutting edge and being very proactive and innovative in embracing technology and allowing manufacturers to bring new technology to the race track on its way to their production examples. To think that NASCAR has even the slightest connection to that is frankly laughable.
There is really no future in engaging a war of words, but our actions speak much louder than those words. We are the only series in the world that has an ethanol-enriched gasoline blend and the only series in North America that features a diesel-powered race car - clean diesel, 100 percent sulfur- free. These are true examples of alternative fuels, true examples of cutting-edge technology and true examples of manufacturers developing tomorrow's practical road-car technology today. There's no one else that's doing a better job. Brian has a unique perspective on this. But the proof is in the facts, not the hyperbole.
Q: Where has the Series made its biggest gains and established a leadership role in motorsport?
A: When you go back 18 months ago, that's when Porsche returned with a factory-backed prototype. Shortly after that commitment they announced Penske Motorsports, which by anyone's measure is the A-list team, coming into the American Le Mans Series. That was soon followed shortly by DHL and Hyatt as sponsors with that program. If you jump a couple of months ahead, Acura made their commitment and public announcement that they would be joining the Series. That was followed by the announcement of Andretti Green, Fernandez and Highcroft. Then major sponsors, again from A-list and non-endemic programs, like Lowe's Home Improvement Stores, XM Satellite Radio, Forbes Magazine, AirTran - all active players in the American Le Mans Series. The most recent team to make that level of announcement was Rahal Letterman by bringing Seagate and Bell MicroProducts into the Series.
Then you add to that new venues like St. Pete, the return of racing to Detroit and the first time for the American Le Mans Series to Southern California and the Long Beach Grand Prix, it has to be the most significant period in our history. And we're not done. It's a process that will never be completed. We have momentum and so much positive energy in the paddock - both on and off the track - that it feeds on itself. We're not resting on our laurels. We're running harder and faster than ever before.
I spent a week recently in Japan meeting with all the Japanese manufacturers there - both those who are involved with our Series and those who we want to be involved. We have continued with our regular 'road-show' effort in Europe in North America. And this isn't exclusive to just manufacturer contact. It's suppliers, sponsors, television network executives. It's every category.
Q: Can you talk about new teams that we expect to see on the grid before the season is out?
A: The nature of this business generates a lot of rumor. Some people want it to be self-fulfilling; if they talk about it enough, then maybe it will come true. But there will be teams entering between now and the end of the year. It can never happen soon enough or fast enough for us. There will be the introduction of both prototype and GT teams into the American Le Mans Series, some of which already have made commitments for next year but are trying in earnest to have their debuts occur this year. It would be an appetizer this year with the main course coming next year.
This week at Mid-Ohio, we'll see the debut of Woodhouse Performance with a Dodge Viper. It's very much a work in progress, and IMSA has worked very closely with them and the ACO to make this possible. It will be a GT2 competitor, and hopefully if things go well it will bode well for the future.
CET Racing/Solaroli Motorsports, which already has been publicly announced and highly anticipated, will bring at least one - if not two - very high caliber LMP2 Porsche RS Spyders with extremely well-known drivers, engineering and race-craft talent behind them.
We'll see Greg Pickett's team return to competition this weekend at Mid- Ohio, and we should see them for the balance of the year.
The one that everyone wants to hear about is when we will see Aston Martin back on the grid. We are working aggressively to bring them for the balance of 2007 and to confirm a full-season effort for 2008. It's never our announcement to make, but the efforts are unrelenting in making that reality.
I think you'll see additional GT1 competition materialize before the end of the year, ideally in the form of the Maserati MC12. I believe that already is a given for Road America, and I'd be surprised if that doesn't continue for the balance of the season. Then you have some wild-card teams that we probably shouldn't add fuel to the fire, but I wouldn't be surprised to see other entries materialize as well.
Q: This year is the 10th anniversary of Petit Le Mans. Talk a little about that milestone and some special things that are being planned.
A: The 10th running of Petit Le Mans is the perfect tribute to Don Panoz's vision. Many people who are actively competing in the American Le Mans Series today weren't involved back then. So they can't really appreciate the role the first Petit Le Mans played in that it was the catalyst that created the American Le Mans Series. The success of that first event had everyone talking - manufacturers, sponsors, spectators, sportscasters - and saying, 'Don, you can't create just one race. This is too good. You have to create a series.' And obviously we know now that is ultimately what happened.
The Road Atlanta people are the ones that want to be making and should be making those announcements. There have been some already; there will be a heritage display that will feature memorabilia and not just cars that have won the race but cars that have played significant roles in the race. They plan to invite many drivers that competed in the early years that may not be active to participate in the weekend. We have a very special grand marshal who will be most appropriate and a lot of other special activities. It will be special for the competitors and definitely special for fans. It will be an appropriate celebration for the accomplishment of 10 years of Petit Le Mans.
Q: Without giving away any secrets to your Petit Le Mans State of the Series address, what do you think are some of the important topics and initiatives that will keep the Series momentum surging forward?
A: It is always an important event. It not only provides a recap of where we are today but it also provides a forward-thinking statement as to where we are going in the future. We have a couple of very significant situations that will dictate our future. We're at the end of our current television agreement. The primary relationship we have had with SPEED is actively under negotiation. There are other related rights that also are in play. Ideally we would be in a position to provide direction as to our future television and related media plans. When you look at what is occurring industry-wide with wireless and other things in play with direct-to- cellphone and direct-to-computer broadcasting that may or may not involve television, those are all important parts of the future for everyone.
The other big element of the State of Series address is the future schedule. I said last year that if we could replicate the 2007 schedule and hit it again in 2008 we would consider it a huge success, and I would continue to stand on that statement. I don't want to create any false impressions because that right now is a work in progress and is a top priority. We also will be in a better position to provide direction on new content in terms of teams and sponsors. All of the important topics that gauge both the current health and future prospects of the Series will be included. I look forward to it. Some people think of public speaking engagements like that as being a reason to have a stomachache. But I relish the opportunity simply because we have some many good things to talk about.
The next round of the American Le Mans Series is the Acura Sports Car Challenge, scheduled for 3:15 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 21 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The race will be broadcast XM Satellite Radio's Sports Nation Channel at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday. American Le Mans Radio will air live coverage via americanlemans.com, which also will feature IMSA's Live Timing & Scoring. CBS Sports will broadcast the race from 2 to 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 22.