By now I am sure most of you are aware that the upcoming Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda will be the final race ever for the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrόn. And while Petit Le Mans will live on as the season finale for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, the bittersweet reality is this event marks the end of the ALMS era.
As we are about to write the last chapter in the book of ALMS, many have inquired about what have been my favorite memories of the past 15 years of the ALMS – what comes to mind as I think back over the years? Candidly, that’s a very difficult question to answer. There have been so many twists and turns, ups and downs, people and places, it’s hard to single a few out as the true standouts. But as we approach the last laps of the ALMS, there are a few things I’d like to cover before we collectively shift our focus to the incredible future we have with IMSA and the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.
Going back to the earliest days of the ALMS, it has been a real pleasure to work with one of the finest collections of event promoters in the industry. In the beginning, Don Panoz and Bill Donaldson and the concept of the ALMS were not initially openly embraced by all tracks and promoters. And as a result, in many instances, they had to create their own events, often utilizing less than ideal infield road courses inside large nondescript oval venues – and, unfortunately, Daytona was not included on the list.
One of the most gratifying evolutions has been managing the development of the ALMS calendar year after year, adding such iconic venues as Road America, Mid-Ohio and the Long Beach Grand Prix to the list that already included the hallowed ground of such venues as Sebring, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta and others. Of course that blade cuts both ways and we also suffered the pain of such examples as the Mexico City event that was announced and confirmed only to be cancelled a few months before it was scheduled to occur – and at the same time having to announce the cancellation of the Washington, D.C., event which had one of the strongest debuts of any ALMS event ever. In more recent years the ALMS calendar has been much more stable and the fabled road racing venues we have annually called upon (and the management teams behind them) have become cornerstones of the ALMS schedule – all producing countless memories we will all cherish for years to come.
Another critical component to the success of any racing series is “content” – in other words, the teams and manufacturers that make up the grids. Again, the early days of the ALMS were highlighted by a real mixed bag. It wasn’t quite a “run-what-ya-brung” scenario, but not far from it. I remember many a “spirited discussion” with the technical decision makers of the ACO begging for acceptance of a not-quite-up-to ACO-spec entry, just to ensure we had a reasonable field of cars to put on the track. Dyson Racing, Dave Maraj’s Champion Racing team, Jon Field’s Intersport organization, Audi, Porsche, BMW, Corvette Racing and many others were with us from the start and their cars, drivers and the many people backing them up quickly became part of the fabric of the ALMS. And several are still actively involved today.
Anyone who has been around a professional motorsports platform will tell you that the “fuel” that makes it run is the investments that come from corporate partnerships – a.k.a. sponsorship. The American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrόn has always been fortunate to have some of the best brands in the world directly involved. From the beginning, major international automobile manufacturers, tire companies and official sponsors from a broad spectrum of categories entrusted their brands to the ALMS. For these companies that invested their marketing resources in the ALMS it has always been not only about “how many”, but equally important, “who”. Our premium fan base is what sets us apart and provides a value proposition that is unmatched in sport. Like the other pieces of the ALMS puzzle, we could not have done it without the OEMs, tire manufacturers and Official Sponsors who invested millions and enabled us grow the sport to the benefit of all involved.
The fulltime and event staffs of IMSA and the ALMS have been key to our success every step of the way. It would be impossible to name them and I would be afraid of leaving someone out, but they know who they are. Over the years there have been many who quietly and mostly anonymously put their hearts, souls and passion into making the ALMS work, on and off the track. Many fans are familiar with what happens on race day. They feel the energy, see the color, take in the sights and sounds that, when bundled together, make being directly involved look glamorous and, to many, a “dream” job. However, what they don’t see are the late nights, early mornings, missed meals, low cost hotel rooms, crowded airports, canceled flights, time away from family and friends – and, for many, the back-breaking work in heat and humidity that is required to set up, tear down and move the “circus” down the road to the next stop. No one who wears an IMSA or ALMS shirt has ever done it for the money. The motivation, the passion, must come from within. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. The sport wouldn’t exist without them and it has been a humbling and infinitely rewarding experience to work alongside an unmatched collection of some of the hardest working men and women in all of motorsport.
So … in addition to great tracks and promoters, renowned teams, manufacturers, drivers, sponsors and the best staff in the industry, it all means nothing if you don’t have the final ingredient – fans. And it’s this category that, I believe, has set the ALMS apart. Don Panoz had incredible vision and foresight when he demanded that the first American Le Mans Series logo include the phrase “For The Fans”. It has been our mantra from the beginning … and we wouldn’t have it any other way. When the history of the ALMS is written there will be lots of references to great on-track battles, races and championships that were decided in the final turns after hours of racing, etc. But it will be the images and memories of the millions of fans who bought tickets, camped out, arrived early and stayed late in support of the ALMS that will be the legacy. We have known from the start that without the fans, nothing else matters. To all of you who attended an ALMS event, and then returned again and again with your families and friends – a most sincere thank you. You made it all worthwhile.
My final comments are reserved for the person who gets and deserves much, if not all, of the credit. Don Panoz never intended to be one of the leaders at the center of professional sports car racing in North America. He started as a team owner and it was only after his frustration reached the breaking point that the idea to step in and attempt to make a difference was born. At the time, the sport was in its darkest hours. Rather than stand to the side and complain that somebody ought to do something about it – he jumped in. Headfirst. Into the deep end. With no more than an idea and a vision of what he thought it should be, he created the American Le Mans Series. It will go down as one of the golden ages of professional sports car racing in North America – and rightfully so. For all of us who, at our core, are true fans of sports car racing, we all owe Don our thanks and gratitude.
It has been a genuine honor to be the President and CEO of the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrόn for the past 13 years. Looking back, there is no doubt that everything happened for a reason and I wouldn’t change a thing. And the best part of this whole situation is that as we bring the ALMS to a close, Jim France and Don Panoz are together at last, deploying all of their combined energy and resources for the betterment of the sport, together as one. And as GRAND-AM President and CEO Ed Bennett and I eagerly look forward to the future and the debut of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, it’s not possible to put into words the positive enthusiasm we have for the future. No part of what’s in front of us will be easy, but that has been a constant from the beginning. For those of us who proudly refer to ourselves as sports car racing fans, our sport has never been better positioned and the future has never been brighter.
OK…OK… The highest high? Getting the phone call from Robert Clark (then president of HPD / Honda Performance Development) confirming the Honda/Acura board of directors had voted unanimously to launch a full ALMS program with three factory-backed prototype teams. I had waited in the office for the call, but at 9:00pm was driving home when my cell rang with ROBERT CLARK on the screen. I pulled over to take the call. When I hung up I screamed and pounded the steering wheel. We had cultivated the opportunity, starting with a meeting at the Detroit Auto Show, for many years and it was the most satisfying result possible.
The lowest low? Over a 24 hour period we were notified by the promoter of our Mexico City race (highly anticipated new event) and the promoter of our Washington DC event (debut race had been spectacular) that both of them were going to default and cancel their races. It was a devastating blow.
On-track memory? Too many to count, but one that truly stands out: Witnessing Allan McNish have a very un-Allan McNish-like moment by putting the Audi R10 hard into the wall on the formation lap just prior to the start of Petit Le Mans. Somehow he limped the very broken car back to the paddock where the Audi mechanics swarmed over it. He stayed in the car while the frantic emergency repairs commenced. SPEED had an in-car camera in the car and a driver-to-team audio link. As the mechanics worked Alan keyed the microphone and said something like; “Guys… I am so sorry… this was all my fault…. If you fix this car… I will win this race”. The race started with Allan and the car still in the paddock. The car joined the race with Allan behind the wheel several laps down. Allan proceeded to lay down two hours of qualifying laps – ultimately getting the car back on the lead lap, into the lead and then held on for the win. It was an incredible effort by Allan and the entire Audi Sport team – and just one of many fond memories of ALMS action.