Motorsports

What if the ALMS/Grand-Am Merger Didn’t Happen?

The face of North American sports car racing has changed drastically in the last three years with the unification of the two leading series into what’s now known as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

But what if the merger didn’t happen? What if the impromptu meeting between Scott Atherton and Jim France at an ACCUS meeting in February 2012 didn’t occur?

Would both the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am still be in existence today? And if so, what would each series look like, amid the evolution of class structures and emerging global platforms?

It’s a question that popped into my head just this week. And while there’s no clear-cut answer on where the sport would be right now if the ALMS was not acquired by Grand-Am, it still does pose an intriguing situation.

While the WeatherTech Championship has only been two-and-a-half years in existence, a lot has already changed in the industry, and largely for the better of the sport. Let me be clear on that front. I am in no ways wishing the merger didn’t happen.

But turn the clocks back to 2012 and both the ALMS and Grand-Am had nearly entirely different machinery. GT3 was just beginning to be introduced into U.S. racing, while LMP1 cars were still the top class in the ALMS, although undoubtedly struggling for car count.

Grand-Am’s GX class — for experimental technologies — was announced for 2013, while ALMS still had a single-make Porsche Cup class — GTC — that arguably produced some of the most competitive racing in the series. DPs, meanwhile, led the pack in Grand-Am, both in numbers and in quality of racing.

Imagine where both series would be at today? While there can be many different scenarios, here’s my take on what we could have seen today, or perhaps in a parallel universe where the unification did not occur.

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Note: the following is a fictional depiction and in no way implies any definitive or factual-based outcome. It is the opinion of the author only.

In 2016, the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series has continued its steady path, with respectable grids, largely made up of budget-minded privateer teams, in a two-class format. GX didn’t survive past its 2013 debut season, despite the push from Mazda with its diesel-powered Mazda6s.

Instead, Mazda made the jump into DP, joining Chevrolet with fully styled bodywork and its diesel engine. BMW opted to embrace the Gen-3 DP concept as well, with the DP class remaining relatively unchanged from a technical standpoint. Grids increased and regularly saw 15-18 DPs at each round.

In GT, a full transition to GT3-spec machinery was made in 2014, with the class having embraced Pro-Am driver enforcement, in what would turn out to be a controversial move. Costs generally rose and sent some of the existing teams to Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

Names like Ricky and Jordan Taylor, Joao Barbosa, Scott Pruett, Tristan Nunez and Joel Miller dominate the headlines, in hard-fought races that lacked controversy over Balance of Performance, at least in the DP class.

A half-dozen GT3 manufacturers, meanwhile, are represented on the grid in GT full-time, with a link-up with SRO Motorsports Group placing the Rolex 24 at Daytona as the opening round of Stephane Ratel’s Intercontinental GT Challenge and bringing a world-class entry of GT machinery to the Daytona high banks.

In the ALMS, international relations remained strong with the ACO, despite the growth of the FIA World Endurance Championship.

The once-struggling LMP1 class rebounded in 2014, thanks to a revised set of regulations, conceived by the ACO and FIA, with input from IMSA, that delivered new customer machinery and additional privateer teams to both the ALMS and WEC. LMP1-L remained sustainable because of its application to the U.S. in addition to the World Championship.

Muscle Milk Pickett Racing expanded into a two-car operation in the ALMS, with both Pickett and Dyson Racing taking on the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year in the LMP1 Privateer subclass. Back Stateside, they were joined by Audi and Porsche at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, with the Porsche 919 Hybrid having made its competition debut in the Florida endurance classic.

After a season in WEC, Rebellion Racing joined the series’ full-time in 2015 with its Rebellion R-Ones, while Tequila Patron ESM stepped up to field two new Honda prototypes in LMP1 after two years in P2.

With low car counts in P2, the class was merged with PC in 2015, ahead of IMSA, the ACO and FIA’s unified global P2 formula for 2017. The new cost-effective P2 class in ALMS would be a mirror-image to the WEC and ELMS, allowing American prototype teams to compete at Le Mans with ease, without any engine or bodywork changes.

GT had continued to go from strength-to-strength, with the addition of the factory Ford GT program for a two-year program beginning in 2016. Later that year, Ford announced its intentions to step up to the ALMS LMP1 class in 2018, as well as taking on Le Mans with the first American factory top-level prototype program in decades.

Corvette Racing, BMW and Porsche joined Ford with factory efforts in GT, alongside the works-supported programs from Risi Competizione, Flying Lizard Motorsports and Team Falken Tire, which had its program renewed at the end of 2015.

After many years of consideration, IMSA followed Grand-Am’s lead and introduced GT3 machinery into the series in 2015, bringing major factory support to the class, replacing GTC. It initially struggled with BoP, primarily with class separation between GT (GTE-Pro) and GT3, but got things under control by the end of the year.

Efforts to hold a joint WEC/ALMS race again after Sebring 2012 had failed due to capacity issues, but the two series agreed on shared weekends, announcing plans for events at Road America and Montreal, with ALMS races on Saturday and six-hour WEC events on Sunday at each venue.

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Where do you think North American sports car racing would be right now if the merger didn’t occur? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

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4 Comments

  • Reply Eric Burch July 19, 2016 at 10:46 am

    I think the P2 class would have thrived in ALMS, and GT3 machinery was a natural to go in and replace GTC as you mentioned, P1 would’ve been what it is without real manufacturer full-time participation, which with WEC it wouldn’t have gotten. Grand Am fought the GT3 format hard, and not sure their collective ego’s would’ve allowed them to give in. Their tube frame chassis and constant argument that the roll cages weren’t safe enough would’ve kept them out of that, unfortunately. DP would’ve gotten a major overhaul to the more P2 looking cars, but because they didn’t want to conform, would’ve kept them different, keeping the ALMS/WEC teams out, and keeping Grand Am teams out of Le Mans. What would be a good argument is where PWC would be had the merger not taken place. I think it would’ve been hurting badly. Had Grand-Am gotten out of it’s own way with the GT3 machinery, I think that’s where the McLaren’s, Benz and others would be today as they never told a team they couldn’t play if a certain manufacturer didn’t pay. Never heard of them penalizing teams’ for their choice in car because a manufacturer didn’t pony up the marketing $ that the team had zero control over. Just my 2 cents!

  • Reply TheBigMrJackson July 19, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    My best (and optimist) guess:

    Grand Am

    Grand Am rolls through 2013 and 2014 looking at slow but steady improvements in speed for the DPs. Ford enters in 2014 with its turbocharged engines, with BMW and Audi entering with their DPs in 2015, all sporting new bodywork, the Ford and BMW engines being turbocharged six-cylinder engines, Audi with a 5.5-liter variant of the V10 from the R8 LMS. The grid stays competitive, with roughly 20 DPs at most rounds. The arrival of GT3 in 2015 forces the DPs to pick up the pace some, but the development of better aero and stickier Continental tires makes that task a simple and fairly inexpensive one. Grand Am holds its ground on not allowing Audi’s desire to not sell its DP, resulting in Audi treating its DP program like its GT ones, with privateer teams while the factory focuses on the WEC. Ford’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas are the 2014 Grand Am champions in their Ford-powered Riley, while the Taylor brothers use their Dallara-chassis Corvette DP to win the championship in 2015 and Starworks takes the Grand Am championship in 2016 with their BMW-powered Crawford. The use of the same engines as the GT was the savior of the Ford DP program, resulting in the program remaining through 2016.

    GT3 comes to North America in a big way in 2014, with Ratel arranging (and Pirelli paying for, and being glad they did) for GT3 across World Challenge, ALMS and Grand Am to all use identical rules, aiming successfully to allow teams to simply jump from one round to each other without major car changes. Grand Am is nervous about this at first, but the 2014 Rolex’s huge GT grid – over 40 cars strong – ends their objections right quick. Grand Am allows its own GTs to remain in the series so long as they can run with the GT3 cars, and a few, namely Stevenson Motorsports and Speedsource, the former using their Prep 2 Camaros and the latter running the formerly GX-class Mazda 6s, now fitted with bigger-boost Mazda diesel engines. After persistent engine failures in 2014, Sspeedsource dumps the diesels at the end of 2014 and moves to a similar engine to their LMP1 motor. Magnus Racing wins the Grand Am GT title with their Porsche GT3 in 2014, while Turner Motorsports claims it in their BMW Z4s in 2015 and Stevenson claims it with their crowd-pleasing ground-shaking Camaro ZL1.R in 2016.

    The overall result is a growth for Grand Am. With field of 50+ at just about every event in 2014 and 2015, life for them moves on well. The future car conversation in Grand Am is focused on the Class One chassis design proposed by them along with the Japan Auto Federation and ITR, and that movement is expected for 2018.

    ALMS

    The ALMS enters 2014 with the hammer blows of the loss of Muscle Milk Pickett Racing due to the buyout of Muscle Milk by Hormel Foods and the loss of Level 5 Motorsport due to Scott Tucker’s growing legal trouble. This leaves the prototype classes with just ESM, Dyson and the DeltaWing. This class weakness proves a major problem, as while Audi and Porsche show up at Sebring, they don’t turn up again in the 2014 ALMS. Revised regulations for LMP1-L for 2014 do nothing to improve the grids in either IMSA or the WEC in the class, and seeing the writing on the wall, 2014 is the final year for LMP1 in IMSA. Audi and Porsche object and get their LMP1s allowed at Sebring in 2015, but the angered howls by teams about this makes sure 2015 is the last time this happens. Merging PC into the class is decided as unworkable, and with the massive growth in GT3 cars in 2014 IMSA decides this is unnecessary in any case, resulting in the 2015 ALMS being just P, GTE and GTC, with the DeltaWing being legal for the P class. GTC’s becoming a class of Pirelli-shod GT3 cars has the same positive effect in IMSA that it did in Grand Am, and the 2014 ALMS, while led by its handful of prototypes, sees the attention all focused on the Viper vs. Corvette vs. BMW war in GTE and the GT3 cars. This proves to be a godsend to the ALMS, though, as it causes a growth in interest, particularly once both FCA and GM are using their results to show the superiority of their cars. The Vipers win the title but withdraw within days of their victory, but this gets such an angry response that Ben Keating and Bill Riley find the cash to maintain the effort, moving it to being a privateer effort in the 2015 ALMS….but once Ford announces their entry into IMSA and the WEC’s GTE categories for 2016, FCA starts providing more than a little back-door support to the Viper Exchange team.

    Pickett gets back for Petit Le Mans with a new Oreca 03 with Nissan power, while Dyson buys a pair of Gibsons which get turbocharged Ford V6 power. Mazda gets IMSA’s approval to use their LMP1 engines in these cars and also enters, trying out the diesels in late 2014 before deciding (as their Grand Am racers did) that the diesel is a lost cause. CORE Autosport moves up to P as well, buying two Ligier JS P2s with Nissan power. In the GT categories, the GT3 revolution continues, while the GTE class is massively boosted in January 2015 when Ford announces the new Ford GT and its impending entry into IMSA. The prototype class in IMSA does rather better in 2015, with Mazda, Dyson, Pickett and ESM all drawing blood in the battle, and the DeltaWing, having been finally made reliable, wins at Road America and podiums at Mosport (this thanks to a truly-incredible drive from eighth to second by Katherine Legge) and Laguna Seca. Dyson wins the title over Mazda, showing stability when the series really needed it.

    The ALMS strays a fair bit from ACO P2 rules, but both sides accept this as a necessary evil to keep a grid out there. But with the development of the 2017 LMP2 rules by the ACO, the gap becomes a schism, as the spec-engine rules and four chosen chassis makers is totally unacceptable to IMSA for a variety of reasons. After spending six months trying to change those rules, at the 2016 12 Hours of Sebring IMSA announces that they will be sticking with their current cars and rules, and while the 2017 ACO-spec LMP2s would be legal for the class, they would be the new PC class. Not impressed to say the least, the ACO tries to get IMSA to move away from this, with no success. The competition between the factory Ford GT and Corvette, Porsche (run by Flying Lizard here) and BMW teams, along with the semi-factory Viper Exchange, Risi, Paul Miller and Falken teams and the huge GTC grid leads IMSA to tell the ACO that if necessary they would simply go to all GT cars. The public break causes a number of rough patches during 2016 between IMSA and the ACO. IMSA never backs down, though, and while the situation is ‘resolved’ by the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans, IMSA’s prototype class had broken away for fair from the ACO, something that in 2017 manifests itself in a bunch of European entrants not pleased about those rules heading to race in IMSA, led by SMP Racing, Strakka Racing and Murphy Prototypes, all of whom helped by Nissan North America developing an IMSA-spec variant of the Nissan VK50 which makes rather more power than the WEC-spec VK45 to keep up with the powerful turbocharged Ford, Honda and Mazda engines of the IMSA series. Mazda’s team wins the 2016 title over Pickett, who (along with CORE) gets a big boost when Nissan’s VK50 engines begin appearing in their cars midway through 2016. Ford’s shenanigans at Le Mans causes BOP headaches for both IMSA and the WEC, but they claim the 2016 ALMS GTE title in any case. The latter portion of the season sees the Corvette, GT and Viper teams at each others’ throats, culminating in a race-long slugout at Petit Le Mans between them that sees Ryan Briscoe, Jan Magnussen and Johnathan Bomarito trading the GTE lad no less than sixteen times in the last three hours and finishing less than four seconds apart at the flag.

    Ratel’s arrangement of the massive arrival of GT3 in 2014 sees him manage to arrange the 2016 24 Hours of Daytona to be the first round of his Intercontinental GT Challenge, even while Ratel buys into the Pirelli World Challenge. The 2015 race at Road America for both series is arranged by George Bruggenthries, the popular Road America track promoter, to have both series at the track on the same weekend and have them practice together, something possible there though likely impossible anywhere else. Despite that, it proves a popular call among fans, though the grids by 2016 make this a difficult proposition for the teams.

  • Reply Issac July 19, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    Honestly my best and realist/pessimistic guess would be that both would still be around but would still appeal to different groups with little cross over. GA would still have the two classes of DP and GT. The DPs might be slightly faster but still likely slower than the GTEs in ALMS. One or two manufacturers may have joined in but as engine suppliers not bodywork. The teams would be almost entirely from the US with little interest from European teams particularly those who have pro-am lineups. Car count around a solid 10 to 15. The GT class of GA would still be a mix of GA specials, heavily modified, much more expensive than they should be and much slower than they should be GT3 cars and a few GT4 cars like the lotus that turned up on occasion and older i.e 2011 or older porsche cup cars that were themselves slowed. The car count would have been a dozen at least due to the catch all nature As result BOP would be a nightmare as it was back in 2013. The lack of driver ratings would allow a less than scrupulous factory to show up and dominate the class costing entries eventually but providing a breif infusion of cash (sound like a class in CTSC). Costs would be difficult to control in both classes but in GT especially. The classes would continue but international relevance would be nonexistent and cost would be out of control. The series would continue to be dependent on subsidies from NASCAR to stay afloat. The series was frighteningly dependent on them. If GA hadn’t been owned by NASCAR im not convinced they would have survived until 2013. Even if they did a link up with the SRO seems very unlikely. The GA mentality of different for the sake of being different would not have gone down well with Mr. Ratel. I also dont think he would have been to keen to partner with a series where his cars couldnt win overall. Also the idea of BMW going DP seems unlikely, they were then and are now focused on GT. GA would appeal to much smaller niche of more domestic minded fans with little appeal outside of the US. The mentality of lets be different for the sake of being different would stunt its potential growth and its refusal to embrace modern tech ie carbon tubs and the like would make attracting new teams hard and new younger and more educated fans even harder.

    On the ALMS side, I dont think Mazda would have stayed in GA. The prototype program was started with Le Mans in mind, they have they would likely have moved to ALMS fielding either a pair P1 or P2s likely with a gasoline engine since the diesel didnt work. They may have even become an engine supplier for P2.
    LMP1 would have been aided as John mentioned by the arrival of Rebellion and eventually Bykolles to its ranks with cars with possibly strakka joining them for a good 6 to 10 cars not a great number but the US could be a haven for P1 privateers. If managed correctly well funded single seater drivers could be attracted to run other P1 cars that MMPR, Strakka, and Rebellion to provide. Maybe this would see the mysteroius Onroak P1L project brought to life. The new combined P2/PC would have seen ESM be joined by Micheal shank racing and several european and possible one or two asian teams for a solid 10 car grid this year. With the pro-am privateer class need mainted the new 2017 P2 rules would have seen the mandates of safety change and a requirement for more power for the cars but no spec engine requirement. GTLM would be the same as it is now. GTC would keep the name but become a GT3 class of full spec FIA GT3 cars with a Pro-Am enforced lineup the same as P2. The car count would be decent since no one would have to pay for their customers to race. I guess a solid 10 to 12 cars for full season with a few more partial season and wild card entries. The open tire formula would be in place for P1, P2 and GTLM with the possibility of a spec tire for GTC if teams agree to it. The supplier would be chosen on merit not the size of the check. The ALMS would have greater appeal to international community of fans but struggle to attract new casual fans outside the sportscar niche due to the multi-class format and the Pro v Am ratings. It may have succeeded in attracting more educated fans with its tech and global participants.

    I watched both series and preferred the ALMS due to its global relevance I admit as much and wasn’t a massive fan of GA’s dependence on its parent company’s money. The ALMS wasn’t particularly well run and could be more than a little irritating with its TV broadcast but its motto “For the Fans” meant alot to many. An eventual partnership maybe even a merger of IMSA and the ACO could have happen who knows. Both series had strengths and weaknesses but as to which one would likely to endure longer I would say ALMS.

    On a personal note Im not thrilled with the current state of IMSA. Since the merger, their seems to have been a worrying shift to a focus on profits for the series top brass not necessarily the teams or their sponsors. I get that they are important and vital but selling your tire contract to the highest bidder with whom you had previous contract has resulted in several embarrassments for the series. The demand of manufacturer paying money for their customers to race seems far to much like a thinly veiled money grab and has the potential to hurt the series long term. We will have to see what the future holds.

  • Reply Jim Martyn July 20, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Without a merger…. Mavbe the better series would have survived…. instead as has become the American standard…. we’re struggling with mediocrity. It seems like a ‘palatable product’ is the goal.
    Why we can’t strive for the best? Too hard? Too much work? Too much investment?
    Working on profitable and building toward safe. Making it easy. Not just ‘making it’.
    What happened to ideas, innovation, proving an idea on the track. Chapparals, Turbine Indy Cars, Turbo Buicks, Rear engine Indy Cars, Hybrids, Diesel Hybrids, All Wheel Drive….. Innovation!
    Sad for a nation that put a man on the moon…. Because they could!

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