The American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, the premier sports car racing sanctioning bodies in the U.S., have agreed to merge into a new entity, but with combined racing not starting before the 2014 season.
The merger “will transform sports-car racing on this continent, along with having worldwide industry implications,” said Grand-Am President and CEO Ed Bennett at an August press conference in Daytona.
“Aside from the organizations involved, everybody wins: drivers, teams, manufacturers, sponsors, tracks—and most of all, the fans.”
Details on how the two series' classes will merge will be disclosed later. Both series will compete next year separately but under the leadership of the management set by this deal.
It's too early to say what will happen to the various tire supply situations involving the two series, those involved said.
The ALMS has an open tire competition policy, with the Dunlop, Falken, Michelin and Yokohama brands represented to various degrees. Grand-Am has a single supplier contract with Continental Tire the Americas L.L.C. through the 2015 season.
Continental said it is studying the situation and will comment at an appropriate time.
Michelin North America Inc. said it is “very interested in learning more about the opportunity to grow and promote sports car racing in North America through the combined new series beginning in 2014.”
Falken Tire Corp. said: “Our hope is that the new series debuting in 2014 is truly a combination of the best of both series incorporating fantastic GT racing, technologically progressive prototypes and open tire competition across a broad geographic schedule.”
Falken, which owns a team competing in the ALMS' GT category, said it will continue to compete in that series next year and then “wait to see what developments come about in the following months” while the new series is formulated.
Yokohama Tire Corp., which is active both in the ALMS open categories and as a spec tire supplier to a GT3 class, said it doesn't have enough information as yet to know what the impact on its activities might be and participation down the road will depend on the rules packages and class specifications for the new series.
“Obviously, the ALMS has provided a platform that Yokohama believes has a tremendous amount of value,” said Andrew Briggs, director of motorsports. “We hope that value can be retained and in fact increased with the addition of events like the 24 Hours of Daytona.
“At this point, we're cautiously optimistic,” he said.
“This new approach is going to be revolutionary, as we take the best components from two premium brands, combine them and then benefit mutually from the considerable resources both sides will bring to our efforts,” Mr. Bennett said. “This is a bold move—and the right one—for the long-term, optimum growth of sports car racing.”
The two series have been competing for the sports car racing audience for the past 13 years.
The Grand-Am series was formed in 1999, the vision of founder Jim France, son of late NASCAR founder Bill France. NASCAR Holdings owns Grand-Am, and it—along with the merged series—will be based in Daytona Beach.
Pharmaceutical magnate Don Panoz founded the Atlanta-based ALMS in 1998, with its first season in 1999. Mr. Panoz owns Road Atlanta and controls the lease to Sebring International Raceway, each of which will pass to the new organization.
Grand-Am has used a simpler formula for its cars—simpler both in concept and mechanical execution.
The ALMS has been more manufacturer-driven, with more classes and more complex categories. The ALMS' top class, LMP1, has suffered following the withdrawal from international sports car racing of one of its top teams, the factory Peugeot entry, and because the dominant car in LMP1, Audi, made the trip to the U.S. only for the 12 Hours of Sebring this year. Both series have strong GT classes.
Mr. Bennett said the deal “looks good from a business standpoint but it also feels good from a historical standpoint. Both Grand-Am and the ALMS have lineages tied to Daytona Beach, Daytona International Speedway and the France family. This announcement is a proud moment for all involved, as we now look forward to a bright future for sports car racing.”
The merger—it can be called that, though clearly Grand-Am is the driving force—is reminiscent of the merger of the Indy Racing League and the ChampCar World Series, which became one entity following an announcement on Feb. 22, 2008, that the IRL would be the lone major open-wheel series in the U.S.
Unlike that deal, though—ChampCar was financially on the ropes—this is not a rescue of a financially bereft ALMS. The series has, according to ALMS President Scott Atherton, made money the last few seasons.
Grand-Am founder and NASCAR Vice Chairman Jim France said the merger is exciting both “on a professional and a personal level, with me being a long-time sports car fan. This merger was achieved through a true spirit of cooperation. Moving forward, that same spirit will drive our day-to-day efforts.”
Most of the teams are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Team owner Alex Job, who has competed and won in both the ALMS and Grand-Am, said that in the long run, “It's probably better to have one strong sports car series, than two competing against each other.
“Of course,” he added, “only time will tell.”
Michelin also lauded the efforts of both the ALMS and Grand-Am for promoting sports car racing in North America in the past decade. “We believe that by going forward together that the sport can grow bigger and faster and bring even greater value to the fans and the stakeholders.”
This report is based on reporting by Steven Cole Smith of Autoweek magazine, a Detroit-based companion publication of Tire Business, with input from Bruce Davis, Tire Business staff.