Been a long time since I've written anything here, but as someone who much prefers to bring up topics for polite debate and thought rather than talk about news, there hasn't been a whole lot to bring up. IndyCar's newfound momentum is undebatable, NASCAR and F1 generate too much volatility, and sportscar racing has been too under-the-radar to have much worth debating.
In the past few months, however, that one has changed.
Three major events have come about in recent months—the new LMP rules, the impending revamp of the Daytona Prototype, and now the ALMS 2011 broadcast schedule—to spark some good debate on the future. And while one of those topics does seem to be a powder keg, I think it's one worth risking setting off—unlike NASCAR and F1 debates.
As I have said several times before, I am a rather generalized racing fan. My preferred sport has greatly varied depending on the quality of racing in various series. I love technology, I love beautiful cars, but I love good racing above all else.
To that end, my favorite series in recent years has been the American Le Mans Series. Even in it's darkest times it produced great shows while giving us beautiful high-tech cars to look at. If the LMPs weren't giving us a good show, the GTs always made up for it. And when the LMPs gave us a good show, they gave us a DAMN GOOD SHOW.
Times shave been tough on the series recently, though. Tough sponsorship market due to the economy, lack of viewership on Speed and the impending rules revamp—not to mention Audi of America's refusal to step up and bring the biggest name in Le Mans racing back to the series—has placed them in a tough spot. The only saving grace being the rules revamp's system of grandfathering in older cars for a season or two to ease the transition for cash-strapped operations.
It's enough to make a series desperate for extra exposure, and the new ALMS broadcast contract definitely reeks of desperation.
But is it really as harmful as many fans claim?
I'm on the fence on this deal—I'm very upset about Sebring and Petit's ridiculously short broadcast times on TV, but on the other hand most of the other races have reasonable two-hour broadcast periods which, while not ideal, can sufficiently contain the meat of the races without losing anything major. Long Beach particularly won't have to be trimmed down in any way that wouldn't have already occurred with a live TV broadcast.
But it makes up for it with full live broadcasts on ESPN3. Or does it?
ESPN3 is somewhat inconvenient for many. Some of us—myself included—don't have access right now and many that do don't like the idea of sitting in front of their computers to watch the live races. Some don't have connections fast enough to get an unpixelated video. Although options exist to solve both of these problems—if I had access to ESPN3 I would be able to watch it on my TV thanks to PlayOn, for instance,but they all require extra money—some a subscription, some a one-time payment.
But at least the option is there. And here's the important things to consider about ESPN3:
1: Their current market penetration is on par with Speed, giving the ALMS live broadcasts equal accessibility to the old Speed deal.
2: ESPN3's accessibility is growing at a rapid rate—half the people cut off from the live broadcasts by this deal will likely have access before Sebring. ABC/ESPN is serious about getting ESPN3 into every household with an Internet connection.
3: Races will be archived for later viewing—a benefit the Speed deal did not have.
4: The Internet is quickly becoming an alternate entertainment source to many people. Advertising on the Internet is VERY lucrative nowadays.
Many of the new deal's detractors complain about the ESPN3 so much that they have completely ignored important details of the TV part of the deal, or simply not acknowledged the PRESENCE of a TV deal. The most common complaints I hear complain that the TV broadcasts are all week-delayed docudramas (like the two CBS race broadcasts last year), or that they won't be able to watch ANYTHING without any TV broadcasts.
1: According to the ALMS press release, there is only one docudrama in the lineup: Baltimore. According to the published TV schedule, there is only one race broadcast a week late: Baltimore. Everything else is next-day(or same-day in the case of Mosport) highlighted coverage—far more preferable to a docudrama if you ask me (though one or two docudramas per year is acceptable to me).
2: THERE IS A TV DEAL. Denying this doesn't give your argument any weight, it just looks like you're complaining for the sake of complaining. It's a real headache for people who are actually trying to discuss the actual merits of the deal.
And here's a simple, undeniable fact about this deal: The series is FAR more accessible under this deal than it was on Speed. People weren't watching on Speed, and the series got desperate. So they went with a less-than-ideal live schedule mixed in a highly-accessible network TV schedule in the hopes of snaring new fans. Like it or hate it, the schedule has POTENTIAL to save the series for the sole purpose that is has significantly broadened it's accessibility.
Will it work? Only time will tell. There's good reason to be optimistic, and just as much reason to be pessimistic. One thing we can be certain of: If there isn't a definite gain after one year, the ALMS will not make any gains on this deal.
Which brings us on to Grand-Am, long considered the joke of US road racing by ALMS fans, they have taken a step that could shed their status as a joke for all time.
In 2012, a significant revamp of the Daytona Prototype class is to be undertaken. Termed by SpeedTV.com's Marshall Pruett as "the Beautification of the DP class," it is that and so much more. Double-element rear wings, smaller roofs, and the implementation of turbo engines would turn the DP class into a genuine sports prototype class, rather than the ugly joke of a class it's always been.
DPs have always had one—and only one—real benefit: They usually produce exciting on-track action. Though 2010 was an epic fail in that regard, we all know the class is greatly capable of it.
Grand-Am is an arm of NASCAR's attempt to dominate the US racing landscape, and if they can keep the series running with reasonably good-looking cars and great action they'll never hear a complaint out of me. I once posed the questions that the DP's styling was a failed throwback to the old GTP and Group C cars—failed solely on account of its oversized driver compartment. Fix that, and add technology like turbos, and we DO have a genuine throwback to those good old days.
The key to Grand-Am's "Beautification" of the DP class is that it comes in 2012—after a year of the new ALMS broadcast deal. This means if the deal fails and the ALMS loses more sponsors and, by extension, more entries Grand Am can spout it's new, beautiful prototypes to attract fans.
I want Grand-Am to be on a level where if the ALMS dies out, I won't feel cheated out of a good sportscar series. The Beautification of the DPs will give us exactly that situation.
And now, finally, the single biggest element in all of this, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup.
The creation of the ILMC has been the biggest single moment in sportscar racing since the demise of Group C and IMSA GTP. The ILMC has created speculation about which teams will bother with full seasons in both the Europe and American Le Mans Series. Level 5 was expected to be ILMC only and it surprised many people when they announced a full ALMS schedule with eyes on ILMC. The recent confirmation of Cytosport as a full-time ALMS team with Aston Martin quelled expectation that AMR would be ILMC-only.
Is an LMP-based World Sportscar Championship combined with a beautified Grand-Am as the US-dedicated sportscar championship an acceptable concept if the ALMS can't save itself?
In a way, the ILMC seems to be doing more harm than good to the continental championships. But is this a bad thing?
Think back to the 1980s—the height the Group C/GTP era. There were two championships—a World Sportscar Championship for Group C cars, and America GTP series. There was no dedicated European championship (though the structure of the time made it a European Championship in all but name and two or three races depending on the season).
If the ALMS fails, the Beautification of the Daytona Prototype could bring us back to similar times. Only difference being that unlike the Group C/GTP days our championship will be unique in regulations from the World Championship.
We all love the ALMS for it's technology and beautiful cars, but if Grand-Am beautifies it's car and adds more tech, why couldn't it be the top sportscar series in the US? There is no reason it couldn't.
The way things are shaping up, the worst-case scenario is that the ALMS dies out leaving Sebring and Petit Le Mans as US rounds in a new World Sportscar Championship using LMP rules, and Grand-Am running beautiful reasonably high-tech cars as the top American sportscar championship.
And if THAT is the WORST-CASE scenario, I don't think it'd be so bad. I don't want to see the ALMS go away, but if this is the worst that can happen, would it really be that big a deal? It'd certainly wouldn't be splitting the fanbase anymore.