It’s the height of presumption for a club-level racer such as myself to believe that I can effectively analyze a race like the 2009 Petit LeMans. To some degree, until the day comes that I put on my helmet and sit behind the wheel of an LMP1 in a major race, I’ll be doing nothing but vaguely educated guessing as regards what goes on beneath the surface in the ALMS — and that day will mostly likely never arrive. Still, after some conversations with the people who did put their helmets on for this one, and after reviewing the video at length, I think it’s safe to make some basic observations about what happened during this most unusual episode of America’s roadracing history.
The pace at which enduros run is climbing rapidly, but the awareness and strategy isn’t keeping up. From the splendid environs of Audi’s hospitality tent overlooking Turn One, I watched the assembled Quattro-fans erupt in cheers as Alan McNish made a risky move at the start to pass both Peugeots. “Did you see that?” someone asked me.
“Yes, and it was ridiculous.” Ten-hour races can’t be won into the first corner; they can only be lost. The same applies to Scott Sharp’s inability to see a GT2 Porsche in practice a day before. It is well-understood nowadays that pretty much every long-distance race up to and including the 24 Hours of LeMons is run at sprint-race speed, but that doesn’t mean you can be as careless or reckless during the weekend as you might in a 28-minute NASA sprint.
The LMP Challenge may cause as many problems as it solves. Opinions vary on Grand-Am’s Daytona Prototype class, but many of the negative comments regarding the “pumpkin seeds” came from ALMS aficionados who felt that they had “true prototypes” compared to Grand-Am’s “spec racers”. Well, with the LMP Challenge class, which features a spec chassis and motor, ALMS has finally admitted what everybody else has known for a long time, namely that it’s not possible in this country to fill grids with megabuck one-off prototypes. Nor is it terribly exciting for the fans when the performance gaps between teams are large enough to accurately predict the finishing order from the entry sheet.
The LMP Challenge may help fill those sparse ALMS grids, but at what cost? Surely fans who are willing to watch a high-dollar prototype spec series would enjoy Daytona Prototype even more, while the self-professed technology geeks who follow the “true prototypes” will be annoyed at the rapidity with which teams abandon expensive, unreliable ex-LMP2 cars to run in Challenge. On the other hand, it’s easy to see how these cars could be performance-equalized with DPs for the (shhhhhhh) inevitable merger between the series. This is eerily reminiscent of Champ Car’s decision to go totally “spec”, and I predict similar long-term results.
Looking for consistency in rules and regulations? Forget about being a race fan. Why exactly was the PLM recognized as a full-length race? It didn’t meet the requirements for one, and although one could argue that the time difference between the actual time and the required time was minimal… hey, this is auto racing. We take minimal time differences seriously. The decision was prejudicial to the existing order in the GT2 championship and there was nothing in the rulebook to support it, other than the usual caveats about the rules being subject to interpretation and change. It took more than an hour for the decision to come down from ALMS management, which is usually a sign that phone calls are being made and deals are being done. Presumably there were powerful, influential people making the case both for and against calling it a full-distance race, and there was simply more leverage on the “for” side.
The rulebook in racing is flexible. Always was, always will be. Ask any club racer, F1 fan, or NASCAR viewer. In this case, it was slightly annoying that the decision was dragged out so long, leaving fans literally out in the rain for hours, but at least ALMS announced the winners at the end of the event. It’s a long-time circle-track maxim that the spectators should leave the track knowing who won. Cuts down on the riots, dontcha know, even among the wine-and-cheese set.
The Peugeot 908 is the most impressive closed-wheel car racing today. The Drayson Lola-Judd (pictured above) is beautiful beyond words, the Audi R15 is a technological masterpiece, but the Peugeot transcends the rest of sports-car racing in majesty, detailing, graphic design, and sheer visual drama. Whatever you have to do to observe one up close is worth doing. It’s a big car, in a way that prototypes may never be again, and it accelerates with a wobbling violence that defies belief. I found the trip to Atlanta to be entirely worth the hassle, despite the weather, despite the (under)half-length race, despite the traffic. I saw the 908 run. Don’t miss your chance, when that chance comes.