ALMS looking forward to 2011 season
The American Le Mans Series opens its season hoping a new television package, a Green Racing initiative and a full field at its marquee event will lead to the best year yet for the sports car series.
The season begins Saturday in Florida with the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 59th running of the endurance classic. There are 56 cars entered, the most since 2002, as the event is also the opener of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup - a seven-race Grand Slam of sorts for sports-car racers that has lured many European teams to Sebring.
''Now we definitely have a global world championship,'' said Audi factory driver Tom Kristensen. ''It's something everyone has been looking forward to.''
Audi, winners of Le Mans last season, skipped Sebring a year ago. But the team is back this year, with its old car because its new model is not completed, simply because it wants to compete in the ILMC.
It will pit the German manufacturer against French rival Peugeot, but Audi acknowledges its car will be slower.
''The rules dictate that we can't be as fast, but that doesn't mean we'll just be going for points,'' said Alan McNish, a three-time ALMS champion. ''Once the race starts, the gloves will come off. Traffic and yellows are going to come into it and could keep it close right to the end.''
But ALMS officials are thinking far beyond Sebring and the large field drawn in part because of the ILMC.
The focus this year is on the two newest initiatives, beginning with the multiyear broadcast and digital agreement with ESPN that begins this season. ALMS president Scott Atherton called the deal a ''game changer'' because it will utilize ABC, ESPN2 and ESPN3.com during the season.
This weekend, ESPN3.com will carry live, flag-to-flag coverage of all 12 hours of the event, as well as Friday's qualifying. A 90-minute condensed version of the race will air Sunday on ABC.
The partnership, though, ensures that all nine ALMS events will be live on ESPN3.com, with highlights shown on a delayed basis on either ABC or ESPN2.
Atherton said the multiple platforms ensure fans have at least some access to all the events.
''It combines a core conventional television component, a live digital Web delivery component, an on-demand option and potential other methods of viewing that are being embraced by our ever-growing 18-34 demographic,'' he said.
ALMS also is proud of its visionary Green Racing initiative, which is offering incentives this year to teams that use alternative fuels and efficient technology while competing. Winners of the ''Green X Challenge'' from the LMP and GT classes will be determined at the end of each ALMS race, and season champions will be crowned.
The reward to the season champions is substantial: automatic entry into next season's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
ALMS was the first racing series to allow alternative fuels in 2007, and the list of approved fuels expanded to include isobutanol, a blended gasoline with a component derived from renewable resources such as sugar cane, corn and wheat. Isobutanol is the fifth approved fuel option, and has been used by Dyson Racing since last season.
Those initiatives will be in place long after Sebring ends, and the influx of European teams will race elsewhere until the Petit Le Mans finale at Road Atlanta, the other ALMS event on the ILMC schedule.
Although there are 11 LMPA prototypes entered at Sebring, only three are full-time ALMS cars that have confirmed they will run a full season. Reigning champion Highcroft Racing has not committed to anything besides Sebring and Le Mans.
Atherton believes the field will improve, though, after the initial exodus following Sebring.
''There's no hiding that we have a small car count for the beginning of the season,'' said Atherton, ''but I am certain it will improve. It is something that we are very focused on, and we are in direct dialogue on a daily basis with car manufacturers, teams and suppliers.''