If you’re a sports car racing fan, the Circuit of The Americas is the place to be this weekend, as the FIA World Endurance Championship and American Le Mans Series take part in the first-ever Super Endurance Weekend in Austin, Texas.
The six-hour FIA WEC race will be a rare chance to see the factory prototypes from Audi and Toyota, along with a brace of factory GTE entries from Aston Martin, Porsche and Ferrari on U.S. soil, the same cars which battled in the recent 24 Hours of Le Mans.
SPEED caught up with FIA WEC CEO Gerard Neveu, in an exclusive interview, to get his thoughts ahead of the big weekend ahead as well as the future of the globe-trotting championship in America.
John Dagys: What was the reason of having the U.S. round at COTA and not at a more established venue such as Sebring or Petit Le Mans?
Gerard Neveu: “We started our first venture with the American Le Mans Series two years ago at Sebring and Petit Le Mans [with the then-called Intercontinental Le Mans Cup] and very, very quickly we faced two major problems.
“It was very difficult to bring the two series into the same race. Last year at Sebring, it was really at the limit. We spent a lot of time under the safety car because of too much traffic. We could not go over 55 cars. That meant some cars from ALMS could not participate. It was not reasonable to continue in this way.
“We were working immediately with Scott Atherton [ALMS President and CEO] to visit some places in the U.S. and to find one circuit where we could be together on the same weekend, but have two races. We made visits to California and Texas and quickly we made a definition about the different places possible regarding the logistics.
“When we discovered the Circuit of The Americas, we quickly understood this was the FIA standard for a World Championship and there’s a place to welcome the WEC in the garages and paddock, etc.
“We had a good discussion with [COTA President] Steve Sexton and we started to initialize the program there. The best compromise was to be in COTA for sure, because it is a top place to work with both series together on the same weekend.”
JD: What are your expectations for this weekend’s inaugural round?
GN: “This year will be the first Super Weekend that we will organize together. I think the first edition is a time to learn a lot between ourselves. I think the people from COTA don’t have a big knowledge of endurance [racing] and about the spirit of Le Mans.
“They’ve had a short experience with motorsport because the circuit only opened one year ago. We have to work first together and try to increase the event year after year, step by step.”
JD: How will you measure the success, considering the ILMC/WEC has only been to America with established events?
GN: “The first thing we have to do is not try to make any comparisons to Sebring or Petit Le Mans. Because you cannot compare established events, like Sebring, with 60 years of history, when you’re creating an event for the first time. It’s impossible. What I would like to do is to have something similar with the ambience and the package at COTA.
“Formula One is not the only way. An endurance weekend is formatted totally different than Formula One. F1 is, ‘Buy your ticket, sit in the grandstand with your cap purchased at the merchandise tent, with your hot dog and beer, watch the race and go home.’
“In endurance, you typically come for two or three days and you don’t always stay in the grandstands because [it’s a six-hour race]. The people can go in the paddock and meet the drivers. There are many things different.
“I think the target for this year [is to have the people from] COTA learn about that and we have a good number of spectators for the first edition. But we have to be reasonable. A successful event happens after two or three years, not immediately after the first year. This is very difficult to do.”
JD: Do you expect to have another double-header event at COTA next year with the newly named Tudor United SportsCar Championship?
GN: “I hope so. This is the target. That’s the plan with the [USCC] is to continue like this. We have already discussed a date for next year. I don’t see any reason why we cannot work together on the same weekend and continue like this. It makes sense.
“[USCC] is the best stage for endurance in the U.S. and WEC is the top world series for endurance, so it makes sense to put those two together. There is also a strong link between the ACO and [USCC]. So it’s logical to have the event together.”
JD: How important is the U.S. market to the WEC?
GN: “It’s very important. Actually, you can consider that you have three [worldwide] markets. You have the historic market in Europe that is not running very well. United States is a very strong and dynamic market… And you have Asia.
“In Europe, we’re starting to say that we could use other modes of transportation. In the U.S., the car is the culture. I think the U.S. market is very important. When we discuss with the manufacturers, this is a very important place. It looks interesting for the future.”
JD: Have you been pleased with the steady growth of the WEC?
GN: “The idea is clear. As we said from the beginning, we had a four year plan. We said that in 2015, we’d stop at the end of the season and take a picture to see where we are. Now we are in the second year and we are on [schedule]. We also know this is the worst year because we have a transition year for LMP1. But at this moment, I would say that all of the lights are green.
“The idea is to always increase and grow. This year, we made the first figures and statistics to compare. We have more cars on the grid. We have more fans at the tracks, as well as more journalists and more TV coverage. It means we are in a good direction. It’s never enough, but we never said the race is finished. We’re only on the second lap.
“Next year is real interesting because we know we’ll have more LMP1 cars. We’ll probably keep the same level of LMP2 cars because it works very well. In GT, we have a lot of interest, so it looks very interesting. We’ve had discussions with a lot of different manufacturers and we’ve been engaged with a lot of private teams and there’s a lot of interest from this side.”