In the Pole Position

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Paul Mounce / Corbis

On track Porsche at Toyota Grand Prix

When the economy ran out of gas a few years ago and Detroit went cap in hand to Washington, motor-sports leviathan Chevrolet cut all but two of its 13 racing programs. The first survivor, NASCAR, was expected to make the cut. The other, the much lesser known American Le Mans Series (ALMS), not so much. But there was a solid rationale.

"Corvette sales tracked directly to customer leads at ALMS races doubled from 2005 to 2009," says John Fitzpatrick, Chevrolet Performance Cars marketing manager.

Though much younger and lower in the motor-sports pecking order than NASCAR and IndyCar (the rebranded Indy Racing League), the American Le Mans Series, currently on break as several of its teams head to France in preparation for the namesake 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in June, may nonetheless be the most significant racing circuit in the U.S.

Relatively young in a long-established sport — the first organized auto race was held more than 120 years ago — the American Le Mans Series has heritage by association with the French-based Automobile Club de l'Ouest. The U.S. group married into the history of Le Mans, the world's oldest endurance race, a 24-hour jaunt, which was first run in 1923.

ALMS doesn't boast big-name drivers with late-night talk-show guest creds and lucrative commercial endorsements like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson or Danica Patrick, but it certainly has the hot wheels — Aston Martins, BMWs, Corvettes, Ferraris, Jaguars and Porsches — that so many people covet. "The cars are the stars," says ALMS CEO Scott Atherton.

With that, ALMS can lay claim to something that NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, lost years ago. Many of the ALMS cars, the GT class, are actually stock, something that hasn't been the case in Daytona, Charlotte or Talladega for nearly 30 years. "It's a platform that enables manufacturers to truly race what they sell," says Atherton.

"This proves what we have heard anecdotally from other Corvette owners," adds Fitzpatrick. "Watching production-based Corvettes win against legendary marques like BMW, Porsche and Ferrari, on legendary tracks like Sebring and Le Mans, makes Corvette all the more desirable."

"I think it's exactly what we need," says Rick Hendrick, an eight-time NASCAR Sprint Cup championship owner who generates most of his money selling expensive sports cars, including BMWs and Corvettes. "When a new car comes out and they showcase it at one of those races, we don't even have to advertise it."

American Le Mans races feature four classes of sleek road-hugging prototypes and production-based sports cars of varying top speeds and handling characteristics, all on the course simultaneously in timed races that range from two hours and 45 minutes to 12 hours. That makes for driver changes, lots of traffic, dramatic passing and expensive repairs when fast and faster come together.

Vince Wood, an engineer for the Dyson Racing Mazda team, describes it as "somewhere between a race and a fight. It's not like Indy cars, where they all have the same car and they're sensitive about touching each other and all that. We go at it."

"Driving in an environment like this requires being really aggressive but not stupid," says driver Johannes van Overbeek, who pilots a Ferrari 458 GT for Extreme Speed Motorsports. "If you're timid, you'll get run over."

Aggression pays. In an era in which every sport, not just racing, is battling setbacks in attendance, lower TV ratings and diminished sponsorship money, Le Mans series officials say 2010 was its most profitable season to date. From 13 series sponsors and 10 team sponsors five years ago, there are now 19 series sponsors and 26 for teams. Total admissions for 2010 were just over 726,700 — an average paid attendance of over 80,000 people per event — which is a 6% increase over the previous season. In comparison, NASCAR's marquee Daytona 500 reported 180,000 in attendance in February, while the following week's races in Phoenix and Las Vegas were estimated at 75,000 and 152,000.

If NASCAR is the NFL, then the American Le Mans looks to be the PGA, which bases its value on audience quality over quantity. Various research places the median income of a NASCAR fan in the $50,000 range, while ALMS fans boast more than twice that. There are many within the fervent base who drive Beemers, 'Vettes and Porsches. While all that could ensure that ALMS will never have an official snack food or soda, it may well demand attention from an official investment bank, luxury resort or high-ticket tequila.

That's what car sponsor Patrón, whose 0.75-L Gran Platinum tequila retails in the $200 range, was thinking when it added the series' presenting sponsorship on a three-year deal.

"This consumer enjoys quality," notes Patrón marketing chief Matt Carroll, "and they relate to the brands that are out there on the track." That includes the cars racing on it, many of which are modified street cars with sticker prices that start at about $75,000 for the BMW M3 and go up from there to the Corvette, whose Z41 opens at $107,000, and the $300,000 Ferrari F458.

Ask for a one-word description of ALMS and Atherton will say, "Relevant." NASCAR's relevance certainly isn't under the hood. Its carbureted engines are powerful, but they are also Jurassic holdouts under spec-built sheet metal that require logos to let you know which factory they represent. While NASCAR seeks to eliminate gray areas of innovation, ALMS, the only racing series cited as green by the EPA, embraces it, allowing, among other things, the use of five types of biofuel. At every race, there is an EPA- and Department of Energy — endorsed Green Challenge Award, sponsored by Michelin, that goes to the prototype and GT team that scores best in overall performance, fuel efficiency and minimal environmental impact.

"I think ALMS is relevant to the real automotive marketplace because of the freedom to explore technologies," says team owner and former Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal, who also owns 16 car dealerships in Pennsylvania. "Racing should improve the everyday street car, and perhaps this is the only series that can lay claim to that these days."

To reverse the old adage, if the American Le Mans Series can continue to sell on Monday, it will no doubt win on Sunday.