Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Merging Grand-Am and ALMS: Pessimism towards a Foolproof Future

“This is going to be a disaster.”

Those were the words of the late storyteller and humorist David Rakoff, speaking in defense of what he touted as ‘defensive pessimism’. His statement wasn’t alluding to anything specific but rather a coping mechanism for the mind in dealing with life’s problems.

So what’s wrong with seeing the brighter side of things?  “Positive thinking broadens your thinking,” explained Rakoff. “It is a bigger picture, rosy way of looking at things. Negative thinking is more detail oriented and is contingency based. If you have to get down to the nitty gritty details of how something is going to work and move forward, you actually do need contingency thinking.”

The details were certainly lacking during last Wednesday’s press conference at Daytona confirming the historic merger between Grand-Am Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series for 2014. Few facts percolated from the half hour long conference: ALMS and Road Atlanta were being sold to Grand-Am / NASCAR Holdings along with a long term lease for Sebring Raceway in Florida. The two series will continue to operate as separate entities in 2013 owing to various contracts set to expire at the end of next year.  This will presumably give ample time for new management, expected to be a mix of senior figures from both Grand-Am and ALMS, to hammer out the new regulations that will form this new, combined sportscar series.

The future looks plenty rosy. At least that was the pitch.

Grand-Am CEO Ed Bennett waxed poetic about what the merger meant for the future of American sportscar racing. “This new approach is going to be revolutionary, as we take the best components from two premium brands, combine them and then benefit mutually from the considerable resources both sides will bring to our efforts. This is a bold move – and the right one – for the long-term, optimum growth of sports car racing.”

Scott Atherton, ALMS CEO echoed the same grandiose rhetoric. “This merger will blend the best assets and attributes of each organization in terms of technical rules, officiating, marketing, communications, personnel, scheduling and broadcasting. The result will be one of the strongest, most competitive and powerful motorsports marketing platforms in the world.”

Yet underneath the swathes of positivity, the gritty details of this new unified series are nowhere to be found. There was no decision made on a formal class structure, suffice to say it will be a compromise between the current Grand-Am and ALMS Classes.  There is talk of the DeltaWing making a comeback in a new unspecified class that will focus on emergent experimental technologies. The 2014 calendar will have “around” 12 races, a number thrown out “because it sounded like a nice even number,” according to Atherton. The new combined series doesn’t even have a name yet. For a merger that took over 6 months to engineer, the absence of something as basic as a series name made it seem like little progress had been made beyond the fundamental concept of ‘unification’.

If all of this sounds overly critical, that’s because it is. The powers that be did a great job reassuring everyone that that everything was going to be alright. The possibilities boundless - Strength in unity and mutual benefit for all, as it were.  But this rosy portrait stopped short of revealing any concrete information on how this new future will be achieved.

The immediacy of the Internet and Social Media meant that everyone from fans to drivers and engineers were sounding off at as soon as the news broke. The devil may be in the details, but the lack of them further exacerbated the rampant speculation.

From the technical front, equalizing the two series will be a daunting task. The main point of contention was between the prototypes.

“I don’t think you can performance balance the 2 classes,’ tweeted Level 5 Racing Engineer Jeff Braun, speaking to attempts at parity between the rudimentary Daytona Prototypes and the electronics-laden Le Mans Prototypes. “Even if you get them to run the same lap time they will never race wheel to wheel. They would do the lap in such different ways as to be in each other’s way. The racing would be bad… Braking, traction, aero, too different.”

“Both classes are sportscar racing, but that’s like saying checkers and chess are both board games. How the heck are you going to equate them?”

Conquest Endurance Driver David Heinemeier Hansson took to a slash and burn approach, eschewing all prototypes in the future in favour of a unified GT field.

“The other extreme is to kill both DP and LMP and just turn the whole thing into GT. Between GTC, Grand-Am GT, and GTE it's a strong field.

“I absolutely love LMP and multi-class racing. But let's be honest, ALMS GT is the star show in all of US Sportscar racing.

“I really hope that all this works out in the end and there are certainly great people in place to try. So fingers crossed.”

“Right now, everyone is towing the party line,” said entrepreneur and gentleman racer Alan Wilzig. “But people will say anything to get a merger done.”

“I am not a fan of vertical integration… The whole thing is going to be less appealing.”

Wilzig is no stranger to the high stakes arena of mergers and acquisitions. He built his fortune in banking, having successfully engineered a multi-million dollar merger in 2004. He now races in the Cooper Tires Prototypes Lites Series, honing his skills in the hopes of realizing his boyhood dream of racing at the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Unabashedly candid with his opinions, Wilzig also expressed concern over the future of driver development. The professional drivers who molded themselves into the pin-sharp driving machines that they are today are the superheroes of racing. But the gentleman drivers are the raison d’etre of the motorsport business.

“Right now IMSA Lites offers the biggest bang for the buck for Pro-Am Drivers who are trying to make it into LeMans prototype racing,” said Wilzig.  A development series like the Prototypes Lites ensures a consistent flow of Pro-Am drivers into the sport, and with it a reliable influx of capital. After all, somebody has to write the cheques for the privilege.

In the face of uncertainty however, Wilzig’s unbridled enthusiasm for sportscar racing and its future remain undeterred.

“You may see some unlikely partnerships. But as long as it is successful then I am happy for everybody.”

And there’s the common thread in all of the criticism: Beyond the seemingly endless negativity, there is an underlying optimism – albeit cautious – For the new unified series to do well, an anxious but unanimous will for the merger to succeed.

But in order to get there, the hard questions that remain unanswered on Wednesday need to be repeatedly examined, deconstructed and a compromise found that will live up to the promise that the merger so espouses. While management’s positive outlook is great optics from a public relations point of view, it is equally important to temper the brimming optimism with reality; to heed the criticisms and come up with the necessary details so as to avoid any possibility of a negative outcome. The goal is not to achieve success, but rather to avoid failure.

The stakes have never been higher for sportscar racing in America. It is time to embrace the pragmatism, and forge ahead towards a foolproof future.

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