DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 24, 2013) -- North American sports car racing resides on the cusp of change, with the opportunity for greatness beckoning. What better place to amplify that conversation than the most renowned sports car race in the world?
This year's 90th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 22-23 will serve as the facilitator, showcasing some of the best drivers from both the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patr�n (ALMS) and GRAND-AM Road Racing -- 31 to be exact.
Next year, ALMS and GRAND-AM will become one, known as United SportsCar Racing. The man heading the board of directors guiding USCR, GRAND-AM founder Jim France, will wave the French flag on the afternoon (9 p.m. ET) of June 22 to start the race.
Let the talk begin.
Storylines abound regarding America's two, formerly competing sports car entities coming to the Circuit de la Sarthe this summer -- starting with France, the son of Bill France Sr., the man who founded both NASCAR and the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA).
Bill France Sr. -- known as "Big Bill" -- may have loved stock car racing, but sports cars weren't far behind. When he built a massive 2.5-mile track in 1959 in Daytona Beach, Fla., the facility's name was no accident. Daytona International Speedway was intended to be just that: a track with worldwide cachet that attracted the world's top sports car teams on certain weekends -- mainly the running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, which will be held for the 52nd time in January.
From the time the first shovel of dirt was unearthed in the late 1950s, Big Bill envisioned hosting major international sports car races at Daytona, and was always enchanted by Le Mans' twice-around-the-clock test.
Enchantment led to enterprise.
In 1976, Big Bill worked with the Automobile Club de I'Ouest (ACO) to bring a special stock car class into the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The one-time-only Grand International class had two cars -- a Ford Torino driven by Richard Brooks, Dick Hutcherson and Frenchman Marcel Mignot; and a Dodge Charger driven by Hershel and Doug McGriff. Neither car finished -- but who cared? There were stock cars on the course and in the flag stand at the start was another France waving the flag, Bill France Jr., Jim France's older brother who at the time was NASCAR's president.
Bill Jr.'s wife Betty Jane France made the trip. Thirty-seven years later, the memories are vivid.
"That was very special," she recalled. "We brought the French flag back to America and then put it on display at Bill Sr.'s favorite restaurant in Daytona Beach, a French place called Chez Bruchez. They kept the flag up for as long as the restaurant was in business."
This June, history comes full circle as for the first time in the 90-year history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the start will have been given by two members of the same family.
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Appropriately on June 20 at Le Mans the starting flag will be presented to Jim France by Dr. Don Panoz -- founder of the ALMS -- in the presence of ACO President Pierre Fillon. Synergy and symbolism: Panoz is the vice chairman of the new sports car board of directors. The ACO recently gave official endorsement of the new United SportsCar Racing platform.
Linkage to the French event was what Panoz had in mind in 1999 when he created the ALMS, which provided competitors with direct access to competing at Le Mans. The ALMS schedule includes the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring and the Petit Le Mans, a season-ending 10-hour race at Road Atlanta designed by Panoz in 1999 to capture the spirit of the European classic.
With 24 Hours of Le Mans invitations annually given to its top competitors, the ALMS tradition at Le Mans continues next month, when seven cars representing five teams and a total of 23 full-time ALMS drivers are entered.
"The significance of this honor bestowed by the ACO cannot be overstated," said ALMS President and CEO Scott Atherton. "It's a reflection of the great relationship that's been forged with Le Mans over the last 15 years and that I'm sure will continue to grow in the years ahead."
This year, Corvette Racing will chase its eighth class victory since 2001. Antonio Garcia, Oliver Gavin, Jan Magnussen, Tommy Milner, Jordan Taylor and Richard Westbrook will drive for the two-car team competing in the GTE Pro class.
SRT Motorsports will also field two cars in GTE Pro, a pair of Viper GTS-Rs, while Level 5 Motorsports competes for the third consecutive year in LMP2. Other single-car entries are from Rebellion Racing in LMP1 and Dempsey Del Piero-Proton, with a lineup including racer/actor Patrick Dempsey, in the GTE Am class.
The GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series will be represented by one team -- 8Star Motorsports in GTE Am -- and eight full-time drivers including Ryan Dalziel, Bill Auberlen and Taylor.
Some final perspective from Atherton: "I believe that endurance sports car racing devotees the world over will take this historic occasion as another sign of the great momentum and true partnership the ALMS and GRAND-AM have achieved since the announcement of our merger."
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