The idea behind the unification of the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Series is simple: one sports car series for the United States.
In that vein, it's similar to the merger between Champ Car and the IndyCar Series five seasons ago. Two similar series blended under one sanctioning body to not only enhance competition, but also ease confusion amongst fans.
For the new United SportsCar Racing series, it's not that simple. Yet. When Champ Car and the then Indy Racing League came together, the teams that made the move from Champ Car started running the Honda engines and Dallara chassis that the IndyCar teams were using. While the USCR will include four sports car classifications when it begins in 2014, the cars within two of those classes will be blended together from both series. While they may look similar to the casual fan, that's about as far as they go.
The two merged classes are the new GT-Daytona class and Prototype class. (The GT Le Mans and LMPC classes are coming over straight from ALMS.) The GT-D class will include the cars that you see in the Grand-Am GT class -- the Porsches, BMWs and Camaros that most strongly resemble high-performance cars you'd see next to you at a stoplight -- and Porsches from the GT-Challenge class in the current ALMS. The new Prototype class is a merger of the LMP2 class in ALMS and the Daytona Prototype classification in Grand-Am. Those are the cars that bear a vague resemblance to the Batmobile.
"I try to keep my head and nose in all the information I can get," DP team owner Michael Shank said. "Information is king, so that I can start to do some predictions of where we want to be from a performance standpoint, meaning we can take our best guess at what we think is going to happen and be prepared before other people would be. So we can start thinking about what we think is going to happen."
That predicting is important. Because of the combining of cars, teams haven't received word on what the technical specifications for those classes will be and what changes they'll have to make to their cars to conform with 2014 rules. Nor has the schedule for next season been released.
"We don’t know, like you said, the schedule. We don’t know how much our budgets are going to change," Spirit of Daytona team owner Troy Flis said. "All we can do is estimate. But being in the sport ... being in the sport for 15 years is, you know what pretty much is coming. We can give and take a little bit – but you’re going to miss it by a little bit – but you’re going to pretty much figure it out at the end of the day."
One of the biggest things to figure out in the combined prototype class is the stark differences between the LMP2 and DP cars. On August 8 and 9, both series raced at Road America in Wisconsin, the first time they've shared a track weekend together. The LMP2 cars ran laps around the four-mile road course that were six and seven seconds faster than DP cars.
"It’s a lot," driver Richard Westbrook said. "We can speed the DPs up six seconds, but you don’t know how much that extra load on the car is going to start – we have no idea if your car is going to blow up in under an hour in Daytona because it’s under so much load because it's going six seconds a lap quicker. So that is really going into the unknown."
The DP cars have more horsepower than the LMP2s, but the LMP2 cars are lighter and corner faster. The 300 plus pound difference comes into play not only in cornering sped, but tire wear. If the DP cars are sped up, they'd inevitably wear tires even faster. Though if it came to rock 'em-sock 'em fender battle, that extra weight gives the DPs a monstrous positional advantage.
So next year will likely turn into a rather large experiment between the two cars to see what works and what doesn't. No matter the preseason testing and tinkering, the best way to matching up the different cars' performance on the track to see if each type can competitively coexist with the other will be the head-to-head racing.
Shank, who won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2012, is a DP loyalist.
"On the racing side, I think it’s incredibly difficult," Shank said. "I’m not sure what the answer is. I am pot committed – pot committed – to the DP. I can’t afford to go buy LMP2 cars, I don’t want to go buy LMP2 cars. I’m committed to what has gotten our team to this point in history.
"There may be some people playing both sides of the fence potentially, but I don’t have that luxury."
And yes, there's the schedule too. No official announcement of the entire schedule, expected to be 10-12 races, has been made. A Grand-Am spokesperson said there is no timeline for the announcement of the schedule or the rules for each class.
However, teams are already counting sports car staples like the Rolex 24, Sebring and the Petit Le Mans on the schedule. And all of those races under one roof is seen as a significant positive.
"We can talk a lot about, on the marketing side of it, the potential is just off the charts," Shank said. "We can already sell that now. So for instance if I’m trying to sell anybody on any deal for next year, there are certain things that we know. We know the TV deal, we kind of know the schedule more or less plus or minus a couple of events, but we know our marquee events that we get big draws from. Just that ability is a new tool that we’ve never had before."
Earlier in August, USCR announced a five-year television agreement with Fox Sports. From 2014-2018, all series races will be on either Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2.
That 10-12 races for next year is in the neighborhood of each series' schedule this season. However, it'll be a cut overall for some drivers and crew members who work in both series. Drivers like Westbrook and former Sprint Cup Series driver Andy Lally drive in both Grand-Am and ALMS.
There’s only going to be a handful of people in relation that isn’t going to want (unification) – I’m one of them," Lally said. "Right now I have two jobs; from a selfish standpoint, myself and about six to 10 drivers double dip and we get to do both series, and then probably I’d say 20-30 crew guys double dip and they get to do both series. From a fan standpoint, I think it’s going to be a good thing because you’re going to have huge fields ... and from a manufacturer standpoint, I think the clarity, just like the merger in IRL and IndyCar was a good thing."
Ultimately, that clarity moving forward could trump any growing pains in 2014 as the series works out the inevitable kinks. 2014 will be a transition year, with the focus on one stable series in the years to follow. Lally says that the clarification and simplification of the class distinctions moving forward is the most important thing for the new series.
"I have the most faith in the sanctioning body that I’ve had since I’ve been racing in sports cars now," Lally said. "That doesn’t mean I’d do things the same or have the same opinions as them, but I have the most respect for the guys that are making – we don’t share a lot of the same views, but I at least respect the logical approach to it."