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Looking ahead to the rest of 2010 and into the future with Scott Atherton

The American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón kicks off the second half of the 2010 championship this weekend for the Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix. Before the action gets hot (literally!) and heavy at Miller Motorsports Park, Series President and CEO Scott Atherton gives us a little insight to how he sees the rest of 2010 and the 2011 season unfolding.

Scott AthertonQ: How would you rate the opening portion of the 2010 season?

A: Being someone who tends to view the glass as half-full, I would say the first five months of 2010 met or exceeded our expectations in nearly every category of measure. We have our largest full-season grid (35 cars) that we have had in a decade. The quality of the racing has been exceptional – in all classes, but especially GT. Our spectator count is on the rise. Our base of corporate partners is on the rise. More people around the world are watching or reading about the American Le Mans Series than ever before. And with the lineup of events and venues we have coming up on the calendar, we are more than ready to ride this momentum into a critical stretch of five events in eight weeks.

Q: To what do you attribute that success so far?

A: Where to start… It’s any number of things. The on-track product has rarely – if ever – been better. That’s what happens when you have the overall quantity as well as the quality of our grids. Of course we would like to see more depth in the LMP category – and we are working on that  – but it’s hard to complain about the racing that’s coming out of that class. We have talked a lot about our GT class this season, and with good reason. The caliber and intensity of the racing in that class is unmatched. The combination of the diversity of brands – Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Corvette, Jaguar – along with the professionalism of the teams and drivers – it may well be the best professional sports car racing ever. And that’s not just PR-spin; I have seen several highly respected independent media reports that concur with that assessment – it’s that good.

But our success also goes back to the wonderful partners we enjoy. And Tequila Patrón is at the top of the list. When we made the long-awaited announcement of Tequila Patrón elevating its involvement to become the presenting sponsor of the American Le Mans Series, we were convinced this was the partner that would help us accomplish many of our long-term objectives – mainstream activation and promotion at the top of the list. We have also added other corporate partners such as Yancey’s Fancy, Freescale and Battery Tender to name just a few. Each of these brands – all category leaders in their industries – recognize what we represent not just to motorsports and the auto industry, but as a marketing platform delivering a highly desirable audience with unmatched ROI.

Our event promoters have done excellent jobs so far this season also. It’s tough to sell tickets to any event in this economy, but our crowd counts for the season are up – and that speaks volumes to me. I am also fortunate to have the hardest working staff in all of motorsports. It’s the combination – great promoters and IMSA/ALMS staff – working hard together that make it all work.

Q: Let’s keep along that line of thought…there are other series who are now trying to remake themselves to be more relevant and aligned with auto manufacturers. Does that concern you?

A: To be candid… I am surprised it has taken to so long for this to happen. It was expected and this comes with the territory of being in a leadership position. The fact is no other motorsports platform can come close to offering what we do – rolling R&D labs for manufacturers and suppliers to introduce, develop and showcase their advancements in alternative energies, fuel efficiency, light-weight materials, aerodynamics, tire technologies and countless other areas. And in our case it is utilizing a vehicle that truly contains the identical DNA – so to speak – of the road car example that’s available to the consumer. No other racing platform delivers that combination surrounded by open competition – nothing “spec”.

We represent a direct link from the race track to the production line – and ultimately the showroom floor. We are the epitome of authentic, open competition with an emphasis on relevant automotive innovation and the practical application of technologies for the real-world demands the auto industry faces now and certainly will into the future. We’re very proud of what we have accomplished, but we are just scratching the surface – there is much more to come. I think we are ideally positioned to continue as the global leader of green racing.

Q: What is the outlook for the final six races of 2010?

A: Without hesitation I can honestly see excitement being at an all-time high, especially with the stretch of events that is upcoming. The new LMP format has been very popular and the competitiveness is shown just by looking at the championship standings. At the same time our two Challenge classes have been unqualified successes. We are constantly fielding calls and queries from teams looking to enter the American Le Mans Series via our Challenge classes; they are delivering just how we hoped they would a year ago. However, I predict the competition for the overall win and LMP championship will be one of the most entertaining and competitive ever.

Then there is GT, and good luck predicting race-winners and champions there! This is undoubtedly the highwater mark for GT racing in America, and I’m confident that our participants and fans alike believe that the competition in the class has lived up to and exceeded even the highest expectations. It will certainly be interesting to watch how the championships develop as the season winds down. And… there is more to come. The Panoz Abruzzi GTLM is under construction, and Don has announced Petit Le Mans as the target for its competition debut. That’s a tall order, but Don and his son Dan have been making good on their Abruzzi promises so we are planning for yet another GT contender to enter the fray.

Q: And speaking of that, Petit Le Mans will by all accounts be bigger than ever. Can you give us a preview?

A: I don’t want to sound overly confident, but I will go on the record today and say that our finale at Petit Le Mans is going to be one for the ages. As the second event of the ACO’s new Intercontinental Le Mans Cup we know we are going to have an outstanding field of cars – perhaps one of the biggest and best ever. You start with our already outstanding field of full season ALMS entrants and the fact that we will likely have multiple championships on the line. That by itself would make for a great race, but for Petit we add the dynamics of the automatic entry to the 24 Hours Le Mans that comes with an ALMS Championship. Then add the guaranteed drama that comes with two full works (factory-backed) Audis, two factory Peugeots and other top-level entries in LMP. Plus other top European teams in GT – collectively you have all of the ingredients for an epic event. I believe we’ll also have a few major surprises connected to our finale that should make it one of the most intriguing and anticipated events in motorsports history. So… make your plans to be at Petit Le Mans.

And I’d also like to add that Geoff Lee (Road Atlanta general manager) has promised dry, warm and sunny conditions all weekend for Petit Le Mans – so everyone attending needs to pack their sun screen and sunglasses…

Q: Looking ahead to next year, what can we expect in terms of the 2011 schedule?

A: In the same way we have seen growth on the grid this year, I think you can likewise expect expansion when it comes to next season’s calendar. Scot Elkins and I have been working hard on this for several months. It is no secret that multiple new promoters have taken a keen interest in the American Le Mans Series, and we hope to make an announcement or two within the next month. The schedule dictates so much of what we do that it is Priority No. 1-3. We are very pleased with the schedule we have this year – featuring some of the best venues and event promoters in North America. We are looking forward to continuing with all of them and adding some key markets and exciting events for 2011.

Q: And finally given the recently announced ACO regulations, what will the American Le Mans Series look like in 2011 and beyond?

A: We all recognize and support the direction that our partners at the ACO have laid out for global endurance racing. They made several important announcements at their press conference last month that covered many aspects of their future plans. Encouraging manufacturers to develop smaller, more efficient engines and innovative powertrains – all without sacrificing performance – is something we have and continue to wholeheartedly endorse. Having said that, you’ve heard me say that you shouldn’t fix something if it’s not broken. Our management team is carefully examining the new ACO regulations as we analyze what we feel is in the best interest of the American Le Mans Series, our teams, manufacturers and stakeholders. As fantastic the racing is now it’s not unrealistic to imagine that with some modifications for 2011, the competition could become even more competitive. We will confirm the details of our 2011 plans in the near future, but for now we are ready to get back to racing with the second half of our 2010 season. I promise it’s going to be a good one.

The Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix is the fourth round of the 2010 American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón. The two-hour, 45-minute race is set for 2:35 p.m. MT on Sunday, July 11 from Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah. SPEED will air the race live at 4:30 p.m. ET. Live radio coverage will be available on American Le Mans Radio presented by Porsche – a production of Radio Show Limited – as well as Sirius Channel 127 and XM Channel 242. Visit the Series’ schedule page for ticket and accommodation information. Live Timing and Scoring, track schedule, entry list and much, much more will be available on Racehub at americanlemans.com.