tampabay.com

Le Mans, American style

By KELLIE DIXON
Published March 30, 2007


How it started

Don Panoz founded the American Le Mans Series in 1999 after his son launched the sports car company Panoz Auto Development.

Panoz, a longtime entrepreneur, had considerable success creating pharmaceutical companies and wineries and resorts. One of Panoz's pharmaceutical and development companies created the technology that led to the nicotine patch. Another developed cutting-edge heart medication.

Panoz (pronounced PAY-nose) considered the Series the best way to draw worldwide attention to the Panoz brand, while honoring his heritage and giving drivers the ability to compete apart from the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Series, which features four classes of cars, showcases top manufacturers such as Aston-Martin, Audi, Corvette, Ferrari, and Panoz. The four classes are broken down into open-top Le Mans prototypes and production-based GT cars.

5. Things you must know about ALMS

Class warfare

There are four classes of cars that all behave differently. For example LMP1 cars are fast (can go from zero to 100 in about three seconds), while LMP2 cars are more agile around turns. Simply put, the cars won't look the same. They are regulated within their specific class, but not overall. Drivers compete for their specific class and the overall championship.

Tick, tock

The race's length is a fixed amount of time, not number of laps, though lap count matters. The race at the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course in St. Petersburg will last 2 hours 45 minutes. In endurance races, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans, teams use driver changes. No driver changes are expected for the St. Petersburg race.

Endurance

The biggest race for the drivers is the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The endurance race was first held in 1923 in France. This year it will be in mid June.

Lighting the way

So you can keep track of the leaders, the cars have a Leader Light System. The lights are on the sides of the race car and indicate the top three. First place has one light; second has two and third has three. The lights are in different colors so you'll even know what class the cars are competing in:

LMP1 Red

LMP2 Blue

GT1 Green

GT2 Yellow

Access

ALMS has a "For the fans" mind-set, which means a ticket gets you access to the paddock. That means Friday you can go to a driver autograph session at 10:30 a.m. and listen to the techs talk shop at 1:05 p.m.

5. Reasons to watch here

History

This is the first time the ALMS has raced the streets of St. Petersburg.

Four in one

Four classes of sports cars compete for the class win and the overall championship. The cool part is the cars do different things well. For instance, the LMP1 cars are faster on the straightaways, while the LMP2 cars are lighter and a little more agile around turns.

Acura

The manufacturer rocked out in its ALMS debut with three of the top six at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Veteran drivers say Sebring International Raceway, with its bumpy course and unique layout, is the ultimate test. It will be interesting to see if Bryan Herta, a former IRL standout with experience on the streets of St. Petersburg, can pilot the Andretti Green Racing Acura to a win.

Intense races

The series sees last-second wins like the GT2 contest at the 12 Hours of Sebring and wicked, wheel-to-wheel-banging courses like this weekend. In St. Petersburg drivers have less time to advance through the field so quick, early decision-making is crucial.

The cars

The cars are the same ones you can pick up at the dealer. Okay, Olivier Beretta's Corvette is incredibly more souped-up than the standard model (the guy does have factory backing after all) but the vehicle looks the same. And the speedometer promises you can do 180 mph if you dare and, of course, if you have an attorney on retainer.

5. Drivers to watch

Olivier Beretta

Corvette Racing Corvette C6.R The all-time series record-holder with four championships co-drove the No. 4 Corvette to a 17-second win at Sebring, giving Corvette its fifth win there in six seasons.

Jorg Bergmeister

Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR The two-time GT2 series champion was 0.202 seconds too slow at Sebring but has a history of consistency. Coming into the season he had 16 career wins in 46 starts and 31 top-three finishes.

Rinaldo Capello

Audi Sport North America Audi R10 TDI Swept the LMP1 title with teammate Allan McNish in 2006 and is looking to rebound from a tough week at Sebring. Car trouble cost Capello's team the lead.

Bryan Herta

Andretti Green Racing Acura ARX The IndyCar standout is in his first complete season with the series since 2002. He co-drove the Acura to a first-place LMP2 finish in its ALMS debut at Sebring.

Jamie Melo

Risi Competizione Ferrari 430 GT Berlinetta Pronounced 'mellow,' he is anything but on the track. Melo was 0.202 seconds faster to help his team claim the GT2 class at Sebring. Melo, in his second year with the Series, won twice in five starts in 2006.

*Keep an eye on: Oliver Gavin (Corvette); Sascha Maassen (Penske Racing/Porsche RS Spyder) and Mika Salo (Risi Competizione/Ferrari).