• UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM:

Monday, May 18, 2009

MY MILLER TIME

WHAT A VIEW!: ALMS cars on the grid Sunday at Utah's Miller Motorsports Park.

PLEASE check back here Saturday (May 23) for a VERY SPECIAL posting, in TRIBUTE to a very important person in this sport and this industry.


NHRA would be a VERY different series without the fan-favorite, headline-grabbing nitro Top Fuelers and Funny Cars. A similar issue is facing the American Le Mans Series' premier prototype classes in 2010.

I had my first visit to Utah's Miller Motorsports Park last weekend for the ALMS weekend. It's a modern and interesting facility, as I write about below, but the thing that spiked my attention was the state of the P1 and P2 proto divisions. Only five P1s (including the new Corsa team Zytek hybrid with KERS) were in the overall field of 23 (boosted by five in the new Challenge class, the best of which was about 25 seconds a lap slower than the pole time of just over 90 seconds) and just three P2s, an Acura and two Mazdas. Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud ran away from the pole, their Acura winning by 73 seconds, the series' largest MOV since 2005 at Laguna Seca. Adrian Fernandez made the show, getting the lead from the Mazda of Butch Leitzinger in the closing minutes and driving flat-out to assure his P2 win with Luis Diaz in the Lowe's Acura.

In my view, ALMS had it close to being just-right last season. While series president Scott Atherton (not at MMP due to a family obligation) has emphasized ALMS as a platform for technical innovation (and Green racing), it had a useful showbiz mix, too. The P2 cars, including the Acuras and Porsches fielded by Penske Racing, were able to battle for the overall win with the diesel Audis. Good stuff. Now, though, the rules have changed and P2s aren't a factor for the overall W. The Porsches and two of three Acuras are gone (Fernandez Racing remains), and Audi parked its diesels due to the economy. (Coming back at Petit Le Mans this fall?)

The prospects for '10 are concerning. With almost no meaningful competition after major costs to enter P1, I'm told Acura (Honda) intends to go forward with an engine-lease arrangement for interested parties. There's a legitimate chance three current teams could move to the IRL, depending on sponsorship. That would leave GT2 as the "healthy" class survivor, with Porsche and Ferrari and BMW and Chevrolet (hopefully) scheduled to join in with its Corvettes. But GT2 is to ALMS what Pro Stock is to NHRA -- worthy competition, but not the "sexy" category.

All of which, of course, again argues for ONE American sports car series. ALMS' approach to techno innovation doesn't compliment Grand-Am's NASCAR-style managed competition, so the obstacles to a unified tour are huge.

But, honestly, are they any higher than those painfully -- but eventually -- overcome by Champ Car and the IRL?
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I may have discovered the biggest bargain in racing history.

It's the SCCA Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup, which ran at Miller. For $45,000, a driver (must be between ages 16-26) gets a car, prep, maintenance, entry fees, driver's suit, team clothing, access to the (Formula One-esque) hospitality tent and professional instruction. Cars and crews are rotated during the eight-weekend, 10-race season. Plus six slick tires per weekend and even media training. Adam Hoover runs that project and has built a media contest, challenging the drivers to generate some of their own publicity via media outreach, social networking, etc. There's a prize for that winner -- joining a press trip to Germany for launch of the 2010 Golf. The series champion gets $100,000.

VW is trying to showcase its clean diesel TDIs (turbo direct injection), which Hoover said sold 12,000 units in America after its August 2008 launch. Yes, there's a manufacturer actually upping its motorsports commitment! I looked over a few of the cars, with the air conditioning vents still installed, and which can be driven either by shifting or not shifting.

Timmy Megenbier, of Melrose Park, Ill., won at Miller. It's difficult to get attention for such a series in our celebrity-driven society. But the Jetta TDI Cup should be an exception.
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MMP opened in 2006 and is located in Tooele, a convenient 30-minutes-or-so outside of Salt Lake City. The 4.5-mile course is the longest in North America, with 24 turns. For the second consecutive year, ALMS ran on the 3.048-mile layout. Jason Altzman of the series' Vitesse ("speed") team kindly took me around Saturday afternoon in a silver turbo Porsche (above). (It was great that Jason had an appreciation for the history of the PPG Pace Car team -- his wife used to be a member!) The track is flat with picking up useful reference points definitely a challenge.

There are enclosed garages, just yards from transporter parking, for the competitors and a nice museum (right) and clubhouse. (What a collection of Cobras and Ford GTs!) It's a multi-use facility which even has an off-road course. There's plenty to do beside watch the racing, including go-karting. Founder Larry H. Miller, who also owned the NBA's Utah Jazz, died earlier this year. The facility seemingly is safely protected within the corporate structure of Miller's enterprises. Put Miller Motorsports Park on your "bucket list."
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FAST LINES: Thanks to John Gardner, Bob Dickinson, Allison Barry, Nate Siebens and Adam Hoover for their help last weekend . . . MMP is a VERY media-cooperative facility, with a quality media center, good viewing, eight TV screens (the Rolex Series race was on during the ALMS event) and friendly atmosphere. Media manager Gardner serves fresh fruit in the MC, perhaps a small, but appreciated detail. Beverages are stocked in the photo shuttles. Journos are offered rides to the parking lot. Well done, John -- others PLEASE take note! . . . I've always been a fan of the Atlantic series, so to see only 12 cars show at Miller was a letdown. Simona De Silvestro, 20, from Switzerland got her second Atlantics win from her first pole and led all the way. Formula One is Simona's goal, and she told me Bernie Ecclestone has signaled the "new" F1 could be ready for a competitive female driver. She's never driven on an IRL-style oval, but doesn't rule-it-out . . . Michelin claimed its 100th overall ALMS victory Sunday . . . How was the MMP weekend similar to NASCAR? Way too many of the so-called "PR" people are so busy talking among themselves, they don't bother to introduce themselves to media. I'm still waiting for the ALMS' No. 2 guy, as well as the Porsche, Highcroft and Rahal Letterman reps to say, "Hello. Anything I can do to help?" . . . One of the biggest mistakes made in the name of cost-cutting has been elimination of printed media guides. It is much faster and easier for journos on deadline to look up a bio or stat in a book than via some data-storage plug-in. This, again, exposes the fatal flaw in contemporary PR: UNDERSTANDING WHAT JOURNALISTS NEED . . . Valvoline signed a multi-year contract extension with all of the Don Schumacher Racing NHRA teams . . . Take a look at Dave Wilson's new site: http://davethekingwilson.com/ .
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Sports cars are high-tech but putting on a proper, professional media event takes more common sense than brainpower, as well as an understanding of what the media needs and some basic organizational skills. Saturday's Corsa team media avail to show its new P1 hybrid was an example of what not to do: Staged in the garage, fans -- including children -- were able to wander in and take up space needed by photographers, writers and broadcasters. Drivers had their uniforms pulled down as photogs clicked away, denying corporate partners their entitled-to visual exposure. One speaker steered way off message, even talking about terrorism as a reason why the U.S. and U.K. governments (read that: taxpayers) should pay for battery research. It is a well-documented fact that the attention span of the American public is short -- and that includes journos challenged with limited space and time to tell a story. I went away not even being able to guess what the "bumper sticker" was out of the event. What a mess . . . inexcusable in what is supposed to be a time of sophisticated communication techniques.
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Adrian Fernandez will be the Newsmaker guest on week two of my upcoming radio show, The Race Reporters, on VoiceAmerica.com's new PowerUpChannel.com. The show, live on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. EDT for one hour, launches June 3. Fernandez will be on June 10, good timing as Le Mans is that weekend. See last week's blog for full details on TRR.

I'll be in Indianapolis this weekend for my 33d Indy 500.

REMEMBER: Come back Saturday for something special and important. (!)