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Petit Le Mans: Class changes lead to closer competition
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Petit Le Mans
When: 11:15 a.m. Saturday
Where: Road Atlanta,
Tickets: $65
Parking: Free, near main entrance. Infield parking available for $40
Radio: 96.7 FM

While most racing series in North America have seen a drop in manufacturer participation, the American Le Mans Series has seen an increase.

Going into the 2010 season, the ALMS was facing the loss of several important teams, Audi among them, in its most expensive class, the prototypes.

Instead of maintaining the status quo and losing those important teams, the ALMS changed the number and type of classifications that compete in the series. The number of classes in the ALMS went from five for most of 2009 to four in 2010.

The two most expensive prototype classes, LMP1 and LMP2, were combined into just the LMP1, and GT1 and GT2 were combined into GT2. Also, two new classes were created, LMP Challenge and GT Challenge. The challenge classes aren’t as expensive to operate in and allowed many teams to stay in the series, while bringing in a slew of new competitors.

While the GT Challenge class did race a few times last season, this is its first full season in the series.

The reason for the change was simple: worldwide economics.

The recession that is gripping most of the world hit the prototype racing industry hard. As a result, many of the standard manufacturers didn’t sign up for the expensive ALMS prototype division this year. The Series combined what entrants they were going to get into one class to keep races competitive.

The decision has apparently paid off.

Going into the final race of the season, the Petit Le Mans on Saturday at Road Atlanta, all four class championships are up for grabs.

Scott Tucker is one driver who has a shot at a title.

Owner of Level 5 Motorsports and one of two drivers of the FLM09, made by the French manufacturer Oreca, Tucker is currently tied with Gunnar Jeannette for first in the LMP Challenge class. Whoever finishes higher Saturday will take home a championship and Tucker believes the race to win will be close.

“It’s really tough competition in the field,” he said. “We are trying to prepare as best we can, but the likelihood of either of us winning the championship is dead even.”

Tucker splits time in the car with Christophe Bouchut, but the owner will be the one to start and finish the race.

“I’ll be starting and finishing, but what happens in between? You never know,” Tucker said.

There are two distinct types of sports car racing classes, prototype and GT.

Prototype cars are exactly what the name implies. They are not legal to drive on the street, they look a little bit like fighter jets with wheels and no wings, and are used to try out new methods and technologies for creating the types of cars that can be found in showrooms and dealerships across the world.

And they are not cheap.

LMP1 cars have names such as the Audi R15, Peugeot 908 HDi and Porsche RS Spyder. These ultra-engineered cars have somewhere between 600-700 horsepower, a minimum weight of 1,985 pounds, accelerate from 0-100 miles per hour in about three seconds and have top speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour.

Not exactly what you see on your daily commute.

The fact that the cars cost so much to make is one reason the two classes had to be combined. But a positive result of the combination is the addition of new teams who want to participate in the new Challenge class.

Tucker said his primary sponsor, Microsoft, liked the racing package the new class offered and decided to switch from the Rolex Sports Car Series to the ALMS.

“They liked the look of the new class, it was intriguing,” Tucker said. “Microsoft is a worldwide name and the car is well known in Europe.

“It had already been proven as a good car, it’s a fairly sophisticated prototype, so we made the switch to the new class.

“The international notoriety is there in this series,” he added. “And much like the type of car, Microsoft wanted the series to reflect their worldwide interests as well.”

The prototype cars Tucker races are very similar to the cars seen in the Formula One and IndyCar series.

The GT class, however, is much similar to the cars on the road every day. Cars such as the Porsche 911, the Chevrolet Corvette C6.R and the Ford GT-R all belong to this class of racing. These vehicles go down the same production line as the ones available for purchase by private citizens. The racing teams then take those stock vehicles and slightly modify them. Most of the modifications are done to protect the driver, such as better brakes, a roll cage and a racing harness to hold the driver in the car.

GT class cars have a top speed of 180 miles per hour, produce between 450-500 horsepower and have a minimum weight of 2,480 pounds.

But there is more to it than just these two classes of cars.

The difference between the LMP1 and GT1 and the Challenge classes is, simply put, speed. LMP Challenge cars only put out around 430 horsepower and the GT Challenge cars reach top speed at around 150 miles per hour.

While the cars may be going slower, the competition is no less fierce. Like the LMP Challenge class, the GT Challenge class is tied between Tim Pappas and Jeroen Bleekemolen.

In the faster classes, the combinations made during the offseason seemed to have been a success; LMP1 is tied between David Brabham and Simon Pagenaud and GT2 is tied between Joerg Bergmeister and Patrick Long.

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