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American Le Mans Series counts down to St. Petersburg

Questions, questions

An array of GT2 story lines have emerged from Sebring. Courtesy of the Le Mans home office, here are a few worth noting:

• Will Panoz, run by Tom Milner, once again challenge for a top spot?

• Can independently owned Ferrari extend its winning streak to two against Porsche and BMW factory programs?

• Can BMW Rahal Letterman excel on the series' initial street course race of 2009, after finishing as high as second last year?

• Can Porsche recover from a disappointing Sebring showing (fourth, fifth and eighth) with a boost from its star-studded lineup of Flying Lizard Motorsports (including Joerg Bergmeister, above) and Farnbacher Loles?

• Will Robertson Racing's Ford GT, which showcased husband and wife Dave and Andrea Robertson at Sebring, build upon its seventh-place finish in its class there?

Green machines

ALMS has made a heavy push to lead the way in "green" or environmentally friendly fuel. The push toward alternative fuel began in 2006 with Audi's diesel-powered race cars. Now ALMS has established itself as the lone major series globally that features all cars with "street legal" alternative fuels, prompting a stamp of approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and SAE International.

Problem solved?

Farnbacher Loles Racing could be in the hunt after a setback at Sebring. The Porsche team started in the front of the GT2 grid, having turned in the top qualifying time, and led the class by 30 seconds after 90 minutes. But the rear differential failed and kept the car off the track for two hours. The team views its eighth-place finish in class as promising, considering what happened. "We know we have the speed," team principal Gregory Loles said. "… Now we need to make it to the end of the race. We believe we've resolved any reliability issues, so we head to St. Pete looking for a good result."

Growing popularity

ALMS officials say their sport is one of the fastest growing in the world, boasting about 80,000 fans per race weekend (a 6 percent increase), coupled with a worldwide television audience reaching 650 million households.

Smaller field

In a sign of tough economic times, this race features 17 cars — 11 fewer than the 2008 race and eight fewer than 2007. The Audi and Porsche prototype teams pulled out and there will be six prototypes — three each in P1 and P2 — compared to 12 last year. Because the race is entirely supported by manufacturers, it has been more vulnerable to the economic crisis.

In case you plan to watch but aren't sure of the format, the American Le Mans Series has four classes of cars racing on the track simultaneously, creating plenty of passing and challenges during the race. Every car is shared by two drivers who switch out during the race (there are three for the more grueling endurance events, such as the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 10-hour Petit Le Mans). In standard races, the car that leads after 2 hours, 45 minutes is the winner — with the outcome not based on laps. This year's race begins at 1:20 Saturday and will last 1 hour and 55 minutes. The race features a smaller field than last year but one running on EPA-approved fuel.

Team to watch

The Lowes-Fernandez team of Adrian Fernandez, left, and Luis Diaz got off to a great start to the season at Sebring, winning the LMP2 class for its first American Le Mans Series win. That could make the Acura-driving duo a team to beat in its class in 2009. The turning point: Dyson Racing's Mazdas went out too fast, allowing the Acura team to build a 30-point lead heading into Round 2.

American Le Mans Series counts down to St. Petersburg 04/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 9:02pm]
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