Ages ago on Facebook, I liked the official American Le Mans Series page. A year or so after the ALMS merged in with Grand Am to be called IMSA (which was the sanctioning body of ALMS previously), the administrator of the page changed it into “Remembering the American Le Mans Series.”
It’s turned into fans and other participants mostly posting their own photos from those days. I first went to an ALMS race in 2004. My paternal grandparents would flee the Mid West winters right around Thanksgiving and stay in Florida until about April for the last 10-15 years of their lives.
I posted this photo last week and got a huge amount of likes:
That was from the 2008 edition of the race, at the braking zone for the hairpin as the sun was setting. Wee Scot Allan McNish was driving judging by the helmet, one of my favorite drivers. He might have been diminutive in size, but was one hell of a driver.
My grandparents had a trailer they bought in a retirement community in Sebring, Florida... yep. Kind of funny because their house in the Mid West wasn’t far from Michigan International Raceway, though they purchased that house prior to the track’s construction (only just).
That first race I went to was my own personal spring break from work. Actually, that first year I was transitioning between jobs, but I would turn it into a recurring spring break trip for myself through 2009 prior to moving to the left coast. So, I attended every 12 Hours of Sebring, 2004-2009, which was when my grandparents on both sides started passing away. Was a rough few years there. I missed the 2010 race as my paternal grandfather had just passed away earlier that week and obviously his health in the months prior prevented them from getting to Florida that winter. I moved that summer to the left coast but managed to fly back for one more 12 hour race in 2011.
While I did still live in the Mid West, I also managed to attend a number of Mid Ohio and Road America ALMS races and even went to one Petit Le Mans (Road Atlanta) in 2004. I still have a lot of those early days photos on an external drive somewhere I should locate as well as on my desktop which hasn’t been able to boot up in years (hdds are fine, though, so, someday will have to retrieve the old data).
Above is from the 2009 edition of the race, the rival Peugeot 908 to the Audi diesels. In 2009 that would have been the R15 with the smaller V10. The first photo above is the old R10 that began racing in 2006 and was powered by a V12 diesel.
Coincidentally, the same time which I started going to these races also coincided with my owning a diesel car myself. A 1998 Jetta TDI. It was originally my old man’s car, bought new in spring 1998. He had put 192,000 miles on it by the time I bought it off him in early 2004. Getting a legitimate 45 MPG on long trips made it VERY cheap to go long distances to events like this from Michigan. Consider the math, most of 2004 I remember diesel being $1.69/gal even that summer when gas spiked to $2/gal. I could frequently go 600-650 miles on less than 14 gallons of diesel (a tankful for that car). It would take me less than $50 in fuel to drive 1200 miles from just South of Ann Arbor to Sebring, Fl. back then.
So, when Audi first started racing a diesel with that big TDI logo emblazoned on the side of it 2 years into my attending ALMS races regularly, I was pretty enamored. Especially those first few years. The 2006 edition of the 12 Hour classic in central Florida was the first race for the Audi R10 TDI diesel. I remember one of the cars breaking down, but the second one trucked on in the lead. They were eerily quiet cars. Even wide open throttle on straights, you’d hear wind over the body work and the tires hitting joints on the pavement before you’d hear the engine. Generally, you’d only hear the engine as it went past you and the exhaust at the rear of the car was now facing you. Then it was just a low, smooth and quiet tone.
If I was standing at a blind corner where I don’t see the cars approaching, they were hard to get a shot of because they would suddenly appear with no audible warning in slow corners. Meanwhile I’d hear things like the 7 liter GT1 class Corvettes that were a couple corners behind long before their approach. Those were pretty gnarly. You’d feel the concussions from those massive V8s in your chest, occasionally spewing fire from their side pipe exhaust on overrun when downshifting in a braking zone.
Speaking of the Corvette, for a few years these were the main competition for them. Prodrive designed and made Aston Martin DBR9s powered by a 6.0L V12. I did spot Dave Richards at Sebring a couple times when Prodrive was making these cars back then.
The stats when Audi went to Le Mans for the first time with that diesel were hugely impressive. I wish I could find that old R&T article that gave me the raw numbers on how much less fuel the car burned vs. the rest of the field and what the old R8 FSI-powered Audi did the year prior. They stopped less frequently too. In the following years to try and create some kind of parity, the regulators required the downsizing of fuel tanks of the diesels so they’d have to stop approximately as frequently. Their efficiency advantage remained. And having a smaller tank would also give them a potential weight advantage, they’re carrying less fuel almost the entire time compared to their conventional gas powered counterparts.
One of my most clear memories was standing at that very hairpin that first year where several other people always gather towards the end of the race to see the spectacle of glowing brakes as it gets dark out. Every time that quiet Audi passed by, clearly in the lead, I would look at the crowd down the track also watching the same car, many of the heads shaking in disbelief at what they were witnessing. A quiet, smoke-free diesel absolutely annihilating the competition. What on earth is this witchcraft?
Pre-race grid walk in 2009. This is what I loved the most about the ALMS. Their motto was literally “For the Fans.” The premise being they had open access to the paddock/garage areas (if a track had garages—many don’t). Many of the events also allowed the above, as the cars were lined up on the front straight pre-race, anyone could get on the track and walk right up to the cars, see some drivers and mechanics and team owners along with some of the pre-race pageantry up close.
There were times during the day or two prior to the race to ask the occasional team member or mechanic about the cars and the job itself when they weren’t too busy and the crowds weren’t so insane yet. A couple instances stick out to me.
First, when Audi first began racing the diesels, I spotted what looked like mufflers in the exhaust at the very back of the car. That’s strange. One of the mechanics told me it was actually a particulate filter so the cars wouldn’t emit any visible emissions, as there was actually a rule against vehicles emitting visible smoke. Pretty clever. Want to talk about technology in race cars being developed that is very viable to future road cars, that was it at the time. Commonrail direct injection technology was only a few years old and DPFs in the U.S. weren’t required on production cars until 2007. So, seeing several technologies on this race car made me a little excited for the future of such tech because they were very obviously 100% applicable to road cars. For awhile in racing, they had kind of gotten away from that. So seeing Le Mans cars kind of come back to encourage manufacturers to jump in to develop technologies directly related to road cars I thought was great.
I also asked how much power that 5.5L V12 diesel could make if the mandated air restrictors were removed of one of the Audi mechanics. For reference, virtually every engine in ACO competition has air restrictors of some kind to create parity with the wildly varying engine technologies that are meant to compete directly with eachother. 2.0L turbos vs 4L turbo V8s, bigger displacement NA V8s, 10s and 12 cylinder engines, on and on.
The mechanic answered he had asked the same question of the engineers that actually designed and built the engine, they gave him a little of a roundabout answer about how they’d resize the turbos, change the camshaft profiles and have to remap the computer to get the most out of having the restrictors removed. So, he asked if it could make “at least 1000 horsepower?” The German engineer gave him a thumbs up and waved it upwards as if to indicate more than that was possible.
After awhile, Audi no longer competed full time in the ALMS, I also was not in a position to go to many races for some time, the field sizes dwindled and eventually they just merged with Grand Am. Since the domestic races were rarely as interesting and the one race per year that happens in the U.S. with the WEC is a little too far away and I have no place to stay for cheap or free, I haven’t been to a race in quite some time. I did go to an IMSA race once at Laguna Seca, and I’ve gone to historics a couple times, but that’s been about it. The days when that Audi diesel ran the full American schedule were definitely when I was most fascinated with the sport. That and having the GT1 class with Corvette vs. Aston Martin, and for awhile, Saleen S7s and even one season the Maserati MC12.
Things have certainly changed quite a bit. The hybrid tech used in P1 in recent years is really amazing and the cars are stupendously fast. I just haven’t been able to justify getting too CoTA yet. And now that it’s only Toyota competing in the top class, why bother? When it was Audi (diesel hybrid), Porsche and Toyota (both gas hybrids), that would have been the time to go.
For those who feel like browsing some of my photos from at least 3 12 Hours of Sebring races, they are on Flickr. The 2008 race also had a prototype R8 road car with a V12 TDI installed in it in Audi’s display tent. It was that week in which many car magazines got to drive that very car, it disappeared from the tent for about a day and a half and came back mid day Friday to remain for the rest of the weekend. Got to hear it run very briefly as it was being put back into the tent. Idle was so quiet I couldn’t even tell it was a diesel. My handful of albums are here.
All my long rambling, memories freshly brought back up by that Remembering ALMS facebook group.