ALMS gearing up for Long Beach

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- It's somewhat of a lame-duck season for the American Le Mans Series.

But America's most popular and prestigious form of sports car racing is pulling out all the stops in its final year before being absorbed by NASCAR into what will be known as United SportsCar Racing (USCR).

USCR represents the long-awaited amalgamation in American sports car racing between the ALMS and Grand-Am Road Racing. But similar to what Indy car racing went through five years ago when the Indy Racing League and Champ Car came together after a bitter 13-year war, it won't exactly be a merger of equals.

The top tier of the USCR is expected to be the Grand-Am's Daytona Prototype, a tube-frame, low-tech design that is unpopular with many sports car fans due to its ungainly appearance and unpleasant sound.

USCR says it will merge the ALMS' LMP2 category along with the Daytona Prototypes and the unique Delta Wing car into a single Prototype class. The ALMS' top LMP1 class (cars like the Audis, Peugeots and Toyotas that compete at Le Mans and Sebring) is being eliminated, and the LMP2 cars, with their composite construction, sophisticated aerodynamics and turbocharged, race-bred engines, will have to be significantly neutered to be brought down to the performance level of the DPs -- which, as the brainchild of Grand-Am founder Jim France, are most certainly not going to be allowed to be upstaged by ALMS machinery.

The news is better in the production car-based classes, because GT classes from both series will be retained. But this is the last year that American fans will get to see "real" prototype sports cars on North American soil, at venues such as Lime Rock, Mosport, Road America and Road Atlanta -- and this weekend, as the Saturday headliner during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Indy car weekend for a two-hour ALMS race.

Long Beach always draws a strong crowd, and the addition of the ALMS to the Indy car and Pro/Celebrity bill a few years ago only strengthened one of the most popular road racing weekends of the American racing year.

ABC's delayed coverage of the Tequila PatrĂ³n American Le Mans Series at Long Beach -- the second round of the 10-race ALMS championship -- begins at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. Live coverage is available on ESPN3 starting at 7:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Muscle Milk Pickett Racing, anchored by the driver pairing of Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr, is looking to become the first team to win three consecutive times overall at Long Beach. Luhr also won overall at the Beach while driving for Audi in 2008.

MMPR has dominated the ALMS prototype action for the past two years with its HPD ARX-03a prototype. More than a month after a challenging season-opener in the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, the German duo is eager to get back on track.

"Especially after our tough ending at Sebring, the break between Sebring and Long Beach just feels too long," said Graf. "The mindset going into Long Beach will be completely different than of a few weeks ago, since we go from our longest race of the year to our shortest. With 34 entries, being patient and making the right decisions in strategy and traffic will be key."

The LMP1 class features only two other entries -- Sebring winners Rebellion Racing's Lola-Toyota, with drivers Nick Heidfeld and Neel Jani, and perennial ALMS front-runner Dyson Racing, with its isobutanol-fueled, Mazda-powered Lola.

The LMP2 class features four entries split between two teams -- Scott Sharp's Extreme Team Motorsports and Sebring victor Level 5 Motorsports, all campaigning HPD ARX-03b chassis.

However, the ALMS' GT class is much stronger and more diverse, featuring Corvette Racing going up against challengers from Ferrari, BMW, Porsche and SRT Viper.

Technically a lesser class, the GT category nonetheless boasts a star-studded group of sports car drivers, including Jan Magnussen, Oliver Gavin, Townsend Bell, Dirk Muller and Olivier Beretta. Joey Hand, the first American to compete full time in Germany's tough DTM sedan racing series, also will be on hand to drive one of the factory BMWs campaigned by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

BMW has replaced the sedan-like M3 GT with a racing version of the Z4 coupe dubbed Z4 GTE for the 2013 season. Porsche's entries are based on the previous generation 911 GT3 RS, while Ferrari teams campaign a racing version of the 458 Italia. Corvette Racing fields C6-based cars; the racing version of the C7 Corvette introduced in January at the Detroit Auto Show will not make its competitive bow until 2014.

SRT is the new kid on the ALMS block, having returned to competition last September in Baltimore with a new-generation Viper developed by Riley & Scott. The V-10 powered Vipers were more competitive than expected in the Sebring season opener, with a top finish of fifth in class behind the winning Corvette.

"Not as much luck as we would have liked but the speed is there," remarked SRT CEO Ralph Gilles. "We had some mechanical things that we didn't see in testing that showed up, but now it's fine tuning versus big, big leaps. We're pretty happy about that and looking forward to the next race."