The Long Beach race, the second of the 2010 ALMS series, couldn't have been more different than the opening endurance saga at Sebring. Long Beach involves one practice and one qualifying session, a 100-minute race with one (planned) pit stop, and one change of tires. Sebring takes place over five days, with a bunch of test and practice time leading up to 12 hours of racing, 11 planned pit stops, 12-13 sets of tires, and a truckload of fuel. The only time on the LB track afforded the sports cars by their open-wheel brethren of the Indy Car series (with whom they share the event bill) was a two-hour practice from 7 to 9 a.m. and a short practice/qualifying session in the afternoon on Friday. The next time the cars were on the track was to receive a 4:40 p.m. green-flag start to the late afternoon race. It's the shortest race and event of the ALMS season. The importance of exposure in the SoCal market makes the effort rewarding, but jostling through the throngs of over-the-top partying crowds makes one wonder whether any of them really knew a race was going on. As one astute observer opined, "Long Beach is a party that a race just gets in the way of."
Distractions aside, the event is a critical one for a season with just nine races in the schedule, and everybody understands the importance of doing well. Long Beach is also a very tight street circuit offering little room to pass, where concrete walls are constantly poised to punish anyone unlucky enough to get off line. Fortunately the Corvettes have raced here before, and the engineering book contains the data needed to set up the cars to perform well right out of the box. While the weather can be capricious at the waterfront track, this year's event was blessed with 70-degree weather under mostly sunny skies.
The Corvettes qualified well in a 12-car field, with Johnny O'Connell (partnered with Jan Magnussen) placing the No. 3 car third in GT, and Olivier Beretta (with Oliver Gavin) driving No. 4 to a fifth-place spot. The Risi Ferrari 430 took the pole in GT, followed closely by another surprising effort by the Falken Tire Porsche GT3 RSR, piloted by factory driver Wolf Henzler. After qualifying, the GM team began preparing for the race, cleaning up the cars and settling in for the next 24 hours before they were again allowed out of their paddock.
For 2010, the ALMS has revised its classification scheme by establishing four categories of cars to compete at the same time. The LMP1 and LMP2 class cars have been combined into one LMP class, while last year's GT2 class is now called GT. (For three of this year's races-Sebring, Le Mans, and Petit Le Mans-the GT category will revert to the GT2 name, as these races carry "French Le Mans" sanctioning criteria, and that particular body continues to recognize GT2 and GT1 entries separately.) A new LMP Challenge, officially called LMPC, features a spec ORECA-Courage open-cockpit prototype chassis powered by a 430hp Chevy V-8. A fourth class, GT Challenge (GTC), is made up of three iterations of Porsche GT3 Cup cars.
This reshuffled lineup typically delivers 35-36 cars in the starting field and results in a lot of traffic on the track. Because of the varying degrees of horsepower and suspension capability involved, drivers are passing or pushing each other constantly. Of particular note is the interaction between the GT and LMPC classes. The GT cars have nearly the same horsepower as the LMPC prototypes but not the handling prowess. However, many of the GT cars are managed by experienced factory teams, and this expertise shows in the cars' performance. The result is that these two classes, comprising some 20 entries, seem to be mixing it up with increasing frequency. The tight street circuit of Long Beach promised to level the playing field between the two classes, making for some exciting racing and increasing the likelihood of an accident-induced yellow.