After this weekend, WEC might wave goodbye to Lone Star Le Mans

On Labor Day weekend, a growing North American racing series swept into Austin, offering an array of short sprint races.

For the next three days, a major international series will take over Circuit of the Americas, serving up a six-hour endurance race.

What’s your pleasure, racing fans?

The three-day Lone Star Le Mans, which opens Thursday with practices, is highlighted by Saturday afternoon’s World Endurance Championship event. It also includes support races in which actor Michael Fassbender will be driving. Actor Patrick Dempsey, who owns one of the WEC teams, will likely be on hand, too.

“Our LMP1 class is very expensive, but it is the best technical platform in motorsports,” Andrew Craig, FIA WEC’s North American board representative, told the American-Statesman. “We have famous racing names like Senna, Prost and Piquet in LMP2. (Actor) Jackie Chan is now a team owner. The quality of racing is quite good.”

The Porsche LMP team of Timo Bernhard, Earl Barber and Brendon Hartley is having a dominant season and leads the pack by a considerable margin.

The WEC, viewed as too international and stodgy by some American racing fans, is trying to hook them with lower ticket prices and better access.

Craig said a $49 general-admission ticket will allow a fan to sit in the grandstands, come down to the paddock area and walk the grid before the six-hour race to mingle with drivers, teams, celebrities and, of course, the cars.

“We have an audience in North America, but no doubt we need to build a bigger one,” Craig said.

What will help is going to the iconic Florida track Sebring as part of a 2018-19 scheduling shakeup. What won’t help is COTA tentatively dropping off the grid.

“We have a one-year agreement with COTA (for 2017),” Craig said. “Our teams like coming here. We have not decided at all on future events at this track, but we’re changing our calendar year so that we finish at Le Mans. To complete this interim step, we’re going to Le Mans twice. It is our crown jewel.”

Instead of an April-to-November format, next season will start at Spa (Belgium) in May 2018, head to Le Mans (France) the next month and return to Le Mans to end the campaign in June 2019. Sebring will be in March 2019. There is a schedule slot for February 2019 that has yet to be set.

There is a chance that Austin will land a spot on the 2018-19 schedule, COTA chief operating officer Katja Heim told the American-Statesman, “but I don’t think it’s going to work out. The teams want a 12-hour race at Sebring, which is an old, historic track.

“We’re working with some other (endurance) series to help build them up. In fact, we’re holding a 24-hour race in November.”

COTA likes the prestige of the WEC, but circuit officials have disclosed to the Statesman that the series has not been a profitable one for the track.

After the 2016 Lone Star Le Mans, held at night in mid-September, several drivers on the podium said it was difficult to deal with the intense heat. Now the race moves to a daytime slot that comes with a forecast of temperatures in the low-to-mid-90s and elevated humidity.

“We don’t regard it as excessively warm in September,” Craig said.

Paired with IMSA in the past, the WEC event now has a variety of support races Friday and Saturday that Craig outlined:

Ferrari Challenge: “About 50 entries, glamorous cars, 650 horsepower. Michael Fassbender will be driving in those races.”

World Series V8 3.5: “Single-seater cars where F1 drivers like (Sebastian) Vettel and (Fernando) Alonso cut their teeth. Those are extremely fast with loud screaming engines.”

Formula 4: “A relatively new series, with aspiring F1 drivers, and this is their first visit to COTA. There are six drivers from Texas.”

It adds up to a busy three days.

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