Patrick Long among rising ALMS stars

Sports car racing always has had a European feel about it.

Although oval racing is inherently American, road racing always has been the province of drivers from across the big waters. There have been some great American road racers, of course -- drivers like Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and, more recently, Scott Pruett. Still, most of the greats in American road racing have been from other countries.

Happily, though, that is changing, at least in the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón.

First and foremost, there is Patrick Long, 29, the three-time ALMS GT champion and the only American driver who is part of the Porsche factory team. But the Californian, who now makes his home in Florida, is not alone.

Joey Hand, a 32-year-old Californian who drives for BMW Team RLL in
the ALMS, has come into his own this season as part of the winning GT
team at both Sebring and Long Beach.

ALMS president & CEO Scott Atherton is delighted by the emergence of the two American stars.

"It's critically important because it gives us the balanced approach that we've always sought," Atherton said. "Sports car racing, inherently from its inception, has been known for its cars. People describe watching the Porsche 917 run, or the McLaren Can-Am car or the Toyota GTP cars. We have spectacular cars in this series, but we've always wanted to strike a balance between showcasing and featuring the talent behind the wheels of these cars as well as the technology and excitement that the cars themselves generate.

"So, from a series marketing platform, we've always deliberately tried to feature as much of the star as we have the car. And, in these young drivers, we have the best and the brightest. We've got raw material to work with here that always hasn't been around."

Beyond his obvious racing ability, Long brings a lot more to the table, Atherton said.

"He has talent, and when I say talent I'm referring to the total package," Atherton said. "There are few that I've come across who are as articulate and as effective out of the car as they are in. With all respect to Joey and Tommy Milner, who should also be included in this discussion, Patrick, to us, is the benchmark.

"He's exceptionally well spoken. He speaks several languages. His product knowledge of the Porsche cars that he races, not only the race cars but the road car equivalents, is second-to-none. And I've seen him work a room of media and VIPs and automotive industry executives better than anyone I've ever witnessed."

Long, who will drive a Porsche for Flying Lizard Motorsports this week at the Le Mans 24 Hours, is proud that he is bringing an American presence to the ALMS.

"I think the Tommy Kendalls and Scott Pruetts and a lot of the American guys ... Davy Jones, Price Cobb and more ... it's been a little bit of a break in the action, if you will -- a generation gap," Long said.

I think the future's bright. The 24 Hours of Daytona, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and [the 12 Hours of] Sebring mean more to the 20-somethings today than [they have] over the last few years. That's great news.

-- Patrick Long,
three-time ALMS GT champion

"ALMS and [rival American-based series] Grand-Am have grown in the 21st century into formidable series that have a lot of manufacturer involvement. And that's the way guys like myself and Joey wound up in sports car racing, our ties to Porsche and BMW, respectively.

"Sports car racing in the U.S. has only gone upward in popularity and support with the manufacturers and, ultimately, that gives us drivers an avenue to make a living. I think there's going to be a big group of up-and-comers, Americans that will really be looking at what we've been able to do and accomplish and experience and will want to do the same."

He noted that sports car racing's big events are starting to resonate with young American drivers.

"I think the future's bright," Long said. "The 24 Hours of Daytona, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and [the 12 Hours of] Sebring mean more to the 20-somethings today than [they have] over the last few years. That's great news.

"Making a living at this game is never easy and, as I look at the teenagers of today, it's a challenge because you have NASCAR and the fame and fortune of F1 catching youngsters' eyes. But I think that sports car racing is slowly becoming more on the radar for youngsters."

That's certainly good news to Atherton, who's happy to have Long leading the way.

"Patrick's been developing for years, and when Porsche made him the first American member of their factory driving team, we knew at that time that we had a star in the making," Atherton said. "He's not a rising star, he's a risen star. He's there. He's going from strength to strength now."

Mike Harris is a retired auto racing writer for The Associated Press and remains a frequent contributor to a variety of racing outlets. He will file periodic reports on the American Le Mans Series to ESPN.com.