The American Le Mans Series kicks off its 2009 season with Saturday's Sebring 12-Hour race. Of primary interest to us are the two BMW M3s being entered by Rahal-Letterman Racing in the GT2 Class. It has been a couple of years since we saw the PTG M3s in ALMS competition. The new M3 race cars were developed by the factory in Germany and shipped to Ohio for further testing and development by RLR. These cars are substantially different than your E92 production M3. For instance, the front suspension is a double wishbone design rather than the McPherson struts found in production BMWs for the last 45 years. Closed-top ALMS cars are required to run air conditioning this year and the M3s have panels that close off the back seat area so the AC has less interior volume to cool. As reported earlier, drivers for the two white M3s are Californians Bill Auberlen and Joey Hand in the #90, and Leesburg's Tommy Milner with German Dirk Mueller (currently residing in Monaco) in #92.

Only 28 cars are entered in the 12-Hour, down substantially from Sebring's heyday when fields of 60 or 70 cars started the race. Besides the two BMWs, the GT2 class will have seven other manufacturers represented: There are 5 Porsche GT3 RSRs, 3 Ferrari 430GTs, 1 Aston-Martin, 1 Doran Ford GT, 1 Riley Corvette, 1 Viper, and one Panoz Esperante GTLM. The Ford V8-powered Panoz is entered by Tom Milner's Winchester-based PTG team. I consider this the most interesting class, but if the TV coverage follows the usual form, we will mostly see the LMP1 (prototype) class battle.

In the LMP1 class, Honda has developed two Acura ARX-02a cars to do battle with the Audi R15 diesels. Unfortunately Audi will be running a very limited ALMS schedule after Sebring. There are two AER-powered Lola B06/10s and two Peugeot 908 diesels rounding out the LMP1 class.

LMP2 had been most interesting the last few years, but Porsche has retired their prototypes and Honda only has 1 Acura ARX-01B returning. The GT1 class will see the two familiar Corvette CR6s battling each other for class honors, but will downgrade the cars for GT2 competition later this season and the GT1 class will probably disappear.

Live coverage of the Sebring 12-Hour will be carried on SpeedTV beginning at 10:00am Saturday. There is a two-hour break from noon to 2pm, the continued coverage from 2:00 until 11pm. Also there is a ALMS preview show on Speed at 7pm Thursday (repeated at 11pm). Future ALMS races will be on Speed, ABC and NBC.

After Sebring, the next ALMS race will be in St. Petersburg, Florida on April 4. The closest two ALMS races to the DC area are July 18 at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut and August 8 at Mid-Ohio. The premier Petit Le Mans 8-hour race at Road Atlanta will be Sept 26, just a couple of days preceeding the BMWCCA Oktobefest at Road Atlanta.