It has been a while since we’ve caught up on the progress and status of preparations for the 2014 TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season. Our last conversation with TUDOR Championship CEO Ed Bennett took place before the major schedule and rule information was released over the last six weeks, leading RACER‘s Marshall Pruett to spend nearly an hour with Bennett for a two-part Q&A on a wide ranging list of topics.
MARSHALL PRUETT: A lot has happened since we last spoke on the progress of the TUDOR Championship ” how are or aren’t preparations coming for 2014?
ED BENNETT: I think we have a lot more behind us than in front of us. Overall, on our timeline that we established at a high level, I’d say we’ve followed that road map very closely and, generally speaking, we’ve rated things green or red; green being completed, red still pending or near pending or near completion.
More things are green than red, which is a very good indication, and it should be that way: the 2014 premium schedule, all of the diversity and variety of the different prototypes and GT vehicles, the Fox Television partnership, having TUDOR as the title sponsor for the championship, having obviously so many automotive manufacturer partnerships, which is both product on the track but also marketing muscle to help the series, and then the merchandise partner, both for at-track and online.
Having all the staff integration behind us and really, now Grand-Am and ALMS have completed their 2013 season, everything is changing to IMSA. Actually, before the Grand-Am people got back to Daytona, all the name plates in the office, all the business cards, the screens on the phones, everything changed. The last days for staff that would not be continuing, the full-time staff, was actually [last Friday]. So all the full-timers are fully integrated. Scot Elkins is down here, Scott Atherton I think will be down within a month. He already has an office with his name on it down here.
Many things were completed over the year. A lot of it I think earlier than ever but there was a lot of anxiety about things getting done ” like the schedule, which I don’t think it ever got done earlier in the history of Grand-Am or ALMS. Membership and entry fees and process, point funds and purses, all that stuff teams need to help them make decisions, all that stuff’s out there. IMSA.com being completed. Driver and crew uniform requirements being sent to the teams.
All the kind of blocking and tackling stuff, it’s happening. It’s happening right on plan. There’s more to do. A lot less to do and to get done than for sure there was a couple months ago. Definitely less than there was six months before that. The synergy between the two groups is really good. We feel like we have really good momentum, really good partnerships. And I think generally, it’s strategy that the partners could buy into. Change is tough and there’s change management there for all of us, whether you work at the sanctioning body or you’re a team or you’re a manufacturer or some kind of partner to the series, generally things seem pretty good today. Knock on wood.
Our 2014 business plan has all been finalized and presented to the board. So all the planning stuff as you would expect is done. It’s really finalized and in motion, which is a great feeling. I personally feel really good about where things stand right now.
MP: We’ve heard a lot about the ALMS staff that have or haven’t come over as part of the merger, and some of the senior management from Grand-Am, but little has been said about the bulk of the Grand-Am staff and where they fit in the IMSA organization. We know about a lot of the senior members, but I’m curious what the org chart looks like from the Daytona Beach side.
EB: We really have embraced the merger concept. I think the good thing about both organizations is that we’re pretty humble people, just want to do a good job. To me when you talk about Grand-Am/NASCAR, and then you have the ALMS on the Georgia side, we’re integrating in a proper way with really the NASCAR group.
We have an autonomous organization for this completely new IMSA organization. We’re going to matrix into every similar function within NASCAR and then depending on the topic, it’s a sliding scale. Take (IMSA director of communications) David Hart. We’re thrilled to have him on the team, but he’s within the IMSA sports car organization, yet he has a relationship with NASCAR in integrated marketing communications. He has more in common with them and opportunities or issues they face; they have more in common than some other groups within IMSA by itself. There’s a lot of synergy there with the people within the sports car organization. But it’s kind of like we have the hard line group, which is the sports car IMSA group. But then we have kind of a dotted line to all the similar functions within the NASCAR group.
So Scott Atherton and I have had all that great history on IMSA and ALMS, that whole chapter of that sports car legacy. And then on the NASCAR side with me having been on the NASCAR side for a long time, having spent the vast majority of my time with Grand-Am on the sports car side, the merger, we’re bringing our experience together. I know the NASCAR machine, I know the NASCAR people, I know how NASCAR views a lot of things and then where to go to get help when it makes sense for us to get it.
Scott’s been out there on the front lines for 13, 14 years on the sports car side. So he’s been with that side of it. We’re partnered up. David Petit, who was a Grand-Am guy, leads the marketing group. And that’s everything from the automotive partnerships, the commercial partnerships, international development, the merchandise arm. The connection with communications with Mr. Hart.
On the competition side ” and there’s kind of a mix between Grand-Am and ALMS people that are part of the subgroup for Pettit. On the competition side, you’ve got Scot Elkins, VP of competition and technical regulations and all the pieces connect in: technical, race director, logistics, the different series managers, timing and scoring, member services for entries, memberships and all that type and what we call fact services. Scot’s connection to Scott and I is through Richard Buck, who is actually the vice president of racing operations for IMSA. But he also carries a NASCAR title as well.
So wherever you turn, whether you’re kind of at a specific functional area like communications or marketing or branding or technical rules, we’ve got the disciplines within the group and a really clear org chart. We have the cross-matrix approach to the NASCAR side. But it really is a blend both of ALMS and NASCAR/Grand-Am people. We’re not looking to have it be ALMS Part 2. We’re also not looking for it to be Grand-Am Part 2 either.
We really want it to be the most logical, most sensible thing for sports car racing and for IMSA. And if that has some things similar with NASCAR to it, so be it. But if it doesn’t because of what sports car racing is and its identity and what needs to be, given the international flavor, international manufacturers, international drivers and teams, all the different makes and shapes of cars and all that stuff, then we want to have the freedom to be different so that we can hopefully optimize the sports car platform for everybody.
On the television side, our TV will be produced by NASCAR Productions below-the-line. So that’s a synergy that made sense because they produce all the below-the-line stuff for the NASCAR National Series. And we don’t have that capability, so it was the right thing to do.
MP: We’ve come out of the past few week with a fair amount of questions, a lot of strong opinions, some controversy, and that’s left us with some less savory items to discuss. Indecision seems to be the state of the union within the Prototype class right now. Most owners I’ve spoken with are hesitant to make serious commitments, aren’t sure which type of car is going to have an advantage, are concerned about costs, and so on. How do you get things to a calmer place within that portion of the paddock?
EB: We certainly don’t celebrate the challenges. Any time you’re changing the paradigm? and it’s not to be flippant about it, but you’re going to have some issues. It’s just part of change.
I think the timing of the DP technical specifications, if that would be something you could do this over again, no question, you would love to expedite that. We went through the process of getting out a draft, got a lot of good input. I think generally people are comfortable with the direction and where that’s landed.
The timeline is a challenge ” I can’t say that it’s not. We certainly don’t relish the incremental investment that’s attached to upgrading the performance of those cars. But it was also necessary. It depends who you talk to, honestly, in terms of people understanding why we had to increase the performance. Some people want to believe that it needed to be increased because of getting to the performance level of P2, particularly at the smaller, windier tracks because of the downforce that it has. And it really had little to do with that, everything to do with if the Prototype class is going to be the top performance class of the four classes, then the Daytona Prototypes have to perform at a level higher than the GTLM and LMPC cars.
And that was the first issue. And then secondary to that, once you have performance levels that are above that, then it’s doing the best job you can to balance DP and P2. But in my mind, and I’m not a technical guy, but that’s the way I’ve always thought about it. Some have gotten hung up on: well, why don’t you just slow down the P2s? There aren’t that many P2s and why should we have to upgrade for a handful of P2s? I’ve heard all the stuff. And that’s not the reason that you have to increase the performance. The reason you have to do it is because you need, whatever it is, a 6 percent-ish gap between GTLM, LMPC and the top prototype class. And then after you do that, you do the best job you can to come to balance two very different designs of cars between the DP and the P2.
I think right out of the gate, like in GT, there’s different shapes, different sizes, we’re going to do it to the best of our ability but it won’t be perfect because they’re just different cars. I think in some cases the DP will perform better, given the nature and the characteristics of the track. And in some cases the P2 will. That won’t be by design; it’ll just be because it kind of happened. But our goal would be they’re able to race together really well and really close, competition racing. But we can’t change the fact that they really are different cars.
One thing we did to try to help the DP guys out and the P2 guys was adding an additional year of life to the chassis. You have to make an investment to upgrade the DP, as an example, but being able to race that design in 2014, ?15 and ?16, adding that extra year and not really potentially having a change on prototypes until 2017, not that you can wait till the fourth quarter of 2016 to figure it out, but that gives people three years to amortize those investments. And while the DP guys are having to add some new parts and some new bits, it will be a heck of a racecar I think with all these things that have been made and added.
When you look at the economics of the series to participate in the P class, it’s true that the DP’s are having to make some changes in aero stuff and some more horsepower and paddle shifts, the different elements ” I think you’ve seen all that ” and the P2 guys aren’t having to do as much, but the part I think that gets lost is the running time. And the running time is going up for everybody. If you’re a Grand-Am guy racing a DP in the Rolex series, you’re running time from 2013 to 2014 is up around 25 percent. If you’re in the ALMS with the P2, 2013 versus 2014, it’s going up over 50 percent.
So the budgets are going up. One’s going up I think a little bit more with the capital than operating; the other is going up a little bit on the operating budget. But they’re both going up. I’m not saying it’s going up dollar for dollar. I know they’re not happy it’s going up at all but it’s the nature of putting together a calendar that has all the endurance racing as a part of it.
Tomorrow in Part 2: GT Daytona car counts, prize money, entry fees, the IMSA safety team, television and TV ratings, and more with Ed Bennett.