With the Detroit round of the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship serving as the informal midway point of its inaugural season, RACER sat down with IMSA President and COO Scott Atherton during a brief window to discuss the first half of the year and what’s in store for the remainder of 2014.
MARSHALL PRUETT: Sebring feels like a really, really long time ago, and that’s a positive thing. Looking back across the first half of the season, what do you see as the standout high points? And in the opposite direction, the improvements needed?
SCOTT ATHERTON: High points, without question, it was standing on the Rolex 24 grid with Jim France and Ed Bennett and looking out at the unprecedented lineup of cars, teams, drivers, new series-related sponsors, a new television partnership. All those pieces of the puzzle that we had worked so hard, an entire army of people having gone through the 2013 season, running the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am Series, respectively; not phoning it in but doing our best to deliver on all of those commitments at the same time. The overwhelming task of putting all the elements in place so that we could come out of the gate in January with a new unified series.
That moment of accomplishment when you stand at the top – there was a riser there that they did all the driver introductions on and Joie Chitwood was up there and the three of us climbed up there and looked out on the scene. It was just one of those memories that will hang with me a long time, because as you looked at the crowd – and there were more people in the grandstands that had been at Daytona in any time in recent history – just that moment. And I would have to say that was carried right on through that whole 24-hour race until the very end.
I’d also add the attainment of true “balance” between the DP and P2 cars that was displayed at our Mazda Raceway event. I want to include this in the mix as I don’t think Scot Elkins and his team get enough credit for what has been accomplished in this category. They took a lot of arrows in the months leading up to our Daytona debut, some of them justified, some not so much. In particular Scot took a lot of heat for what many thought was an impossible task – truly matching the on-track performance capabilities of the Daytona Prototype and ALMS P2 cars.
And while the early examples confirmed more work was required, the qualifying and race results from MRLS – and the race-long battles between multiple DPs and P2s – provided one of the most satisfying highlights so far this season. Especially so when it was only the fourth event of the new unified era and it involved an accomplishment that some said would never be achieved.
The Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle GP qualifying (ABOVE, LAT photo) suggested a continuation of the same DP/P2 raceability as was evidenced at MRLS, but frustratingly so the race demonstrated otherwise. Regardless, we have gotten the two disparate platforms remarkably close with the promise of future close racing and unpredictable outcomes.
And I would have to say that incredible high point from Daytona was followed by potentially the lowest point of standing in the Winner’s Circle and having one of our staff members come and tap me on the shoulder and say, “Jim’s on the other side [of the circuit] and needs you ASAP.” And, of course, it was the whole drama that was unfolding between the GTD finish, the Flying Lizard team, and at the time, Level 5 Ferrari.
So that started of process that was very…. It was complex and it was painful. We had to make some unprecedented choices and decisions as a group, kind of thrown together into a process that no one was familiar with. I think we came out of that better for it even though life’s hardest lessons, the most beneficial often are the hardest ones, and I would put that in that category.
But getting away from just a moment of time of Daytona, having a similar experience at Sebring, and ironically, the highs were high there with, again, a fantastic grid and great racing and then having, unfortunately, the headlines and the discussion topics and the chat room discussion afterwards being all focused on a very, very negative situation. And I’ll say it exactly as I have described it internally and externally, inexcusable mistakes that we will never attempt to justify other than to apologize for.
Again, the learning and improvement in our process and in our practices coming out of that have made us markedly better. Moving away from those first two because you couldn’t ask for a more difficult and challenging set of circumstances to have the new unified championship begin with a 24-hour race, followed by a 12-hour race, it is almost unfair. But having the significance of having those two races together, again, on the same calendar, the same championship, is the way it always should have been. I hope we never deviate from that.
Moving forward from there, I would say our high-water mark so far this year has to be the overall on-track product and results that were achieved during our Mazda Raceway event (ABOVE, LAT photo). It was a first-time attempt by us to take a 57-car grid and subdivide it into two separate stand-alone races. There was a lot of trepidation going in: Is this going to work? Is this going to result in a product that appeals to fans and competitors? I would have to say in hindsight or the after-race analysis, that I have yet to meet anyone that was not happy about it. The only complaint – and I mean this sincerely – the only complaint I’ve seen is we just want longer races. The two-hour time frame for each was not enough.
So I think that establishes a very good benchmark example of what we could do more of in the future. We’re not making decisions based on always having a 60-car grid. I hope that’s the case; in fact, I hope it grows from there. But history would suggest that those numbers rise and fall.
We had a question from one of our competitors just recently in a meeting: Are you guys making decisions such that if some number of teams elect to not continue racing you’re OK with that? Because, after all, you’ve got so many, you could stand to lose a few. And I don’t ever, ever want that to be our mindset. It certainly isn’t now and I don’t ever believe it will be.
MP: We’ve had a couple of the biggest spenders step away during the season in Level 5 and Greg Pickett, and the Dysons simply chose not to join in. Any concerns some of the big name, upper echelon privateer teams have, for whatever reasons, decided they don’t want to race in the TUDOR Championship right now?
SA: It’s more disappointing than it is concerning. And the reason I can say that is, while I would never suggest that I’ve got all the information and detail that goes into those decisions, I think I’ve had enough one-to-one dialogue with all three of those principals you described to understand enough of what drove the decision to realize that it wasn’t specifically a result of something we did or didn’t do, but it was a very complex combination of both business-related and personal issues that ultimately drove the decision not to continue. Across all three of those examples, I don’t think there’s anything in common. It’s not like they have all been faced with a similar set of circumstances and opted out.
It’s disappointing because all three examples are teams that have predominantly competed in the American Le Mans Series that we considered part of the ALMS grid, and all three of them were examples of top-tier prototype competitors that we urgently wanted to be part of our current grid. Candidly, there’s not enough balance in our opinion, and that’s shared among Jim France, Ed Bennett and myself.
We want a healthy mix of Daytona Prototype and P2 competitors in our prototype class. It really hurts to not have the likes of Level 5, Dyson, and Muscle Milk Pickett Racing on the grid. I think in all three examples there is every reason to believe that at some point in the future we could see them back competing. I can’t predict anything but I wouldn’t be surprised.
MP: The TUDOR Championship has produced an amazing product at the track. If you come to an event, and aren’t pleased with what you’ve seen, you’ve got issues. That being said, despite the great racing for those who attend the events, the TV ratings haven’t delivered the volume of viewers the stakeholders expect. Again, is that an issue or concern for the series, and is there anything you can do to increase those numbers by effort or by plan? Or is it an organic thing that will have to grow at its own pace?
SA: It’s priority one. And I don’t say that lightly. We all – the management team of IMSA collectively agrees that there isn’t anything that’s more important right now. And it’s because it drives so many other elements of the championship, the manufacturer involvement, the stakeholder involvement. Without the value equation of our television product delivering the results, it puts many aspects in jeopardy or at least under heavy scrutiny.
There is no such thing – I guess there is organic growth, but that’s a very slow and difficult process to manage. We would never leave this situation up to an organic solution. It’s a combination of many, many things. Again, we are very active and aggressive in pursuing an increase in our television viewership. I think we started off with a very challenging set of circumstances in that it was confusing, even for people that are within our own organization. We opened up the season at Daytona with two hours live on Fox Network, followed by some period of time on Fox Sports 1, followed by live streaming, followed by other periods on Fox Sports 2, followed by a return to Fox Sports 1. That’s tough.
You go to Sebring and, again, a limited amount of time on Fox Sports 1 and then live streaming and then a highlight show the following day. We’re in a very important time right now on the calendar because we have six races back-to-back-to-back, all on Fox Sports 1. We’ve got a new championship with a new brand, new television relationship that is now, this is the fifth race that we are experiencing. So there’s a lot of new material to get out and a lot of new brand awareness that needs to develop.
We’re looking to our partners at Fox to assist us. We are looking to all of our stakeholders to assist us – I’ll give you just a couple of examples. We produce customized tune-in materials for every one of our OEM partners. So I’ll use Mazda is an example. We will have a dedicated tune-in element that is easily tweeted, posted on Facebook, sent out, put on a website, whatever. It’s going to feature, for obvious reasons, a Mazda car image and it’s going to have all the makings that this is something that came from them. We’ll do the same thing with Chevrolet, the same thing with Porsche, the same thing with BMW. The scope and scale of what those OEMs and our stakeholder partners represent in terms of their Facebook followers, their database, their owners clubs, it makes anything that we could do individually as a sanctioning body look like small ball.
The good news is everyone is eager to be helpful. They all recognize the role that they can play and the benefit that what they do for us can have. We’ve got to have support from Fox. We need tune-in promotional efforts on their part. But it has to start from within. We’re aggressively going out and buying tune-in related content on targeted websites that not only touch the core motorsport audience, but automotive enthusiasts that may not be race fans but we know that they are – AutoWeek is a good core element. Road & Track takes you away from hard-core racing and into an auto enthusiast category. Same thing with Car and Driver. We’re going beyond that to Gentlemen’s Quarterly to Men’s Health, that type of a demographic fit to attract new eyeballs.
You look at what’s happening on our website and the engagement on our live streaming and on viewership of the host race broadcast, unprecedented numbers. Tremendous volume of viewership watching the races online after the fact. 41 percent of the visitors to IMSA.com since January 1 are first-time visitors, never been there before. And those are big numbers. It is. There are so many things that are working, but until we get that core TV audience number up no one will be satisfied.
MP: Last question – after the Le Mans break, the series will be on a fast run to the end of the year. What can people look forward to as 2015 approaches? Growth, any new teams, new interest?
SA: If you look at Long Beach as the first example of a race that I think was executed at the level of expectation of our competitors, of our fans, it was a great television show. From Long Beach we went to Mazda Raceway, from Mazda Raceway we had a great Conti race at Lime Rock last week. Here we are in Detroit, we haven’t run this race yet, but my expectation is we are going to have another spectacular event. I think we are building momentum. And that will continue through the balance of the season.
We take a break now to allow the management team as well as some of our competitors to go to Le Mans. There is some serious work being done, very timely, very topical regarding the future of technical rules and regulations for both GT and Prototype. There’s a lot of movement there that you’re going to hear more about as we get into the latter part of the season.
We have a goal of getting a 2015 calendar out long before, much earlier than any time that we’ve done in the past. We have the benefit of having almost all of our current venues under long-term contracts. So the only challenge there is just confirming the actual date and then lining the data up with the most optimum TV link. You could have a great date that works for everybody but if it doesn’t work for TV, it doesn’t work. So we’ve got to move all of those moving parts together.
With regard to new content and growth, we, as we had before, we have more demand from promoters that want a TUDOR Championship event than we have weekends to offer. So without tipping our cards too much, the opportunity to split up the four classes to us represents an opportunity to expand the calendar even more but not necessarily expand the number of races. So over the course of the season, all four classes would have the same number of races, but they wouldn’t always be in the same market.
I look at the opportunity I have coming back with the next round of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup with Watkins Glen as an opportunity to kind of relaunch what we consider to be the second half of our season. If we use Le Mans as the dividing line, which that’s back to the American Le Mans mindset, the first half of the season is pre-Le Mans, second half, post. And to come out of the blocks of that second half with a spectacular six-hour race. And for the ALMS competitors, a first-time visit. Never been there before. One of the most storied, hallowed ground venues in North America.
Last word, as far as content on the grid, teams, manufacturers, there’s always a pipeline. The content in the pipeline varies, and I think because of the timing we have right now of new technical rules and regs for both GT and Prototype, there’s a lot of content that’s in that pipeline, but because GT convergence has been all talk until very recently when it seems like it’s going to remain status quo, that gives the GT manufacturers the confidence to be able to press the go button now because they know what the rules and regs are going to be. They know what the platform is and they can build accordingly.
We’ve already seen the announcement of the new HPD Honda prototype going to the ESM team. That’s not one of one, I think that’s the first of several. Spectacular new car. And look for more content in both the GT category and Prototype. I can’t predict on when it’s going to break ground but there’s definitely content in the pipeline.