IMSA has been given the gift of Fernando Alonso to open its 2018 season. The domestic sports car series, on a continual rise with its reinvigorated Prototype and GT classes, faces a daunting task in determining how will it make the most of the Alonso opportunity.
IMSA will receive the two-time Formula 1 world champion on two occasions in January at Daytona International Speedway as he learns the circuit during the Roar Before The 24, and returns later in the month to partake in the Rolex 24 At Daytona endurance race. In both instances, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship will have a prolonged chance to use Alonso’s millions of international fans to increase awareness of the championship itself.
From fresh advertising campaigns to expanded live streaming, what can IMSA come up with between now and January to maximize the Fernando Alonso phenomenon in ways that will bring more listeners, viewers, fans and, possibly, new entrants as a result of the giant Spanish spotlight headed for Daytona?
Series president Scott Atherton walked RACER through some of plans in motion as we count down to the January 5-7 Roar.
“Going back to the beginning, Daytona and the Rolex 24 have a long history of attracting names and very highly talented, highly regarded, well-known drivers from around the world,” he said.
“And a part of that is, one, the prestige of the event all by itself. Another contributor is that it occurs at a time of year that doesn’t conflict with anyone else – people from other championships are available at that time to sneak away and do a one-off race with us, so we’ve been fortunate to have significant stars come and race with us before in Daytona.
“But certainly, it’s a first in IMSA’s modern lifetime to have an existing, active Formula 1 multi-world champion go on record saying, ‘I’m going there because I want to be at Daytona, not because I consider it a warm-up for something else.’ As to the specifics of what will IMSA do to capitalize on this, hopefully not once-in-a-lifetime event, [communications director] Gregg Elkin and his staff have been working quickly to pull together an outline to act on it right away.”
Atherton (below), Elkins, and most of IMSA’s senior staff are in Nevada this week for the SEMA show, where the Alonso-Daytona topic has become an immediate priority. With the McLaren F1 driver set to pilot an LMP2 car owned by McLaren executive director Zak Brown’s United Autosports team, IMSA can expect to have communications support from McLaren and United Autosport whenever Alonso is present.
“We have the good fortune of a preexisting commitment to be in Las Vegas hosting all of our promoters at an annual IMSA promoters’ meeting,” said Atherton. “So our intention now is to go into that meeting with an added element, which is, ‘here’s how we can all benefit from this incredible start to our 2018 WeatherTech Championship season’.
“So what does all that mean? For sure, we will schedule a full media treatment around the Roar, which Fernando will be a part of, and we’ll cover all aspects of English and Spanish media. Likely, we will organize some satellite media tours at that time. We will leverage McLaren’s PR staff who will no doubt be a great asset to us, especially in the European markets. Because of our proximity here to Miami and the headquarters of Telemundo and Univision, the opportunity there is unprecedented for us.
“It’s a given that this will be newsworthy well beyond the traditional motorsports media. So USA Today, New York Times, Miami Herald, Orlando Sentinel. All of those represent opportunities for us to expand. And we’re talking specifically right now about Fernando, but I think you could quickly morph into the other elements that will be making their debut at Daytona as well, with Roger Penske and Acura.”
Following Atherton’s cue, Alonso will be joined by two other drivers who bring exceptional fame and fandom wherever they race. In Acura Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves, greater outreach in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking markets will help IMSA to spread a popular message throughout the state of Florida and numerous other markets.
“It’s going to be Montoya and Castroneves and everyone else together with the stars of IMSA,” Atherton said.
“It’s safe to say that outside of the core Formula 1 fan base and the core IndyCar fan base, Fernando Alonso is not yet a household name to the American automotive enthusiast. So there’s an opportunity for us to take our video production team and do a bit of a profile – the old ABC Wild World of Sports up close and personal style – and distribute that to drive awareness towards the Rolex 24.
“Put it out on the IMSA website, put it out on YouTube, put it out on Twitter. Give it the full treatment so that in advance of him returning to race at the end of the month, we can introduce this incredible personality that has a staggering number of followers. Fernando’s Twitter account and his Facebook followers; it’s in the millions. I think he’s got 2.6 million Twitter followers and 1.7 million on Instagram. And he’s already tweeted some things out about racing at Daytona.”
Atherton also anticipates an uptick in Rolex 24 entries as a result of Alonso. For teams, drivers, and sponsors looking for wider attention and value, IMSA’s season-opener at Daytona should produce its best numbers since the organization was launched in 2014.
“No question about that, and I think for any driver considering racing at Daytona, if you needed that extra motivation to put in your entry, you just got it,” he said. “And candidly, all indications are we will be oversubscribed for entries, not only at Daytona but also at Sebring, and this is a situation that’s developed very rapidly.
“An unprecedented number of prototypes are being confirmed in addition to the usual full complement of world-class GT cars. And when we do the back of the envelope accounting, knowing what we know, – and I’ll preface this by saying the entry numbers don’t matter until they’re fully submitted and properly processed and actually accepted by IMSA – but that back of the envelope accounting right now suggests oversubscription.
“And we’ve been in this situation before. It happened back in ’14, the first year that we ran as a merged entity. So we know how to handle it. But while some would say it’s a good problem to have, it’s a very challenging problem to manage.”
Alonso, Castroneves and Montoya – drivers with much bigger profiles than any of IMSA’s regular drivers – will help the series in many ways at Daytona, but in each instance, they’ve come to the event on their own, independent of IMSA. Would Atherton or his counterparts consider reaching out to a Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and other superstars as part of an active initiative to keep the trend going beyond 2018?
“It’s an opportunity for us to go on offense and actually pursue that, but I don’t know that that is even necessary based on what we’re seeing already,” Atherton says.
“I believe the experience that Jeff Gordon [2017 Rolex 24 overall winner, below] had this year carried a lot of water for us in that category for a driver to come from a non-traditional [sports car] background, spent almost his entire career in NASCAR.
“For him to come into this environment, be so well received, be competitive and actually win, I think was headlines around our industry for sure, and he came on his own. And it convinced a lot of drivers that if he can do it, so can I. So it would be easy and tempting for us to go on offense and be soliciting that type of interest, but the early indications are it won’t be necessary.”