RACER #296: IMSA's Next Golden Age

RACER #296: IMSA's Next Golden Age

For its 50th birthday, IMSA received a couple of cool presents – a new television partner in NBC Sports and a new tire partner in Michelin. Both of these are part of long-term agreements that, along with title partner WeatherTech and 19 different auto makers participating, herald a bright future for IMSA as it begins its next half-century. IMSA President Scott Atherton states that fans are going to be treated to the next golden age of American sports car racing. He should know, he’s been in a leadership role across various forms of the series and has witnessed some of its best, and darkest, moments.

IMSA’s first golden age began to show signs of decline around 1993, and soon after went into a near-death spin. But in 1998, salvation arrived as Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz stepped in with separate visions for what sports car racing in America should be. For over a decade the two series co-existed at arm’s length, each enjoying some success, but also some rough patches that challenged the fortitude of all involved, including Atherton. One such moment came on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.

“I was at home getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving when my mobile phone rings with a call from Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich of Audi Sport, and I think, ‘Wow, how nice. He’s calling to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving.’ As it turned out, he’d forgotten that it was a holiday for us, and instead of good tidings, he informed me that Audi was out of the ALMS with immediate effect,” says Atherton, recalling that he spent the rest of the holiday in a virtual fog.

The American Le Mans Series had the proverbial rug pulled out from under it that year. Over the course of the next four seasons, “both series thrived, but neither could survive” as a standalone entity, according to Atherton. In 2012, the two sides came to the table, and this time France and Panoz went from separate visions to a united front. A new, consolidated series was born that took the best elements from each to build something newer and stronger.

“IMSA’s in the best position it’s ever been” says Atherton. “We have a leadership team in lockstep, the resources and support of the France family, and an extremely high level of professionalism among our staff, teams and drivers. We have a peerless roster of manufacturer, commercial and promoter partners. We have a strong, stable schedule, and our on-track content is exciting, relevant and aspirational. The level of competition is as tight as it’s ever been.

“In the near future there will be two major motion pictures where sports car racing is central to the story, and one of them, ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain,’ features IMSA content in all of the racing scenes. So we have an unprecedented opportunity to showcase our sport to a general audience,” he continues. “We’re an exponentially better organization today than we’ve ever been, and we’re continuing to find ways where we can raise the bar ever higher.”

In terms of what we fans can most look forward to this season, Atherton is unequivocal.

“The TV package with NBC Sports is a game changer,” he says. “Their commitment and passion to televising this sport with live, flag-to-flag coverage of every race on every type of apparatus from a phone, to a tablet, to a laptop, to a television set will make an immediate positive impression on our fans.”

Moreover, Atherton believes that the basic premise upon which sports car racing was founded is alive and well, which keeps the sport anchored to its roots, while also keeping pace with the times.

“You race to improve the breed, and that sentiment is as true today as it was at IMSA’s beginning,” states Atherton. “As reliable as vehicles are today, the pace at which we now run still puts an enormous strain and stress on man and machine. Now, as before, endurance racing has so many aspects that test the limits of performance. That could be engine reliability, energy efficiency or the ability for a tire to perform at its peak over a longer duration – these things are still very much a part of what endurance racing delivers to manufacturers and competitors. Our teams and drivers are going flat-out over as much as 24 hours, and if there’s a technical issue, a bad pit stop, or a mistake, their race is effectively over. So while the technique of sports car racing has evolved over the years, the basic premise remains firmly intact.”

After 50 years, is it possible that IMSA’s best is yet to come? It’s not only possible, it’s probable. So buy a ticket or pull up a chair with your viewing device of choice, because IMSA’s next golden age is upon us.