PRUETT: How Scott Atherton changed U.S. sports car racing for the better

Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

PRUETT: How Scott Atherton changed U.S. sports car racing for the better

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PRUETT: How Scott Atherton changed U.S. sports car racing for the better

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North American sports car racing will lose its second titan in a span of 13 months after IMSA president Scott Atherton turns over the keys to a new successor later this year.

Heading into the 2018 edition of Petit Le Mans, IMSA was reeling after the passing of American Le Mans Series founder Don Panoz, and with the absence of Atherton’s longtime boss and mentor, the sport was greatly diminished.

This weekend’s gathering at Petit Le Mans marks another farewell for the man who Panoz entrusted to run his racing businesses, his racing series, and bring the country’s fractured sports car fraternity together under IMSA’s flag. Few leaders in the sport have carried the weight of such responsibility for so long.

I’m happy for Atherton, whose life has been long overdue for a downshift from sixth gear to third. A tireless company man, his dedication to Panoz and, in recent years, caring for the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, as his bosses have focused on securing NASCAR’s future, have gone largely unrecognized.

Both loved and loathed at different ends of pit lane, Atherton fought for whatever he felt was in the sport’s best interest. Some 20 years after he took the reins at the ALMS — and compared to a litany of clowns and dictators who’ve come and gone in other series since he stepped forward in the late 1990s — Atherton’s strong convictions have been the blueprint for what we have today.

Other than the late IMSA co-founder John Bishop, Atherton holds a rare place in history as a sports car leader who’s spanned multiple decades while fostering stability and continuity.

For those who remember the slow decline of IMSA after John and Peggy Bishop sold their stake at the conclusion of the 1989 season, the constant parade of new owners, with their new CEOs and presidents — often loaded with grand ideas that quickly failed — occupied a turbulent gap prior to the arrival of Panoz and Atherton.

Atherton’s leadership has guided U.S. sports car racing back to appealing and affordable competition. Image by Richard Dole/LAT

Armed with Don’s vast array of ideas, it was Atherton who was tasked with uprooting the malaise and decay that threatened sports car racing’s future in the U.S., and replacing it with high ambition and higher expectations.

If you were one of Grand-Am’s handful of fans who loved its low-tech vision for sports car racing, Atherton was the enemy. If you were one of the untold thousands who fell in love with the sport after basking in the sights and sounds of Le Mans-grade weaponry on American circuits, Atherton was the architect of your joy.

In the ultimate validation of the path decried by Panoz and paved by Atherton, three of the four classes that comprise today’s NASCAR-owned WeatherTech Championship hail from the series Atherton guided. It’s somewhere in the nostalgia of what he created and all that will continue in his absence where Atherton’s supreme impact on sports car racing is felt.

Of the personal appreciations to offer in Atherton’s final days atop IMSA, his willingness to have long, clarifying and, at times, heated off-the-record conversations became a point of pride. In private settings, or over the phone, his unbridled anger has been felt. In those same protected settings, I’ve torn into him without mercy. We’ve held grudges, as pride and stubbornness overrode our better natures. And those aren’t necessarily bad things.

They speak to a real relationship, not the plastic, zero-calorie exchanges preferred by some who’ve held his title in rival organizations. And there’s been trust and respect, with countless discussions conducted on background — in both directions — that were kept in confidence. I’ll be fortunate to establish anything remotely similar with IMSA’s next president.

Atherton was among the first to call in September of 2018 when he learned through mutual friends that my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was on the phone again in May when Shabral was admitted to the emergency room in a new cancer fight while I was away in Indianapolis, and reached out once more in July when significant new complications arose.

Unprompted, as health issues struck members of his own family, and with a major racing series to run, he’s remained vigilant, checking in as time has allowed. I fear Atherton’s humanity is the one aspect of the man’s character that hasn’t been acknowledged as often as it deserves.

Panoz and Atherton, the men who resuscitated sports car racing in the U.S. and infused it with fan-friendly excellence, set for victory laps 13 months apart. Don’s final chapter was written. Hopefully, with more time on his side, Scott will have a chance to celebrate all he’s given and all he’s achieved.

 

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