In new IMSA president John Doonan, the series welcomes its most cheerful partner. The former Mazda Motorsports director brings a valuable blend of expertise to his new role, and at his core, the paddock is receiving a lifelong racer.
Doonan’s hands-on spirit will make a difference while leading IMSA. Starting with a childhood spent at Road America and other Midwestern tracks, Doonan grew up watching his father compete as an amateur driver in the SCCA, and in time, he’d follow suit, grabbing wrenches to work on his father’s cars. Later, continuing the Doonan family tradition, he donned a helmet and fire suit to compete on the SCCA regional circuit.
Fast forward to his corporate career at Mazda, where pressed shirts and polished shoes became the norm, and his racing roots continued to show. Based on the amount of dirt and oil stains they dealt with, Doonan’s local dry cleaners must have wondered whether he worked as a manager in the service department. Despite having full crews of professional mechanics to fix a variety of crashes factory Mazda race cars since he joined the company in 2003, Doonan was often found, late at night at Daytona, or in the freezing cold at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, wearing a pair of work gloves, turning those same wrenches, or stripping battered bodywork from a DPi or an MX-5, helping to get the team back to racing as quickly as possible.
Picture most team owners and manufacturer bosses, then try and work out how many would dive into the fray because they see themselves as no different than the pit crew when it’s time to deal with a crisis.
Stories like this regarding Doonan have been a constant. It’s helping volunteer SCCA corner workers when fireproof suits were needed. Dozens of drivers who’ve risen up the Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda Road to 24 ladder systems, then fallen short on budget to land drives that could boost their careers, have Doonan to thank. Whether it was shifting Mazda’s racing budget around to help with the missing dollars, or calling a sponsor to vouch for the kid, or asking one of Mazda’s corporate partners to reach deep into their pocket and give a little more, the foundation of benevolence runs deep with IMSA’s new president.
Ask the people who worked for Doonan setting up Mazda’s trackside hospitality compound, or the teams who’ve been part of the giant Mazda Motorsports clan, or the hundreds of others who’ve been taken into his extended racing family, and they share a specific bond. It’s loyalty. The amount of people who’ve said “I’d do anything for that guy” are innumerable.
At Mazda, Doonan became the company’s informal racing historian, celebrating big moments like the 20th anniversary of its 1991 overall victory at Le Mans, and more recently in September, a less heralded win for the brand in IMSA dating back to the early 1970s that only a handful of people would have remembered.
For more than a decade at the Monterey Reunion — one of the premiere vintage racing events on the planet — Doonan has ensured a fleet of Mazda’s most iconic race cars have been on display and on track. At an event with minimal coverage by the press, Doonan valued tradition and honoring Mazda’s past over attending more high-profile events that would have been easier to sell internally. Sometimes the important things don’t make sense to the accountants, but need to happen nonetheless. No manufacturer has come close to matching Mazda’s unwavering footprint at the Reunion. As a series chock full of history, IMSA is fortunate to have someone with Doonan’s grasp of the past coming in to navigate its present.
A devout man of faith, Doonan will also be challenged to keep his fountain of positivity flowing with the same vigor once he gets settled in Daytona Beach.
Doonan’s greatest upcoming challenge stems from IMSA’s parent company, NASCAR, where declining revenues, combined with efforts to take its publicly-traded International Speedway Corporation business private, are expected to result in extreme financial cuts across all the properties it owns.
Building new sponsorship programs for the series to offset the anticipated budget decreases will be an immediate priority. Fortunately, the majority of Doonan-led Mazda factory programs featured significant external funding from Castrol, Visit Florida, ModSpace, and other partners he developed, who resolved the funding shortfalls. Doonan will also have calls for change to deal with from the paddock.
IMSA’s competition department, and more specifically, those in charge of managing its Balance of Performance tables, were under heavy fire from entrants and manufacturers for significant portions of the 2019 season. Faith eroded as wild swings in fortunes for numerous brands have come as a result of curious BoP decisions or, at times, long stretches of inactivity when obvious changes were needed.
As the volume of dissatisfaction grew, the divide worsened as the competition department placed a gag order on its teams and drivers, threatening to fine those who spoke out about the aforementioned issues. With IMSA’s technical department holding the keys to each model’s success or failure, burned bridges will need to be reconstructed as the new season approaches in January.
IMSA is also in the middle of planning for its next DPi formula, which is due to start racing in 2022. Critical decisions on hybrid powertrains, the commissioning of new models — or possibly retrofitting the current DPis — is also on the table where a multitude of auto companies await direction.
In DPi, IMSA has one key asset that differentiates its product from the FIA World Endurance Championship. Getting the DPi 2.0 formula right is a must if the series wants to grow.
A fractured relationship with the French, where years of poor treatment by the FIA WEC and the organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans has proven to be rather complicated, will keep Doonan busy most days. Until DPis are allowed at Le Mans, the aforementioned growth, via new prototype manufacturers committing to the formula, will be stifled.
Improving the bond with IMSA’s team owners and manufacturer representatives is another item to prioritize. Step back to the days of the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am’s Rolex Series being separate entities, and by comparison, many of the participants speak of an unfortunate distance between the paddock and IMSA’s senior decision makers that did not exist — at least to the same degree — when sports car racing was split into two houses.
Listening to the paddock and turning their ideas and needs into action, as some have said in private conversations, is a recipe for success.
IMSA is in the midst of a serious transition as it seventh season nears. Popular drivers, teams, and cars have left the series, and with a full plate of fixes to find with budgets and rules and relationships, Doonan has accepted a job that comes with a daunting to-do list.
They’ve hired the right person. There’s also no doubt the man’s faith will be tested.