John Doonan’s first 100 days as IMSA president included a whirlwind tour, one of the most significant announcements in sports car racing history and one of the most successful Rolex 24s ever.
Doonan joined the company 108 days ago on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. The former Mazda motorsports director hit the ground running with a clear plan of attack last fall.
Hitting the road
“I made a promise to (IMSA Chairman) Mr. (Jim) France and (IMSA CEO) Ed (Bennett) that I would get out and see as many of our stakeholders as I could in my first 100 days,” Doonan said. “That starts with WeatherTech and Michelin and with all of our manufacturer partners and our race promoters.”
Aside from the promoters, who all were gathered in one location for a promoter meeting with IMSA last fall, Doonan’s stakeholder visits throughout the brief offseason were almost door-to-door in nature. Doonan wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I felt it was important to get out and see them on their turf, in their offices, to reaffirm my understanding of their objectives – both on the technical and competition side, as well as on the marketing side,” he said. “Even though I was 30, 60, 90 days ago in the same seat as an OEM partner, I wanted to make sure I immersed myself in their brand and their brand’s objectives. Fortunately, we were able to accomplish those key items.”
At the same time as Doonan’s roadshow, he became more intimately involved in the process of defining the future direction for race cars in the top category of not only the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but also the 24 Hours of Le Mans and endurance racing globally. The result was the historic Jan. 24 announcement of convergence between IMSA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). Doonan joined France, Bennett, ACO President Pierre Fillon and FIA World Endurance Championship CEO Gerard Neveu in delivering the news to an enthusiastic audience.
“There were lots of people invested,” Doonan said. “Lots of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears into hopefully one day coming up with a set of regulations that would allow convergence. Then, to be a part of that is honestly one of those ‘pinch me’ moments in your career.
“We all sat in the final signing of the agreement with Mr. France and Mr. Fillon, and you’re realizing that you’re part of a historic moment in our sport and in the industry. For me, that was incredible to be a part of, knowing full well that for the last 40 years, perhaps, everybody’s always wanted that convergence.
“So many people, from the France family to Ed Bennett to (former IMSA President) Scott Atherton to (late IMSA Vice Chairman) Mr. (Don) Panoz, everybody had hoped for that moment. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be part of it. I’m very appreciative and grateful that I was here to be part of that.”
Record-setting Rolex 24
The good vibes reverberating throughout the motorsports industry following the convergence announcement carried right into the 58th Rolex 24 At Daytona weekend.
“I was thinking about 2019 and how torrential the rains were and how tough that was on the whole system,” Doonan recalled. “I don’t care if you were in the infield as a spectator, as a team member, as a staff person or somebody trying to put on a television broadcast, that race was probably one of the most difficult of all time for everyone involved.
“I kept thinking, just praying, ‘At least give us good weather. At least give everybody who experienced 2019 a reprieve.’ Obviously, from the first day there, we were blessed with incredible weather and very little precipitation. For the key days when we needed it most, it was spectacular. That’s the foundation, certainly, for (Daytona International Speedway President) Chip Wile and everybody at the Speedway, and all the fans who travel from around the world to be here, and then for the participants.”
A record crowd enjoyed the weather and contributed to an electric atmosphere throughout the facility. The weather also undoubtedly added to the record distance achieved on the racetrack of 833 laps – 25 more laps than the previous record. For his part, Doonan was trying to absorb his first Rolex 24 as president of IMSA.
“It was just trying to take in all those moments and remember why I love this so much and why we – as IMSA – do this,” he said. “I had the opportunity to speak to the manufacturers at the Chairman’s Breakfast [Saturday morning] as well as the driver’s meeting and I said, ‘One of the many things I love about the Rolex 24 is – if you look back at the history – Bill France Sr.’s vision was to provide an event that brought the best in the world to Daytona. The best cars, the best drivers, the best race teams for a grueling test of man, woman and machine.’
“That’s what the Rolex 24 is today. It’s what the [three-hour] Continental race was in the early ’60s. People come from all over the world. I love the International Horseshoe. It’s got all the flags of the drivers that are participating. No matter what language they speak, what country they’re from, what carmaker brand is on their shirt, when we come together, there is one common language that everybody is speaking. That’s the passion for this sport.”
Passion is a word often used to describe many within the IMSA community. Doonan has had a passion for sports car racing going back to his earliest days, and he was encouraged to find that he’d inherited an entire team of like-minded individuals at IMSA.
“One of the beauties of coming in was, I knew a lot of the faces and knew as many of the names as I could over the years that I was a participant,” he said. “I always knew a group of people were putting the events on. A group of people were organizing all the details. Still, when you see it in person, it’s remarkable when you understand what goes into it and the group of people that make up this organization.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be part of this team. I think when you’re on the outside and you’re showing up to an event and everything’s already done and prepared, that’s one piece of it, but how much effort goes into it? The amount of effort and the talent and everything became far more evident when you see it firsthand. It’s just like anything else when you actually lay your eyes on it and you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with the people that are making it happen, I have a far better understanding of what goes into actually running the championships than I did before. And more appreciation.”
The road ahead
With the 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship now underway and the Rolex 24 in the rearview mirror, there remains much work to be done. The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts is 42 days away, but just like it was for the Rolex 24, it’ll be here before you know it.
So what are the priorities for Doonan’s next 100 days?
“In working with the great staff here, we’ve identified some critical objectives,” he said. “We want to continue to grow the audience and leverage our fantastic partnership with NBC to do that. There’s a big focus on that with the marketing and communications side of the house.
“The technical team continues to work and refine the BoP process and that next set of technical regulations to be announced at Sebring. I think there are some other key initiatives that we’ve talked about a little bit here and there. We need to continue to find ways to grow our audience by identifying our next generation of fans through programs like e-gaming and spreading the word about IMSA Green.
“We re-engaged our relationship with the Department of Energy at the Rolex 24, and making sure that strategically, we continue to leverage the IMSA Green story. How can we do that in a way that engages with our fan base the most and also gives the OEM partners a chance to showcase it? The convergence and the addition of a single-source hybrid is another step towards that.
“I want to focus on getting out and seeing as many of our race teams and their operations around the country as possible. Those would be the primary focuses and looking towards getting the final set of regulations put together on the top category.”