IMSA president John Doonan visits with RACER’s Marshall Pruett for a deep dive into his first two seasons atop the series, some of IMSA’s positives and negatives, the new NBC broadcasting deal, the litany of feeder series below the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, one key change being considered for Michelin Pilot Challenge, and what to look for in 2022 as next-generation LMDh prototypes start testing ahead of their 2023 debut.
Q: Why don’t we start by talking about your second season as IMSA’s president and the close to your first normal season after starting the job last year and having COVID-19 turn everything upside down? What comes to mind as the last green and checkered flags wave over your second year on Saturday at Petit Le Mans?
JOHN DOONAN: It’s interesting to start with that, because as I drove into the front gate at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta the other night, I was thinking more about 2019 and the last sort of “normal” season where I arrived here at Petit Le Mans, and the fact that it is finally feeling truly normal as we execute the event this weekend.
We had significant attendance here in 2019. Last year, of course, was challenged due to COVID, but we’re currently trending up in attendance for year over year to 2020, and above 2019, as well. So it feels right, and this place is buzzing with people and energy.
Going back to 2020, it was a challenge for all of us. But that’s where it makes me extremely proud and honored to have this opportunity, because we got through it and we’re growing.
I knew, coming into the organization, the vision of Jim France had for IMSA and what it needed to be. And I think all the things that we have done, despite the headwinds of the pandemic and the challenges that that presented… we have found additional commitment from existing auto manufacturer partners around the top prototype category with LMDh in 2023. We have made a leadership move regarding our GT strategy for the future, which kicks off with GTD Pro in 2022 where several OEMs have already publicly stated their commitments to that top category, like Lexus and Corvette, and more are coming. So we have a lot to be proud of, despite the rocky roads are the rough waters that we just navigated.
We have 18 OEMs, the sponsors, we have the tracks and promoters, we have the race teams, and all the partners who’ve remained committed to IMSA in a historic time for endurance sports car racing. The momentum and the morale seems to be aligning with a positive trend, and we’re excited about what the next few years are going to bring.
Q: Let’s look at some of the positives and negatives, starting with a few of the good things that stand out from the current season. There are fewer explosive arguments about Balance of Performance in the WeatherTech Championship. I’m not saying there haven’t been some missed targets with BoP, but the changes to your technical team led by Matt Kurdock seem to have made BoP less of the never-ending knife fight we recently had in the paddock. So that, at least compared to 2020, would be a net gain. Despite my expectations for LMP3 to be an ill-fitting issue for the big series, it has integrated well and had solid entries, and LMP2 also appears to be rising, especially going into 2022. What else comes to mind on the positive side?
JD: If you look at the level of driving across not only the top series, but Michelin Pilot Challenge and all the single-make championships as well, I’m really, really proud of the level of driving that’s out there. The competition is fraught with very tight points chases. The racing has been good across the board, and that does start with BoP and parity. And I do believe that the technical committee has gotten into a process with our OEM partners that’s communicative, using performance-demonstrated data, on-track data, to create relative consistency across the season. There have not been huge fluctuations in BoP changes, and I think we’ve done a solid job of keeping things in check, without taking huge swings at it, and we’re constantly working to improve the BoP process.
You mentioned LMP3; I think we are all pleasantly surprised at the results of adding LMP3 into the WeatherTech Championship, with the quality of teams and the quality of drivers, which we’re proud of. And you can see a long-term future of LMP3 in in the WeatherTech Championship. I also always judge the health on the number of teams that have stuck with us all year, and we’ve had some consistent full-season entries. And based on conversations we’re having, that appears to be continuing and growing for 2022. So really, really positive there.
Partner retention is another one, which has been huge, even in the tough climate that we’ve been in the last 18 months to two years. And LMP2 has been on an uptick, and I think there are more announcements coming there from teams; it’s their news to share. But we have had a lot of inquiries. We made a commitment back in May, that we would retain the power levels and the specifications of the LMP2 cars as we run them today, in 2022, with the intention and focus on our class separation, between DPi, and of course, our GT cars. And so that could be a factor. I have had the opportunity to speak with some of the European-based teams; they talk a lot about wanting to come and race here. I’m hearing the same that we could see some extreme growth there not just for events like Daytona and Sebring, but for the full championship next year.