Chip Ganassi heard the chatter. In late August 2012, rumors roiled among the essential players in North American sports car racing. Its two sanctioning bodies — GRAND-AM Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) – were considering a merger.
Not long after the gossip surfaced, the news became official. On Sept. 5, 2012, at a press conference in Daytona Beach, the principals of the two series, Jim France and Don Panoz, announced the merger. The split that had fractured the sport for 13 years would end, and the 2014 season would put everyone — teams, manufacturers, drivers and sponsors — on the same page.
Ganassi, whose team had been a force in GRAND-AM, recalls it well. The merger didn’t just save sports car racing, he says. It strengthened it.
“It set the stage for a growth period that we’re still in. That’s my most important takeaway,” Ganassi said. “It was the first building block, the first threshold moment that we went through. The sport is on the precipice of something great now, and (the merger) was the first thing that had to happen. It led to a lot of other great things that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”
Around the time Ganassi was hearing chatter about a merger, John Doonan, then Mazda’s director of motorsports, was summoned to Novi, Michigan, for a mysterious meeting.
“I didn’t know who was going to be at the meeting and didn’t know what the topic would be,” Doonan said. “But as I was driving up to Novi for the meeting, I got a text message from Scott Atherton saying, ‘FYI, here’s who’s going to be in the meeting: Jim France, Ed Bennett, himself and Don Panoz.’ My heart started racing in a positive way. I had this strange feeling of, ‘Could it be?’”
It was. France, the founder of GRAND-AM, and Panoz, who founded ALMS in 1999, were meeting along with Bennett, the CEO of GRAND-AM at the time, and Atherton, then president and CEO of Panoz Motor Sports Group and ALMS, to heal the wounds, put the sport back together, and turn two schedules, specs and rules into one. It was serious news and a serious secret. For Doonan, who eventually became president of the unified sanctioning body under its regenerated name — International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) — the Novi meeting still evokes feelings.
“Not to get sappy, but it was a very emotional meeting for me,” Doonan said. “I started breaking down a little bit when they told me what was happening because I remembered the heyday of IMSA back in the ’80s and going to places like Road America and Brainerd and Mid-Ohio and seeing what I thought at the time was the best of the best. What came out of that meeting was a massive amount of work by Jim and Don and Scott and Ed to try to get the sport on a path to get to where we’re going to be in ’23.”
That’s the underlying theme of the upcoming 10-year announcement anniversary. The meeting and what came from it are the foundation for the next meaningful step in IMSA history: the introduction of the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class, a hybrid-based, top-tier IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship class that will debut in January at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
“You had the interest of what’s good for both sides working together, and that eventually led to a category that’s going to be really strong,” said Bobby Rahal, whose team raced in ALMS and continued on with IMSA after the merger. “We haven’t seen this many manufacturers in a major category since the ’70s. That’s a result of the coming together of the two entities.”
Trepidation cast aside as momentum grows
While it was a positive development for North American sports car racing, news of the merger wasn’t exclusively greeted with champagne and roses. Some on each side felt their approach was right, the other wrong. Teams were deep-seated in their commitment to Panoz and France, and owners weren’t sure what a merged future might hold.
“The business model worked for me at that time,” said Will Turner, whose Turner Motorsport was successfully entrenched with GRAND-AM. “When I heard of the merger, I was like, ‘Wait a second. What’s going to happen here? What are they going to bring to the table to make my life better and the series better?’”
Drivers had the same questions. For many, it meant fewer races and fewer chances to make money. Bill Auberlen, Turner’s ace driver who raced in both series at the time, turned uncertainty about his future into the most successful resume in IMSA history.
“It was going to halve my racing opportunity,” Auberlen said. “With newness comes a little bit of fear and trepidation with how it will turn out. But you look back now and it was amazing. The cars are great and the teams are great. They had to identify what was important, and they’ve improved it in almost every aspect. It’s been fantastic and strong. When you come to our races now, you see that the fans are back. The excitement about the racing is back.”
While it has been 10 years, it feels longer ago and farther away. The progress made in recent years — despite the unexpected difficulties of a pandemic — make a damaging political battle seem a distant memory.
“It is hard to believe that is has been 10 years since the unification of sports car racing here in the United States,” said Roger Penske, whose decades-long involvement in sports car racing enters a new chapter next year with Porsche Penske Motorsport’s GTP entries. “As we look back on it, the impact of bringing the sport together through IMSA provided the vision and the direction that was needed for competitors, manufacturers, partners and our fans.
“It is incredible to think about all of the advancements and great competition we have witnessed on track over the last decade, and the unification really helped chart the path for the exciting future that lies ahead for sports car racing. With the new global formula across FIA WEC and IMSA competition set to make its debut in 2023, sports car racing has a great opportunity to carry its momentum forward.”
Combining best of both worlds for a better future
Looking back at the anniversary of the announcement means looking back at the unpredictable currents of racing and the people who lead it. The GRAND-AM/ALMS split held echoes of the CART/Indy Racing League split. That ended in 2008 after 12 years.
“It was so obvious that (sports car racing) had to be together, just like it became so obvious that CART had to get together with IRL and create IndyCar,” said Rahal, who also fields a team in the IndyCar Series. “Look at how good that is today compared to where it was. … It’s one of those things where it never should have happened in the first place and with time it became apparent that the two sides had to come together for the betterment of not just the sport or the teams, but for themselves.”
Ten years ago, the leaders of sports car racing did just that. The negotiations were primarily between France and Panoz, who were given credit for a careful, bilateral negotiation. Panoz, who died in 2018, left a wide-ranging legacy in sports car racing; his Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta will carry on next month for its 25th year, standing steadily as the season finale for the WeatherTech Championship.
It was his work — and France’s — that led to this moment.
“There was a lot of give and take on both sides,” Ganassi said. “I’m sure there probably were some good feelings on both sides and probably a little pain on both sides. Ultimately it was something that proved to be the spark that lit the fire of sports car growth worldwide. It was the original spark that said, ‘Hey, this can happen.’ Opposing sides that have the same interest in mind can come together and live happily ever after. Look what it’s done.”
It’s brought fans, manufacturers, race promoters and corporate partners to the same playing field. Now, as the anniversary of the announcement of the merger is celebrated, IMSA reaches for another milestone on the horizon.
“What we’ve been working toward as an industry is continuing that,” Doonan said. “Now it’s down to the nuts and bolts of a set of technical regulations that do the same thing. It’s what the fans want. They want to see all the top manufacturers and the top drivers with the top teams competing both here in IMSA in North America as well as in the World Endurance Championship — specifically Le Mans.
“There are so many positive elements to this, and a lot of people are putting in a lot of work to see it come to fruition.”