Q&A with ALMS boss Scott Atherton
Marshall Pruett: Scott, the past few weeks have been busy with nonstop questions about the future of the American Le Mans Series. Those calling or emailing seem to be reporting the same rumor: that someone is angling to buy the American Le Mans Series, IMSA, the race tracks, etc. So, in as simple and plain a manner as possible, is the American Le Mans Series and your officiating arm IMSA for sale as we speak, and are you planning on selling it any time in the near future?
Scott Atherton: These rumors have been a constant since I can remember, but I would agree that this year they have been more frequent and widespread than in the past. This is a byproduct of the worst economy we have seen in decades and the unprecedented instability that unfortunately surrounds most industries including motorsport at this time. Historically we have elected not to comment publicly so as to not provide credibility to baseless rumors.
However, with the growing number of calls that I too have received lately - it is clear that a response is needed. So, in specific answer to your questions: There are no plans and there are no discussions to sell the American Le Mans Series. There are absolutely no plans or discussions to sell IMSA or any of the Panoz Motor Sports Group circuits either. You know, these same rumors have surfaced in various forms for many years and nothing has ever materialized from any of them.
At the same time the Series has done nothing but grow and go from success to success on a regular basis for more than a decade now. That should speak more clearly than recurring rumors.
MP: Similar topic - is the Series going to merge with Grand-Am, the IRL or any other major series now or in the future?
SA: No. We will not merge with Grand-Am or the IRL. Similarly, there are absolutely no discussions or even thoughts about merging. Why would we? We enjoy racing with the IRL several times a year and we anticipate that continuing. The two series racing together compliment each other very well and make an ideal combination of world-class road racing. It’s a proven winner with fans and event promoters, but I think each series enjoys the benefits of being autonomous, too.
MP: I’ve heard the Series might be breaking from tradition a bit by revealing the 2010 calendar to your entrants early and in private (before the traditional Petit Le Mans reveal) in a bid to put your competitors at ease and to let them start planning early. Is that true?
SA: We have been actively working on our 2010 plans for several months now. It is too early to know when we will be in a position to share these plans with our stakeholders, but our goal is to get this information to them as soon as possible so as to assist all involved with their future planning. We are very excited about what we are working on for 2010 and beyond.
MP: The ACO has announced a goal to establish a something akin to a global championship, with an eye toward nominating rounds in a variety of host countries where points are earned for this championship. Can you tell me if and how the Series might be involved in the North American element of this, and if it would add to the Series calendar?
SA: Yes, the ACO announced it was considering the development of a series of selected “blue ribbon” events from the Le Mans Series in Europe, the American Le Mans Series and the Asian Le Mans Series. The working title of this exploratory initiative is the “Intercontinental Cup” (IC) and it could potentially include a classic collection of high-profile, world-class sports car endurance races, but it is not intended to be a world championship. The ACO is in the process of gathering feedback from manufacturers, teams, sponsors and organizers to gauge the level of interest and viability. So far I have heard only positive comments from all.
As far as the American Le Mans Series is concerned, we would eagerly embrace involvement, and I would assume our Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, Petit Le Mans powered by MAZDA6 and perhaps a third event or venue would be ideal for inclusion. As I understand it each respective Series would operate as usual; however there would be two or three selected events from within each Series but there are no incremental dates that would be designated as rounds of the IC.
Each Series would have its regular grid of competitors, but the selected IC events would attract incremental factory-backed and major independent professional team involvement from abroad - not unlike what Sebring and Petit Le Mans have done all along. The ACO’s plan would formalize the structure and potentially build involvement in Le Mans-type racing on a global scale for the manufacturers and major teams that desire to compete worldwide. It’s a very exciting prospect and we look forward to working with the ACO to bring the idea to fruition.
MP: The FIA and Stephane Ratel announced their global GT championship featuring a new-spec GT1 division. Will the series, cars or administration of that entity be affiliated with the American Le Mans Series in any way?
SA: I have a lot of respect for Stephane and what he is doing with his FIA GT programs in Europe, but we are not affiliated in any way.
MP: Lots of rumors about Acura departing the Series. If Acura decides to leave after this season, can the Series survive? Beyond the cars it fields on track, it also is a big corporate partner of the Series - it would be a huge competitive and commercial blow, wouldn't it?
SA: As has been the case from the start, I am in constant contact with Acura executives from both the retail and motorsports divisions. Acura, like virtually every auto manufacturer, is currently looking at all options regarding its future - not only its involvement with the American Le Mans Series but across the board. We are fortunate to be involved with many major auto manufacturers - more than any other major racing series in the world - and as a result if one elects not to continue at the same level or opts out, it’s not a disaster.
It’s never pleasant news to get, but it’s the reality of this type of auto racing. The alternative is a series with limited or no manufacturer involvement, with tight controls on antiquated technologies and spec cars, and they seem to have even more challenges than we do now; so I don’t think anyone is immune from the current climate.
However, our platform based on the development of relevant new technologies that address such things as fuel efficiency, emission reduction, development of alternative fuels, etc., is ideally suited to the priorities of today’s and tomorrow’s auto industry. And the fact that our efforts are actively supported by government agencies (Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy) puts us in a class all our own. Given a choice, I like our positioning - and our future prospects - a lot! I know Acura is very pleased with the results it has achieved so far from its involvement in the American Le Mans Series, and I know it has a strong desire to continue.
If other priorities alter those plans, I am confident we will survive and prosper. I would ask you not to forget that we are the only major racing series that has added new OEM content in recent months with BMW coming in this season and Jaguar about to begin competing. I think it’s also noteworthy that Corvette Racing is about to return with two exciting new GT2 cars - this at a time when GM is cutting back or eliminating other major racing programs. That says a lot to me.
All three programs (BMW, Corvette and Jaguar) are top-level professional efforts that are commanding factory support on and off the track, but I guess that kind of news unfortunately doesn’t sell as many newspapers or attract as many page hits as the alternative…
MP: Finally, a lot of questions and rumors emerged when Tim Mayer left - that a growing friction with the ACO over the Series adopting divergent rules led to his departure. Any truth to that, and in general, how would you characterize your relationship with the ACO today?
SA: I don’t know where you are getting your information, but you need a new source! Tim elected to step down from his position as COO of IMSA and the American Le Mans Series for exactly the reasons given at the time. I know everyone wants to read more into it and find something more controversial to talk about, but there is nothing more to it. Sorry to disappoint all the speculators and rumor mongers. Tim continues to be actively involved with us as a consultant and I look forward to working with him in the future.
As for the ACO - our relationship with them has never been better. There is a new executive management team at the ACO and their understanding and support of the American Le Mans Series and our needs is at an all-time high. We have unique challenges that are often not shared by the ACO’s European series or at Le Mans. Years ago this was a real problem for us, but today we have a level of autonomy and support from the ACO that enables us to retain the unmatched value of being affiliated with the world’s greatest auto race (and brand), but also craft rules and regulations that work best for our circumstances. When we announce our plans for 2010 and beyond - you’ll know what I am talking about.
Finally, we are very much looking forward to getting back to racing! The hiatus that we always must schedule to enable our teams to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans has been too long this year. I am happy to report that the American Le Mans Northeast Grand Prix at Lime Rock is now only days away on July 17-18. Crowds at Lime Rock have been incredible the last several years, and we expect similar results next week.
The rumors during this layoff have been a pointless distraction and extremely unprofessional. However, rest assured that the management team of IMSA/ALMS has had our complete focus on fulfilling our 2009 season and planning for 2010 and beyond. We are all operating our businesses in uncharted waters, but the American Le Mans Series is ideally positioned for these circumstances and we intend to capitalize on this now and in the future.
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