It started with a phone call from a trusted source approximately two weeks before last year's Baltimore Grand Prix. “What have you heard about Grand-Am and the ALMS joining forces?” he asked.
There was only one reply to offer: “Nothing, but it's probably the same BS rumor that goes around at least twice a year.”
The “Grand-Am is buying the ALMS/ALMS is buying Grand-Am” chatter had become a boring and predictable component of having two warring sports car series fighting over the same small audience in North America. Like clockwork, the conjecture regarding a sale or merger would ramp up during the off-season and again each summer, which the mid-August, pre-Baltimore call fit perfectly.
My source advised that this time, and despite the long history of false merger claims, it would be worth chasing down a few leads, and after a fair bit of legwork leading up to Baltimore (and during the event by my former colleague John Dagys), the pending merger was confirmed and revealed…much to the dismay of the parties involved.
RACER caught up with ALMS CEO Scott Atherton over the Baltimore weekend earlier this month to discuss the merger, from its confirmation to the progress that has or hasn't been made in the past year and a variety of topic in between.
Marshall Pruett: We're back where the news broke about the merger a year ago. What was the experience like for you? I'm guessing it wasn't overly pleasant…which I should probably apologize for…
Scott Atherton: I will never forget because it's seared on my brain. And the night before, today, a year ago at this hour is when we were in Orlando in an attorney's office actually signing the documents.
We had a plan that we we're all at Baltimore, Saturday we're racing, Sunday's a travel day, Monday's a holiday. So Tuesday we're going to pull the staffs together, go down to Daytona and our offices in Georgia and we'll have the proper communication of all that was happening with the merger for our employees.
And John [Dagys] walked into my office trailer at, I think it was about 8:30 Saturday morning, and he said, “I've got it through good sources that a transaction's been done that has sold the American Le Mans Series to Jim France. Do you have a comment?” I said, "No." He said, “No you don't have a comment or, no, it hasn't happened?” Well, I'd signed a lot of documents and an NDA was one of them but others said that there can be no reference to this whatsoever. And if there is an accusation or if it's suggested, you must deny.
So all of this flashed through my head in just a split second and I said, "No, there is no agreement." He said, “OK, so your position is that it has not been sold?” And I said, "That's correct. And he said, “OK, thank you,” and turned and walked out. And it was about 30 minutes later that Ed Triolo called me from the media center and says, “The story's out.” And my heart skipped a beat. It was a scoop. It really was.
MP: A lot has happened in the year since the announcement. Let's look at some of the positives and negatives that have taken place.
SA: First of all, the positives. And there's one that's in a category by itself and that is the assimilation and the true merging of talented people that have, I think, worked remarkably well together throughout the season from the beginning. And that part of it is, in my opinion, the most positive – I'm trying to come up with an even better word. But it's been a pleasure to get to know and work directly with Ed Bennett and David Petit, and I don't want to name them all because I'm afraid to miss some, but there are remarkably talented people in both camps.
And the challenge for us was to deploy a Best Practices mindset of how to work together this year, a year where both series run independently, and then for the future with the United series. It gets really complicated when you're talking about people and families and careers. And we did have some duplication when you have two complete staffs.
The Long Beach weekend is the textbook example because the American Le Mans Series was at Long Beach the same weekend Grand-Am was racing at Road Atlanta. And we were completely autonomous. But we had complete staffs that were capable of running both camps. Even though we had some attrition and there had been some reduction in headcount, just by virtue of what was going on, we still had two full houses, so to speak. Knowing that we've got to be smart business people about this when we break cover from 2014, it's going to be one team.
The other positives that have come out of it I think has been the reality of the resources that we have and the recognition and finding out from each other things that we each do better – and deploying that.
And for those who have the question, “Is this truly a merger or is it simply an acquisition where one continues and the other goes away?” I think there has been a recognition by Grand-Am of many of the elements that the American Le Mans Series has done technically and digitally; how we managed our website and our whole relationship that we have with McMurry. And that was adopted and deployed against what will be the United SportsCar Racing [since rebranded as the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship] example of that.
Scot Elkins and Richard Buck taking much of what has been the standard from IMSA, whether it's performance balancing or it's race control, with Paul Walter assuming responsibilities in both. I could sit here for an hour and list off all of these things that we've done.
MP: If there's been one pleasant surprise for me throughout the merger, it's that the core ALMS DNA, its identity, hasn't been strained out and left behind by NASCAR and Grand-Am. Did you have any fears that would happen a year ago when you were signing the documents in that lawyer's office?
SA: I probably had more confidence than the average bear, having been involved directly with Jim France, literally from the beginning. He and I sat down back in February of 2012 and sketched out on a yellow pad what the potential kind of skeletal structure would be.
One of the first things that we agreed on was the American Le Mans Series GT category would come forth completely intact, and that the challenge would be to keep the P2 cars and match them with the Daytona Prototypes. So, from the beginning, knowing that was a shared belief and a shared goal, gave me good confidence that there would be other examples that would support that.
If you look at how the organizations are being run today – and this is in no way a negative comment toward Grand-Am – but I think it has embraced a lot of the IMSA operational practices. At the same time, we were doing a lot of things in other areas of the business completely in line with what has been Grand-Am/NASCAR. They're much more sophisticated business operators than we were in what I refer to as the back-of-the-house area, especially accounting, personnel, HR, administration. All these things we've raised our bar tremendously to our benefit. So it really is a blending of best practices from both camps.
MP: The information gap, per se, is by far the biggest negative I've seen throughout the merger process. In a normal, non-merger season, we'd be looking for your annual "State of the Series" address at Petit Le Mans for info on the next season's schedule, possibly some changes to the technical regulations, and the rest of the bits to get ready for a season that starts in March at Sebring. I'm telling you nothing new, but the complaints continue to come in from teams and manufacturers who say this isn't a normal year, the schedule and rules aren't going to be essentially the same from one year to the next, and that they need to know where they'll be racing and under what rules ASAP. Is the late hour for this info something you knew to expect from a timeline standpoint?
SA: There isn't any group of people that are more keenly aware of the urgency and working harder to fill in the blanks than Ed Bennett and myself and a great team of people that surrounds us. When they say it's 24-7, it's an exaggerated statement, but I can show you e-mails from 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. – you name it, somebody somewhere is working on it.
Yeah, it's the biggest challenge and there's nothing normal about this year. If you go back and look at the big silos of challenges… We had a top 10 list that we defined, I would say, within 30 days of the merger, and it started out with class structure and it was name, brand, logo. And then it was renewal of the ACO relationship. And then it was, personal integration, rules and regulations, schedule, television contracts, sponsorship contracts, OEM relationships, tire manufacturer, fuel partner.
Each one of these things is in itself a full-time job. If somebody came to any motorsports sanctioning body and said: "Now all of your sanctioning agreements have been canceled and all of them need to be renegotiated for next year – all of them…" Well, nobody would ever plan that because you always have some staggered so that you never find yourself in a single year with everything having to be redone. It's a massive undertaking.
For the first time in my experience, and I've been doing this a long time, the demand substantially exceeds the supply. If you looked at our combined schedules, that was 22 events at 17 different tracks. And we've been pretty candid that we were going to have no more than 12. So right off the bat, you're facing a really difficult challenge of how do we define what and where are those 12?
MP: How about releasing information as it becomes available, incrementally, to help teams in their quest for info, rather than waiting for everything to be completed and delay the release of the schedule and rules?
SA: We are being very careful in every decision, in every undertaking not to go public and not to announce before it is absolutely done right. Get it right the first time, don't have to come back and say: "Well, we were a little aggressive, we're going to have re-adjust. And the schedule is right at the top of the list of wanting to get that right. There will never be any announcement unless there is an absolute iron-clad, fully executed agreement. Not an MOU, – not a memorandum of understanding that has some clauses that still need to be signed or pages in the back that are blank that say logo inserted here. No, we need a logo, it's got to be in there.
So that's where we're at. I will say we are close; we're down to the fine strokes. And to give credit where credit is due, the attorney within that organization, Courtney Bigelow, has literally been working 18-hour days as long as I can remember, Saturdays and Sundays included.
The other big, big one which everyone wants to know about is: what are the rules, regulations, the technical specifications; specifically, how are we going to balance the P2 and DP? There is not only our own group working on that full-time but also a very impressive list of professional engineering companies and simulation companies and people that have expertise in areas that even go beyond the capabilities of the NASCAR Tech Center.
Obviously, a Daytona Prototype is going to be much faster in a straight line. The P2 cars are going to be faster through the twisty bits, as they say. And we've got to balance that. And between Scot Elkins and Richard Buck and a whole long list of people behind them, that is Job 1.
In order, I'd the schedule will be out in the near future, we have other commercial announcements that will soon follow and the rules, regulations, technical details will follow ASAP.