Until official details begin to emerge of how exactly the merger between the Grand-Am Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series will take place, the goal for some of the leaders involved in the process is to ensure a proper fusion of the two, and not a single takeover.
The task is summed up here by Nick Craw, the president and CEO of ACCUS, FIA Inc. Craw rarely speaks publicly and his words, when uttered, carry substantial clout.
“Merging hard assets, rules and personnel is the easy part; the critical element in any merger is the assimilation of different – and previously competing – cultures," he noted. "Accomplish that, and sports car racing in the U.S. will be bigger and better than the sum of its parts and have a robust future.”
Two further names worth noting here are Scot Elkins, IMSA's chief operating officer, and Richard Buck, Grand-Am's managing director of competition. Elkins has been the voice on a technical side in terms of overseeing the ALMS' Balance of Performance, while Buck has seen a wealth of things from various roles in CART/Champ Car for 20 years, notably as a five-time winning crew chief of the Indianapolis 500, and in NASCAR for the last five.
Elkins was at the center of the last main American racing merger – the last-minute union of IndyCar and Champ Car in 2008, although how that went down and how this one is going is a night-and-day difference. Elkins was one of the architects of Champ Car's new-for-2007 Panoz DP01 chassis.
“I don't think it's possible to compare this one to the last one at all, to be honest. It was very different,” he says. “The last one, I remember, was basically everyone got together in a room – they said, ‘This is what's happening,' and some people stayed and some had to leave. It didn't feel like a merger. This one is dramatically different. Everyone's talking and going over how things are evolving.”
There's substantially more time in this case – whereas the IndyCar/Champ Car merger was consummated barely more than a month before that year's season opener in Homestead, this one has more than a year to develop.
That said, there are some decisions that need to be made sooner rather than later – class structure and what machinery will be eligible being the first and foremost – but there's already been successful manufacturer meetings and a trip of series leaders to Le Mans to meet with the ACO.
“In a global sense, we need to have egos set aside in coming together,” says Buck. “We have to get it right. That's a thing I take personally, and us as a company, each decision we make, we have to understand the gravity of it.
“Our number one asset is from the top down, our two leaders, Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz,” he adds. “They are both car guys, they have a huge passion for the sport, that runs very deep. They get along very well – there's good leadership there. I think the rest falls in line from there. There is some good dialogue, and be able to make some good decisions.”
Manufacturer meetings held after Grand-Am's season finale went well, according to those involved and particularly in Elkins' view.
“It was perfect, really,” he notes. “It went exactly as I envisioned it. We got them all in a room, threw some ideas out, and got some feedback. Dialogue is going well.”
Buck, who's been new on the Grand-Am side joining the executive staff in July, doesn't underestimate the challenge of keeping the manufacturers happy but also ensuring a quality product for the fans.
“It's not daunting, but we need to make sure for our stakeholders and investments that the equipment is relevant,” he explains. “We need to integrate everything and really find a balance as we collectively put together the class structure.”
Buck has also been involved from a competition standpoint. Some of the rules in Grand-Am have raised a few eyebrows this year – notably its restart rule where cars can't pass before reaching the start/finish line. With a collective effort, analyzing and improving the rulebook is one of the most important aspects of the transition.
“I always try to come away from every event or function trying to make it better; I'm always my worst critic,” he says. “I think some of racing's fundamentals need to apply. People want to be treated fairly, they want the rules as black and white as they can be. They want the officiating side, and want to know the rules, and want the rules administered consistently. Having come from the competition and racer sides, I think that provides me a nice perspective of what's expected today.”
If Buck is in a behind-the-scenes role of working to get that sorted, Elkins has been the front man – his visibility has massively increased on Twitter since the merger announcement, and he's played a vital role in answering fan and participant questions and engaging in dialogue on a near-daily basis. The reaction has blown him away.
“I didn't anticipate how it would go at all, but I felt it important that there was somebody who was making themselves available,” he says. “It just so happened that I am on Twitter, I like it and I very much enjoy working with social media. I read my Twitter feed everyday – it's where I get a lot of my news and a lot of my information.
“The good part about it, I think, the majority that participate in those conversations, are the ones with the most passion for both series. They're asking questions respective to each one. I've thought it cool that obvious Grand-Am fans were asking questions and engaging on the ALMS side, and vice versa. The questions are relevant and it's a very interesting, interactive format to gather feedback.”
Elkins made his first proper visit to a Grand-Am weekend at its season finale at Lime Rock. Although he'd been to Daytona previously, it was primarily for meetings, without a chance to proper acclimate to the environment and the atmosphere. A similar effect will occur at next weekend's Petit Le Mans, where a number of Grand-Am officials will be on hand to see how an ALMS weekend operates.
“It was a nice experience; I was very thankful to be asked to come,” he says. “It's kind of like first dates, where you try to figure things out and get to know each other. This was the perfect time to do that. It was good for the Grand-Am people to figure out who I was, and see the initial process and different procedures from what we do. It was a great education.”
Petit Le Mans on Oct. 20 marks the end of the domestic sports car calendar and all eyes, minds and focus will turn toward the future in full – seeing the next step in the evolution since the merger was announced on Sept. 5. For now at least, it's comforting to see two key figures from both sides in agreement on how to develop the combined sports car championship.