With sports car unification at hand, the time is now to make a new golden age, says RACER's founder, president, CEO and executive publisher Paul Pfanner.
Last Friday morning my mobile phone started buzzing like a June bug on crack. A wave of e-mails, texts and calls came in triggered by news of a pending seismic shift in the American and global road racing landscape. SPEED.com's John Dagys had scooped his peers with a game-changing story that caught most of the racing world by surprise.
The reality is that the unification of the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Rolex Series was as inevitable as Kim Kardashian's second divorce or the unification of IndyCar and Champ Car. In truth, there was probably no other reasonable way forward for either series unless the other went the way of Enron. It was painfully obvious that there was no real growth potential with two series competing for the same niche segment of American motorsports. Something or somebody had to give and in this case somebody may have given top-tier American road racing its future.
Life works with commitment and it doesn't work without it and both Jim France and Don Panoz exemplify this maxim; failure was never really an option for either. Beyond sharing parallel visions and the courage to act on opportunity, I also suspect that both men knew in their hearts that their parallel experiences would eventually lead them to a common reality that would displace distrust, rivalry and pride with the alluring power of all that might be possible for the sport (that they both clearly love) if they took a different approach with each other.
Everyone we've spoken with since last Friday on the subject of the Grand-Am and ALMS merger has been either very positive or at least cautiously optimistic. However, one key question that repeatedly surfaces involves the motives of the acquiring party.
Jim France is the man who is investing his family's hard-earned credibility and cash to unify the divided house of American road racing, so in simplest terms it all comes down to what drives him. What he does and, equally importantly, what he doesn't do will make or break the future of the sport. Will Jim France want to be right about his Grand-Am vision or will he want to do the right thing for the sport he is obviously passionate about? I'll be rooting for the latter mindset since creating a better future is far more rewarding and productive than attempting to justify a challenging past. Just ask Don Panoz.
This momentous day also marks a significant milestone for ALMS president Scott Atherton. He has worked with remarkable courage, resilience and endurance through often harrowing circumstances to move the sport forward during the past dozen years. This moment would not have been possible without his leadership and I sincerely hope that Scott continues to guide U.S. sports car racing as the future unfolds.
All business is ultimately personal and great people and strong relationships will be key to driving progress. In bringing these series together, there will be an abundance of both so let's hope they all play well together. Grand-Am's new president, Ed Bennett, seems like the right man to make this happen and there is too much to do for wasting time on pettiness or tribalism.
It is apparent that all involved in this watershed moment seek a common goal. They want the best for the sport and understand that will only happen if the unified sports car series is defined by world-class events at iconic venues. Watkins Glen, Sebring and Daytona represent the soul of American sports car racing and the heart of the sport's rich history. When re-combined, they are also delivering the emotionally charged cornerstones needed to finally build American road racing's long unrealized potential.
The new unified series should create real value for promoters, marketing and media partners and, by so doing, it will finally operate from a position of strength and leverage not yet seen in American road racing since CART during the glory years. NASCAR has shown they do this better than anyone in American racing so who knows what additional leverage may be available when their new Sprint Cup Series broadcast agreements are eventually announced?
We can only hope that all involved respect that road racing's culture is also driven by an underlying passion for great and (very) fast cars that are also objects of desire. From the earliest days, aspirational, cutting-edge cars have created at least 50 percent of road racing's romantic appeal. In this context, manufacturers supply the authentic meaning through their brand identities and stoke the defining rivalries of the sport while the entrants and sponsors provide the sport's lifeblood and great drivers compete on legendary circuits to bring it all to life.
Manufacturers all have other options when it comes to investing their money and brand reputations so how they are treated will be key to success. But history has proven they also shouldn't be allowed to dictate the rules. However, the past decade has also shown that when the cars are trivialized, homogenized and de-contented into regressive parity appliances, the fundamental raison d'être of the sport is lost in translation. Road racing fans are devoted to authenticity and they deserve the real thing. Don Panoz launched the American Le Mans Series in 1999 with the noble slogan: “For The Fans.” Wednesday, during the press conference in Daytona, he reminded us that the fans are whom he answered to during his dozen years of stewardship of the ALMS. May it continue to be so for those who will shape professional road racing's future in this brave new era.
In this age of social media and direct consumer feedback, the fans have an even more powerful voice than when the ALMS and Grand-Am launched back in 1999 – so be heard and be honest about what you really want your sport to become. The future of American road racing will ultimately be determined by how many people care and it will live or die with the infectious passion of devoted fans — especially the younger men and women who have discovered the sport via digital racing on Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport, Need For Speed, etc.
Let it also not be forgotten that the Grand-Am and IMSA share a common thread of France-family parentage and a heritage defined by Daytona and the Rolex 24. In so many ways, the IMSA Camel GT Series stands as the benchmark of what is possible in both the positive and negative extremes. There are many good lessons in motorsports management under IMSA's able stewardship of the sport from 1969 through the end of founder John Bishop's two decades of leadership in 1989. However, the decade that followed starkly illustrates what happens when inexperienced, shortsighted and selfish inmates run the asylum.
It was from this toxic climate of chaos and decline that both the American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am were born at the turn of the century. Through the passion and investment of both Jim France and Don Panoz, American road racing has beaten the odds and climbed back to a place of importance from this near collapse but one can't help but see something was still missing and that more potential could be realized if there were only one great American sports car endurance championship. In contrast to the dark days of the sports car racing in the 1990s, less is now truly more.
So it has come to pass that the top tier of American sports car racing is finally united in vision and purpose after decades of turf wars, dangerous egos and flawed decisions.
Here's to Sept. 5, 2012 being remembered as the dawn of a new Golden Age.
The future is now. Please make the best of it.
• Paul Pfanner is the founder, CEO and Executive Publisher of RACER magazine.