MARSHALL PRUETT: Combining two series and consolidating 22 races obviously posed a challenge in putting together the USCC schedule. Two criticisms have risen to the top since the announcement – the omission of Lime Rock and the absence of Mid-Ohio from the calendar, but do you feel this is the best that calendar that could have been assembled for Year One?
SCOTT ATHERTON: We think so. And to your point, it was an excruciating process because there's personal relationships, there's long-standing business relationships. And all of those are intertwined. It's very, very difficult decisions every step of the way. I will say there was a comprehensive process that took place here. It wasn't just: Who's going to pay the biggest sanction fee; or: What part of the country are we represented in? We pulled all of our stakeholders – not all – but many key decision-maker stakeholders, whether it be the OEMs that back the teams, many of the independent teams, on the track; sponsors; team owners. We all had them rank first-to-last, in terms of their prioritization.
And some of that you can see where these personal agendas are obvious, whether or not they have an official car or statuses or venue. But in the end, we believe we have come up with the best possible combination of venues and markets, and keeping a very careful eye on the impact to our teams and the sensitivity to the cost associated with this new schedule. If you measure on an hours-of-racing and you compare the 10-race American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron scheduled this year, the amount of racing that represents what next year's TUDOR United Sports Car Championship schedule represents, it's over 50% increase in hours of racing.
Racecars are not unlike airplanes. It's by the hour in terms of the budget. If you're a Grand-Am team today, I believe the increase is somewhere in the 25 to 30% range. So the ideal schedule from many people's perspectives would be one that includes all of these tracks. Nobody left out. But that becomes economically untenable; not only for the series as a whole but for the individual teams to participate. I, individually, and we as a collective group, could not be more pleased about the schedule. We have with an asterisk at the end of that sentence that, for sure, each of us have one that we wish we were able to put on the calendar that, unfortunately, isn't there.
MP: Going back to Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio for a moment, both tracks are excellent for spectators and the drivers either like or love them; for Lime Rock, they probably enjoy qualifying more than the racing, but as a whole, the facilities for the teams that race there is primitive, at best. I know Lime Rock offered to upgrade its facilities if it was awarded a USCC date, but in general, did the age of the infrastructure for both venues play into the decision that left them off the calendar?
SA: We didn't make decisions based on how well the media center is, or other aspects, candidly. That was not a criteria. In some cases, it became a decision made based on: Are we already really represented within that geographic space? I would have to say Mid-Ohio, we feel confident that we've got that Midwestern area covered. There's also a consideration of wanting to position the championship as its own standalone, primary feature show.
And you know our criteria: When does it make sense for us to partner with others? Answer: When it's the only way to access an important business market. And that's a fancy way of saying the reason that we're in Long Beach with IndyCar is because if you want to impact Southern California with a road racing platform, you've got one choice. You could say the same thing about Detroit.
We are a series that is blessed with, depending on how you calculate it, eight to 10 active OEM partners and a lot of suppliers and tier-one partners that they have. So obviously, Detroit is an important market. We're there again with IndyCar. We've enjoyed our experience in Baltimore; we were all saddened by that news. But if you look at all the other dates on the calendar, we are positioning ourselves as a premier championship in North America.
So, it doesn't mean we couldn't have gone back to Mid-Ohio or Lime Rock with our own standalone event weekend and did not partner with any – speaking of the Mid-Ohio example. But again, it's back to: Let's put a calendar together that we can all process for 2014, knowing that there's always room to grow. I wouldn't arrive at any final conclusions based on our debut season that this is the way it's always going to be and we'll never get back to any of these other spots. That's not accurate. We've also had many inquiries for venues that neither series had a current relationship with. We've made a decision right from the start that we're not going to entertain any new venues at a time when we are, unfortunately, not able to accommodate all the dates. That will change in the future.
MP: These two tracks and possibly a few others could then see other USCC properties appearing on their calendars?
SA: I hope so. And the other element is even though currently a TUDOR United Sports Car event is not viable, there is a lot of IMSA content that could also be packaged together to make for a very interesting, very entertaining weekend in sports car racing. And those are discussions and plans that are still very much a work in progress. Lots of discussion, lots of dialogue going on there between, not only the two tracks that we're referencing today, but others that have weighed in, and: How do we get at least started? Can we confirm some of the other IMSA properties this year with an eye toward expanding upgrading as the years go by?
It's not unlike the NASCAR model that we've all kind of admired for years. As an event promoter, a venue operator, you get started with one of the lesser-known developmental series whether it's a K & N or what used to be – I don't know what it is now – the Winston West. And then you get a Camping World Truck race and if everything goes well with that you get a Nationwide race. And then if you are really, really good and get really lucky and the moon and the sun and the stars lineup there's the Sprint Cup weekend. I don't think we're making too many of more of those. But within the sports car model we have the same opportunities.
MP: With the increase in costs in mind, keeping the event count to 12 makes sense for the debut season, but do you foresee it expanding by an appreciable number once we get to 2015 and beyond?
SA: We have an internal plan that's not detailed out to say that 2014 we'll have this and 2015 we'll have this. It's not nearly that developed. But there is a loose strategic plan that has the calendar growing with the caveat being there has to be buy-in and support from our stakeholders to do that.
As the news gets announced and gets formalized and people start working in earnest to now really define the logistics of this calendar – and we've got to be testing in November and we've got to be racing in January and then again in March and then we run right on through the first weekend in October – what's the real budget implication of this calendar? And: Can we increase the individual race purses and the year-end points funds and their related contingency awards such that we are enabling our stakeholders to add more to their plates?
And that's our goal. We're not just going to add races and feel good about collecting sanction fees and expanding the calendar without taking into consideration the impact that it has on the teams and their need to get whole in this. There's some news that will be announced here in the near future that will provide I think an even greater degree of stability, particularly in the prototype category. So that teams that are making investments today, whether it be in new equipment or in upgrading existing, will have great confidence of the stability that will surround those investments. I think they'll be well received by everybody.
MP: A number of events on the calendar are beloved for their history or the driving experience they offer, but the fan turnout has been disappointing. My home track in Monterey falls into that category for the sports car events that have run their in recent years. Do you have a plan in place to drive more people to the track, and do you think having a brand-new series will be enough to cause a spike in attendance?
SA: No, I don't think... I think there'll be a degree of curiosity about: "How are these guys going to play together?" To answer your question, are there plans in place to ensure that these 12 events are all high-profile, successful, well-attended? Yes, absolutely. And we had the unique, very stressing situation of having 100% of our sanction agreements require renewal and renegotiation. I don't know of any sanctioning body that's ever wiped the slate clean and said, "We're going to do all of them over again from scratch." And that's what took the time.
We took a lot of arrows in recent days, months of not having the schedule out sooner. Now, ironically, it's out earlier then it's almost ever been done. But because of the unique circumstances of this year it doesn't matter when it was going to come out, it was going to be late. So that opportunity to recast all of the material elements of these promoter/sanctioning agreements, as well as the same opportunity to recast all of the sponsorship agreements, has given us this opportunity to put everybody's skin in the game. So as a promoter there's going to be very strict guidelines for the degree of marketing support and investment that they must put into their in-market advertising and promotion.
As a series, we're making similar commitments: Here is what we're going to do as a championship. All of our stakeholders that are participating have agreed to activate, not only by putting content on the track, but to activate in-market, to activate at the events and collectively. Not everybody will be assigned the same role; some of it will be targeted at different venues. Some of it will be targeted in advance; some of it will be at the circuit itself during the race weekend. We've got a very – as I said, I keep using the word comprehensive, just because it's a vertically integrated process here, that the challenge now is going to be fulfilling against all of these commitments that we have made ourselves and asked others to make to us. All with an eye toward doing exactly what you described, which is making sure in all of these 12 stops there isn't going to be a weak link in the chain. There's going to be 12 high-profile, very well-attended, heavy media focus weekends.
MP: Finally, and this is looking a few years down the road, but do you see the USC adding any international dates to the schedule, or will it remain a North American championship?
SA: For the foreseeable future, our focus is solely on North America. And we lived through an era where we were trying to export our product to Europe, to Australia. That's a very complicated and very expensive endeavor. And I think until we are completely confident that we have optimized all opportunities across the North American portion of the world, that that's where our focus will remain.
It's always tempting because there isn't a period of time, very long time, ever goes by that we don't get some inquiry to go to Asia, to go to South America, to go – you name it. There's always somebody that's got somebody that's interested and has the funding and knows the president of X, Y, Z country and they all want it. But we've learned some important lessons over the last 15 years to really focus on our knitting right here at home. And with such a debut upon us, with the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship and all that that entails, for the foreseeable future I think we have our work cut out for us right here.