North American Sports Car Racing Preparing For New Look In 2014
A brave new world awaits North American sports car racing beginning in 2014, which makes the Brickyard Grand Prix the last of a breed.
When the GRAND-AM Rolex Series arrives at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week for the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard, it will be the end of one era but the beginning of a bright future for sports car racing in North America.
This year is the final season with two separate sports car racing series competing in the United States because in 2014, GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series will merge to become one organization – United SportsCar Racing.
That means a schedule that will include some of the greatest races and racetracks in North American sports car racing all on the same schedule featuring all of the great automotive brands, race teams and drivers that are part of both GRAND-AM and ALMS.
“It’s huge to be in sports car racing right now,” said driver Scott Pruett, one of the few race drivers who have competed in the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and in the GRAND-AM race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “When you look at the future, it couldn’t be brighter.”
The man in charge of implementing the merger is Ed Bennett, the CEO of GRAND-AM, who has been engrossed in the details of brining the two sides together into one ever since the merger was announced last August.
“Going down the list and looking at the venues – Daytona, Circuit of the Americas, Petit Le Mans, Detroit Belle Isle, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Long Beach, Baltimore, Virginia International Raceway,” Bennett said. “I’m leaving a couple off, not on purpose, but these are the venues, the tracks, the markets you want to be in. It can only help the series at every turn to have these great drivers, manufacturers and teams going to all the great venues. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Bennett believes the biggest addition to that schedule is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which staged its first GRAND-AM event last year on the IMS Grand Prix road course, giving racing fans three action-packed days of racing featuring GRAND-AM on Friday, the NASCAR Nationwide Series on Saturday and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Sunday.
“I think Indy is iconic with over 100 years of history,” Bennett said. “Last year with the first GRAND-AM race at that track, and hopefully it will continue into the future. I think there is an opportunity at Indianapolis to build a stand-alone event that is really powerful. You have the pillars of racing – the Indianapolis 500 with IndyCar, the Brickyard 400 with NASCAR and this unified sports car series.
“My aspiration is hopefully it is powerful enough to be a stand-alone event that it’s big enough that it needs to be a stand-alone. That would be a great place for us to get as a series.”
While this is the final year that ALMS and GRAND-AM operate as two different series, plans are already in place for the unified series. That has fueled the level of interest in sports car racing in the United States and helping to increase the fan base and avoid confusion between the two series.
“I think it’s critical,” Bennett said. “Efforts and interests and participation were divided between both series. I think both series did a good job, but you can only go so far when there are two groups in the same genre trying to do a good job. Both were swimming in the same pond.
“To be able to join that and embrace the strengths on both sides of the aisle – GRAND-AM for its close competition and structure and ALMS for its international flair and technology – to bring both of those disciplines and leveraging in a smart way the strength of both.
“I think one plus one will be way more than two. In this case, I think it will add up to five.”
The senior leadership team and overall organizational structure for United SportsCar Racing will have Bennett as the CEO with current ALMS chief Scott Atherton as president and chief operating officer. Richard Buck will be the vice president of racing operations, with Scot Elkins as the vice president, competition and technical regulations and David Pettit as the vice president of marketing.
The International Motor Sports Association, LLC (IMSA) will serve as the sanctioning body for USCR.
United SportsCar Racing will feature competition in the following classes:
The lead Prototype (P) class, combining GRAND-AM’s Daytona Prototypes plus the ALMS’ P2 and DeltaWing cars
Prototype Challenge (PC), retained from the current ALMS class structure
GT Le Mans (GTLM), consisting of the ALMS’ current GT class
GT Daytona (GTD), consisting of GRAND-AM’s current GT class and the ALMS’ current GTC class
GX, coming over from the current GRAND-AM structure.
Bennett joined GRAND-AM Road Racing as the sanctioning body's chief executive officer in September 2011 and was also named president in May 2012. Bennett and ALMS CEO Atherton realized the need to join forces to be a powerful motorsports entity in the future, and an agreement to merge the two series was made Aug. 31, 2012.
“In 2013, each series is operating separately with 12 races on the GRAND-AM on the Rolex Series side and the ALMS side,” Bennett said. “There is lots of great synergy going on between the two in terms of personnel and sporting regulations and technical management and strategy. It really is a merger, and we really are trying to embrace the strengths we both have and try to shed our weaknesses. We have a great schedule between both of us. We have real clarity in terms of merger elements and target milestones.”
Other details such as the schedule, media coverage, series sponsorship, rulebook, and technical and sporting regulations are being finalized. Bennett hopes to have that completed by the fourth quarter of 2013. GRAND-AM’s last race is Sept. 30, and ALMS’s final contest is the Petit Le Mans in the middle of October.
Manufacturer participation will be highlighted in USCR, along with developing and showcasing the abilities of the race drivers and teams. That will provide value to sponsors, partners and spectators.
“I think sports car racing is a big manufacturer platform and something we have all learned over the years even when you think about the model of Le Mans,” Bennett said. “It’s a combination of manufacturer-supported teams and privateer teams. In reality, you need both to be successful. Manufacturer participation is really, really important. Unlike some other forms of racing where the drivers are stars – the athletes are always stars in any form of sports – but sports car racing is very unique because you have these premium, aspirational brands where the cars are stars, too. In terms of how we are going to market the series, it will be a combination of star power in car brands and star power with the drivers. It will be a little bit different. We want to embrace both.
“The events throughout the year on the schedule will be a powerhouse. You will have the opportunity to go to every venue you want to go to in the series. We would rather have premium events and events that match the profile of the brand and the drivers and the teams from around the world. In the future as the series grows, and we expect it will, it’s a great place to start and will be able to be selective in adding things that make sense and make sense for the series. We want to be in the places that really help add to that swagger of premium, aspirational, business markets, great places for those brands and drivers to be a part of.
“Quality is more important than quantity to us.”