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Catching Up with … IMSA President John Doonan

Tuesday, September 12, 2023 Joey Barnes, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

IMSA President John Doonan

The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is enjoying a renaissance under the leadership of President John Doonan. IMSA will race Sept. 15-17 at IMS in the Battle on the Bricks.

John Doonan has played a key role in the sports car renaissance for the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). Doonan has served as IMSA president since October 2019, which came after nearly 17 years at Mazda North America, rising the ranks to serve an 8.5-year term as the director of motorsports.

Q: What is it like for you to have IMSA back at The Brickyard?

John Doonan: Yeah, it's huge for me personally, but I think it's huge for all of us at IMSA and all of the partners. I've been coming here since I was 7 years old, primarily for the Month of May. I've only missed one '500' since 1977, and that was my college graduation. So, I've been to pretty much all of them. This place, among many other circuits on our calendar, is one of those box-checkers for a lot of the drivers, teams and mechanics. To be able to come back to an iconic place – and we'd like to race at iconic places – is a really big deal for us as a sanctioning body. But for the OEMs, they all want to be on this stage, and the partners want to be on this stage.

The way that the track has embraced it with opening up camping is a really big deal for us because throughout the course of our season, outside of maybe a temporary street circuit, every single facility we go to has family camping. That's a big part of what I remember growing up around endurance sports car racing and what we're emulating today. So, to have that, to have the way that Mr. Penske and Mark Miles and Doug (Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway) have embraced it from a promotional standpoint, to bring on a partner like Tire Rack that has a massive database of enthusiast customers. In a lot of ways, the Tire Rack customer, I think is very aligned with the IMSA fan. I don't know the data and facts specifically, but they probably lean more toward a sports car enthusiast versus a circle track or other forms of racing. To have them aligned with this event makes a whole lot of sense. But overall, it's great. I came here to compete when we were running in Grand-Am in my previous life at Mazda and then when it became the converged IMSA series. So, come here with a little different hat on, but I am glad we're back.

Q: What does this track provide for IMSA?

Doonan: The history here, there's probably never a day that this place doesn't have a spotlight on it because of what it has meant in history for the auto industry and the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. So, this place has a spotlight on it at all times. For us to come here and lead up to it with testing and then to come here, now we have a long-term agreement to come here. I think it puts us in that spotlight that Indianapolis has on it probably 365 days. It's important for us to be part of that.

Q: How did your time at Mazda help shape and prepare you for this role?

Doonan: My hope when I got here to IMSA was that I could take the fact that we ran developmental series both on the open-wheel side and sports car side, and that sort of experience and knowledge, I could bring that to IMSA. I could bring the perspective of being an OEM, and we're so fortunate to have 18 of them racing with us in WeatherTech or in Pilot (Challenge). To come to the office and be among this group of professionals and bring that OEM experience and perspective, that was another thing that I hoped I could bring. We promoted series: MX-5 Cup was a big deal and continues to be a big deal for the Mazda brand, and so I did some series promotion, as well. My hope was to try to bring all that experience and hopefully, value, to IMSA.

It's a different perspective. I've said this in several other conversations: I could care less who wins the races. I used to care a lot when I was running a program. Now, my focus has shifted: Are we effectively communicating the storylines here? Are we giving the fans the best experience that they can have at a racetrack or watching a broadcast? Are we taking care of our team stakeholders and watching their budgets and being sensitive to their travel and the proximity of events and the proximity of venues? it's a completely different look. Some of what I had experienced at Mazda, but now you're definitely in the thick of it when you're in a sanctioning body role.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in the pivot to being the president of IMSA?

Doonan: I used to show up at these events on the competitor side or the OEM side, and by the time you show up, everything's all set up and ready to go. I always knew that there was a group of people that executed and got us to that point, but I think my biggest is I have a bigger appreciation for what it takes to put on the best and biggest endurance sports car racing events in North America, if not the world. And that's because of the great people that are part of the team. That's probably my biggest eye-opener, is just how much effort and planning goes into executing the events. I came in, a lot of effort and planning went into the team side, but the event is a different level.

Q: The growth IMSA has seen under your tenure has been phenomenal, especially, this past season with the GTP arrival and things like that. If you could summarize the growth and the challenge of what it was to get to that point because I imagine you’re incredibly proud how this has all panned out to this point?

Doonan: Yeah. I'm super happy and proud of what we have accomplished. I think at its core, IMSA wants to be a marketing tool for the auto industry, and we want manufacturers to come here and show their current product models when you talk about GT (Grand Touring) and TCR (Touring Car) and GS (Grand Sport). And then we hope that we can also be a technological laboratory for the future. That's what GTP (Grand Touring Prototype) represents for me. It's the touring cars and the GS and the GT that sort of show the fan what is today. It's the cars that are relevant to what they see on the street. GTP, for me, is what's possible. When you meld those two things together, that at the core is what we want to be, and we want to do it in an entertaining way for the fans.

When the fans see it, I hope they see it as such, like, if you want to come see the automobile industry on the most exciting stage with the coolest cars and the most talented drivers, that's where you want to be. In terms of growth, I think I had a really cool perspective of being at Mazda when the ideas, what is now GTP, was being discussed. At that time, IMSA was already very far down the path of writing the regulations of what LMDh technical regulations are and what has become GTP. For us to be the global leader of that set of regulations and set the stage for what now has allowed for the top categories to compete against one another is absolutely the thing that I'm most proud of, that IMSA, from North America, led this global convergence.

Clearly, we wouldn't have been able to do that without our partners at the ACO (Automobile Club d’Ouest) and the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) to make sure that that could technically happen. But the fact that we started the regs, the fact that it became part of a global historical milestone for sports car racing, that that is something that I think will live on for all of us who've been part of this era. The other thing is you look back at when I grew up around IMSA in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, you think this is the coolest era of all time, right? We've never seen anything like this. When GTP cars came in 1981, I was at Road America, and I saw the first BMW prototype and I saw the first Lola T600 and the Corvette GTP car and the Nissan GTP car.

I thought I was living a dream at that time. What I think I appreciate even more now is my hope is that there's current fans or young little boys and little girls that are seeing this today, and they're having that same moment of: 'Oh, my gosh: We're living in the coolest era. I've never seen a race car that looks as cool as one of these GTP cars or one of these GT cars.' And that's very rewarding to think that we're having that same impact that maybe I had 30-40 years ago to be able to do that same thing again today. It's actually a magical moment. People said that was the golden era back in the '80s and '90s. This is the platinum era. It's very special the way the design teams at the OEMs, specifically GTP, have embraced the idea to tell their brand story and how these cars look.

My hope is that when you lay eyes on those things, it's clear that that's a BMW, that's a Cadillac, that's an Acura, that's a Porsche. I said in Goodwood, because it really struck me with the Lamborghini, if you take all the decals off, you take all the paint schemes off and the car just sat there in the raw, either white or black, could you identify what brand it represented? For me, the designers have done such a bang-up job on the ultimate design that I think we're to that point where you can look at any of these cars without any branding on them and identify the brand.

Q: IMSA goes to some of the most iconic tracks in the world, let alone North America, but was there a part of it that just felt incomplete without a trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

Doonan: As a passionate racer and as a guy who grew up at the racetrack almost every weekend in the summers with my dad, if it was up to me, we'd race every weekend at every track possible. I know that's not feasible, but that's sincere. I'm a racer, so I want to race everywhere I can. When it comes to our schedule, we're super sensitive to cost, location venues, the feasibility based on the performance of the car, if a certain circuit can actually race IMSA cars. You can't race them at the (Indiana State) Fairgrounds. You can't race them at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, but you need to go through that exercise. To have Indianapolis Motor Speedway back on the calendar is absolutely a right piece to put in the puzzle. For us to show our participants, our fans, and hopefully the world that IMSA is giving participants and those who watch us a complete and full experience. But every track we go to has a special story behind it, whether it's VIR (Virginia International Raceway), Lime Rock Park, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta – every one of these tracks has a special story behind it, and there's no doubt that the Brickyard has that, as well.

Q: What is the end goal?

Doonan: We have a pretty common saying around the office that the market will speak. When you have 18 automakers that have chosen to come and invest and participate here, whether it's with a factory-endorsed program or with customer racing efforts, especially in GT or GS or TCR, they help identify for us what our next ruleset can look like for them to most effectively market their story; whether it's a particular model that they want to launch here, whether it's a particular technology. Obviously, now we're in hybrid. We're having discussions with them about where they're trending, where the industry's trending to make sure that within reason, within technology, within cost, we can be and continue to be that platform. The reason we ended up with hybrid is because we sat around a table with at some point 16 OEMs, and they gave us feedback that sustainable fuels are very important for the future of the auto industry.

Electrification is continuously being discussed and growing, and what interim step could we do to tell the story that might be toward what's next? That's why we landed on hybrid because they all felt like that was the mix of electrified race cars, which is exactly what we have with the GTP cars - an electric motor that helps drive in addition to the internal combustion engine that helps drive the car. I think it's about those milestones and really the auto industry and partners like Michelin, partners like WeatherTech, they're going to help us navigate to make sure that this continues to be the biggest and best marketing platform for any automotive brand in the world.

The Battle on the Bricks is scheduled for Sept. 15-17 at IMS. Visit for tickets and information.