The fact Continental Tire’s tenure in IMSA will end after 2018 comes as a bit of a surprise to the sports car world, following a prolonged period of negotiation to extend its role into 2019 and beyond following its initial five-year contract.
IMSA has announced Michelin for the new contract in 2019 and beyond in a multi-year agreement. Both Continental and Michelin have been within the same top-level series – either the American Le Mans Series or IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship – since 2013.
Continental was the PC class single supplier in 2013 and from 2014 in the merged championship, the single supplier for the Prototype, PC and GT Daytona classes, while Michelin raced in GT Le Mans, the series’ lone class for open tire competition.
“We are extremely grateful for the role Continental Tire played in helping to grow our racing platforms throughout our partnership dating back to 2010,” Scott Atherton, IMSA President, said in a release. “Continental has been an outstanding partner and was instrumental in elevating the status of the WeatherTech Championship and Continental Tire Challenge to new heights. We extend heartfelt appreciation to our friends at Continental for their unwavering support.”
Continental, throughout its tenure, had sought to activate and promote sports car racing heavily. Continental served as title sponsor of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and a race sponsor at numerous tracks, notably at Road America and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Some of the areas where it invested off-track was with using some IMSA drivers to develop a new street tire, podcasts featuring IMSA drivers Jordan and Ricky Taylor, veteran IMSA driver Ryan Eversley with “Dinner with Racers” podcast co-creator Sean Heckman, its at-track displays and in other areas of marketing. It also supports IMSA Radio and its Continental Tire pit lane team.
On-track, the company responded without fail to numerous customer requests and made changes to either its constructions or compounds of tires as the series evolved.
This included working through the merger period as the top level Prototype class combined both Daytona Prototype and LMP2-spec machinery through 2016, before the new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) and LMP2 2017-spec cars came in this year and saw Continental create a new Prototype class tire.
It’s with all those elements in the backdrop that IMSA’s decision and the waiting to announce this news comes as a shock to the system at Continental, but also something they feel they can bounce back from.
Travis Roffler, director of marketing of Continental Tire the Americas, explained the process behind the decision and where Continental Tire goes from here.
“We were informed a few weeks ago. I’d say we’ve been in active negotiations for most of this year talking to them about it and getting more information about what they were looking for,” Roffler told NBC Sports.
“We were given a framework or target to shoot for. We believe we gave a very fair response to that proposal, including a significant increase to our current investment level, which I can tell you throughout our entire contract we always outspent our contractual obligations. This was a step above our current spend.
“Our investment has been there to have the huge display at every race, engage with the fan base, and go through some challenging years of sports car racing, switching from DPs to P2s to DPis, going through when car counts dropped, we stuck through it.
“It was disappointing to go through that and now feel there was a good alignment moving forward… before getting ousted.”
While disappointed with IMSA’s decision, Roffler hailed Simon Hodgson, IMSA Vice President, Competition, for his transparency and dialogue throughout the process.
“In a spec series you’re never going to satisfy every team, because one team, make, model, or competitor feels another one is getting a better deal,” Roffler said.
“Simon has been wonderful to work with and great in letting us improve development of the tire, whereas in the past… (IMSA) wasn’t so receptive. We felt in a good place.
“But this announcement… we’d been involved in the timing. We’ve been sitting on it, knowing you were getting a divorce and waiting to announce it until the last minute. It’s been a challenge to say the least.”
Continental has given quite a lot to sports car racing over the years and following its acquisition of Hoosier Racing Tires last October, is still confident of moving into other areas in motorsports. Therein lies the challenge and the next opportunity, which Roffler said the company will embrace with open arms.
“With the purchase of Hoosier Racing Tire, we’re invested in motorsports globally. We look globally to grow,” he said.
“We’ll continue to develop on platforms like GT3, which is a global platform. That might look strange, given we’re being escorted out of IMSA. But that platform lives globally in other series around the world. So we’ll look to move that platform forward in other series going forward.”
Roffler was heavily concerned about the Continental Tire staff who have sunk a lot of time and investment into tire design and production, and their jobs. But he’s thankful for what they’ve accomplished in IMSA as they look forward to their next motorsports opportunity.
“It’s bittersweet at this point,” he admitted. “This entire team have dumped a lot of heart and soul into this program and as I said before, lived through some lean years. We were touted the merger would be a ‘holy grail’ but it took two-three years to get there. Our whole model was challenged, but we stuck through it. We were determined to do what we could do for our consumers, and move the needle.
“The first renewal came up and we kind of got the legs kicked out from underneath on this first one. It’s a shock to the program.
“But we’re tough. We’ll get over this, dust ourselves off, we have ’18 still in front of us, and we’ll be looking forward to the new adventures in ’19 and beyond.
“The big man says every time a door shuts, another one opens. I full well believe that we’ll find something even better.”