IMSA president addresses series’ future with schedules, Acura, LMDh


John Doonan describes himself as the eternal optimist, a quality that certainly served him well during his first year as IMSA president — and likely will in the future.

After starting the season with a well-attended Rolex 24 at Daytona and the major announcement of a new bridge to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been a major disruption to the 2020 schedule and the business models of the automakers whose financial support drives the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“At the end of this we’re going to look back and the best benefit for me is I’ve gotten a full immersion on how everything works at the office from finance to accounting and HR,” said Doonan, who was named to his position last October after heading up Mazda’s U.S. racing program. “Jim France (chairman of NASCAR, which owns IMSA) has said, ‘You’ve really got a good briefing on how the place works.’

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“Just trying to hang in there and stay positive. No one could have predicted what we’ve been facing.”

IMSA future
IMSA president John Doonan (IMSA).

Amidst all the tumult, there have been some positives.

Despite having more than 200 competitors based outside of the United States (about 40 percent of its paddock workforce), IMSA was in constant communication with customs officials to help ensure there were no snags in crossing borders.

Upon arrival, drivers and teams also have seemed pleased by the truncated practice schedules since IMSA’s return July 4 at Daytona International Speedway and July 18 at Sebring International Raceway (Sunday’s noon ET race on NBC will mark IMSA’s third since restarting from a five-month layoff for the pandemic).

IMSA will have meetings next week to begin laying groundwork for the 2021 season and is looking at incorporating some of the new efficiencies in running events (as well as some sponsor enhancements from its foray into iRacing while away from the track). The series already has announced that its Roar Before the Rolex preseason test session has been moved a few weeks later, allowing teams to avoid making two trips to Daytona in January.

“I think we’ve found some real sweet spots in terms of what our schedule could look like certainly for the rest of 2020 but maybe into’ 21 as well,” Doonan said. “I think we found at Daytona and Sebring that everyone liked it with the costs savings and also just being smart with the amount of time people are on the road.”

During an interview this week with NBC Sports, Doonan addressed some of the big-picture issues facing the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship for the rest of the season and the future heading into 2021:

Penske and Acura split: The impending split of Team Penske and Acura will mean the departure of a first-class team from DPi next season, but Doonan is confident that Acura will continue its factory support in the division through other teams.

“They are looking at opportunities to have their Acura DPi in additional families in the future,” Doonan said. “I think there’s an opportunity for them to have multiple teams. That’s ultimately Acura’s news and any teams they partner with to share, but it’s my understanding they plan to be around DPi for many years to come.”

The brand already is part of a large footprint for Honda in IMSA’s sports car series. Three GTD teams (Meyer Shank Racing, Heinricher Racing w/MSR Curb-Agajanian and Gradient Racing) also are racing Acura NSX GT3s at Road America, and the Pilot Challenge Series offers multiple Honda entries in its TCR division.

It remains unseen how Acura will position itself in DPi, but teams seem to be lining up for a partner opportunity. Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told the Trackside radio program this week that the team would talk to Acura about racing in DPi. Ganassi, which fields Dallara-Hondas in IndyCar, was left without a sports car program this season for the first time in 17 years when Ford left GTLM.

“We really want to be in sports car racing again,” Hull said. “Going forward with the Acura program, if it continues as a factory program, and they want to have us work for them, we’d be happy to do that.”

Timeline for LMDh: When the Le Mans Daytona hybrid class was announced for the 2022 season in January, the rebranded top class for IMSA was viewed as a throwback to re-creating the “Ford vs. Ferrari” era of a half-century ago – allowing the same car to compete for overall wins in the Rolex 24 and 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Draft regulations were released in May and final specs are expected in September for LMDh, which is viewed as more cost effective than its predecessor. But there are doubts about whether the rebranding of IMSA’s top class can happen before 2023, which would delay easier crossovers between the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

“We have a saying around the office really driven by Jim France, and that’s ‘the market will speak,’ ” Doonan said. “There’s no question that IMSA’s model is built around manufacturers participating in top-level sports car racing. Those manufacturers also have a core business, which is to promote their brand and sell road cars. And like many businesses, that’s been turned upside down right now.

“We hope that things turn around such that 2022 is possible. Essentially the manufacturers are going to tell us, and the pressures on the core business, that’s really going to dictate which way it goes.”

GTLM and car counts: The status of LMDh also could determine the future for Porsche, which announced its exit from GTLM after the 2020 season. Doonan said Porsche is one of 15 manufacturers that have shown interest in LMDh. “Certainly, my hope is that we can welcome them back,” Doonan said. “They plan to be part of GTD and support customer racing and also the Michelin Pilot Challenge with the GT4 car.”

But with Corvette and BMW remaining, the GTLM class currently has only two manufacturers (and four entries) committed for next season, increasing concerns about car counts after a record-low 38 entries raced at the Rolex 24. Doonan said IMSA could consider a plan for GT like the convergence that has helped shore up its fastest prototype division.

“There’s no question the whole COVID situation has everyone evaluating and re-evaluating their situation,” Doonan said. “It’s certainly our hope that as businesses reopen and the economy stabilizes, and we know that we can (race) safely, we’ll see car counts continue to grow. I’d imagine everyone is evaluating their programs. Right now based on the conversations we’re having, everyone continues to be committed to the programs they have in the short term. We’re going to have to just be open with our manufacturers and determine what’s feasible. It’s really going to come down to what protects the investment that the manufacturers have made.”

Scheduling uncertainty: IMSA already has adjusted its schedule multiple times, including the move of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring to a Nov. 14 slot as the season finale.

But there still could be more reshuffling ahead (perhaps as soon as next week) with upcoming races at Watkins Glen International (Sept. 6) and Lime Rock Park (Sept. 12) in states that have COVID-19 quarantine restrictions for out of state visitors (UPDATE: IMSA announced Saturday that the Watkins Glen and Lime Rock events had been moved to Road Atlanta and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval).

There also is a Nov. 1 race scheduled at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca, which just canceled two IndyCar races in September.

Doonan said IMSA was “looking at all options given the fluid and ever evolving state-to-state mandates.”

Roger Penske vows new downtown Detroit GP will be bigger than the Super Bowl for city


DETROIT – He helped spearhead bringing the town a Super Bowl 17 years ago, but Roger Penske believes the reimagined Chevrolet Detroit GP is his greatest gift to the Motor City.

“It’s bigger than the Super Bowl from an impact within the city,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Maybe not with the sponsors and TV, but for the city of Detroit, it’s bigger than the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got to give back individually and collectively, and I think we as a company in Michigan and in Detroit, it’s something we know how to do. It shows we’re committed. Someone needs to take that flag and run it down through town. And that’s what we’re trying to do as a company. We’re trying to give back to the city.”

After 30 years of being run on Belle Isle, the race course has been moved to a new nine-turn, 1.7-mile downtown layout that will be the centerpiece of an event weekend that is designed to promote a festival and community atmosphere.

There will be concerts in the adjacent Hart Plaza. Local businesses from Detroit’s seven districts have been invited to hawk their wares to new clientele. Boys and Girls Clubs from the city have designed murals that will line the track’s walls with images of diversity, inclusion and what Detroit means through the eyes of youth.

And in the biggest show of altruism, more than half the circuit will be open for free admission. The track is building 4-foot viewing platforms that can hold 150 people for watching the long Jefferson Avenue straightaway and other sections of the track.

Detroit GP chairman Bud Denker, a longtime key lieutenant across Penske’s various companies, has overseen more than $20 million invested in infrastructure.

The race is essentially Penske’s love letter to the city where he made much of his fame as one of Detroit’s most famous automotive icons, both as a captain of industry with a global dealership network and as a racing magnate (who just won his record 19th Indy 500 with Josef Newgarden breaking through for his first victory on the Brickyard oval).

During six decades in racing, Penske, 86, also has run many racetracks (most notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also speedways in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania), and much of that expertise has been applied in Detroit.

“And then the ability for us to reach out to our sponsor base, and then the business community, which Bud is tied in with the key executives in the city of Detroit, bringing them all together,” Penske said. “It makes a big difference.

“The Super Bowl is really about the people that fly in for the Super Bowl. It’s a big corporate event, and the tickets are expensive. And the TV is obviously the best in the world. What we’ve done is taken that same playbook but made it important to everyone in Detroit. Anyone that wants to can come to the race for free, can stand on a platform or they can buy a ticket and sit in the grandstands or be in a suite. It’s really multiple choice, but it is giving it to the city of Detroit. I think it’s important when you think of these big cities across the country today that are having a lot of these issues.”

Denker said the Detroit Grand Prix is hoping for “an amazingly attended event” but is unsure of crowd estimates with much of the track offering free viewing. The race easily could handle a crowd of at least 50,000 daily (which is what the Movement Music Festival draws in Hart Plaza) and probably tens of thousands more in a sprawling track footprint along the city’s riverwalk.

Penske is hoping for a larger crowd than Belle Isle, which was limited to about 30,000 fans daily because of off-site parking and restricted fan access at a track that was located in a public park.

The downtown course will have some unique features, including a “split” pit lane on an all-new concrete (part of $15 million spent on resurfaced roads, new barriers and catchfencing … as well as 252 manhole covers that were welded down).

A $5 million, 80,000-square-foot hospitality chalet will be located adjacent to the paddock and pit area. The two-story structure, which was imported from the 16th hole of the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, will offer 70 chalets (up from 23 suites at Belle Isle last year). It was built by InProduction, the same company that installed the popular HyVee-branded grandstands and suites at Iowa Speedway last year.

Penske said the state, city, county and General Motors each owned parts of the track, and their cooperation was needed to move streetlights and in changing apexes of corners. Denker has spent the past 18 months meeting with city council members who represent Detroit’s seven districts, along with Mayor Mike Duggan. Penske said the local support could include an appearance by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer.

Denker and Detroit GP  president Michael Montri were inspired to move the Detroit course downtown after attending the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We saw what an impact it made on that city in August of 2021 and we came back from there and said boy could it ever work to bring it downtown in Detroit again,” Denker said. “We’ve really involved the whole community of Detroit, and the idea of bringing our city together is what the mayor and city council and our governor are so excited about. The dream we have is now coming to fruition.

“When you see the infrastructure downtown and the bridges over the roads we’ve built and the graphics, and everything is centered around the Renaissance Center as your backdrop, it’s just amazing.”