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.”
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 h 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 LMD h 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.”