THE INTERNATIONAL MOTORSPORTS ASSOCIATION,
founded 50 years ago, has had a massive impact on sports car racing, and its future appears brighter than ever as the 2019 season kicks off with the Rolex 24 at Daytona January 26-27.
When John Bishop and his wife, Peggy, formed IMSA in 1969, with substantial assistance from NASCAR president Bill France, no one knew precisely what the professional sports car series would look like. IMSA held its first race at Pocono International Raceway in Pennsylvania in October 1969. Bishop, who spent 12 years at the Sports Car Club of America, thought open-wheel cars might appeal, so the event featured Formula Fords and Volkswagen-powered Formula Vees. Attendance was 348.
It took less than a year for Bishop to decide a sports car series needed proper sports cars, and in 1971 IMSA promoted a series for production-based FIA-designated classes of cars, as well as the Baby Grand series, which promptly became the RS, or Radial Sedan series, named for the then-new Goodrich radial tire. That class showcased everything from Opel Mantas to AMC Gremlins, and that version of IMSA made its debut on April 18, 1971, at Virginia International Raceway. It featured Porsches and Chevrolet Corvettes, which made all the right noises. Twenty-four cars ran in the feature class at VIR, and by the end of the season, 54 cars turned out for the finale at Daytona International Speedway.
IMSA was on its way. Other sanctioning bodies, including the SCCA, weren’t happy. They would soon be even less happy when the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and its Camel brand of cigarettes became a sponsor, and the Camel GT series was born. That’s when IMSA’s growth really began, in large part due to Camel’s publicity campaign, which continued into the 1990s.
By 1989, though, the Bishops were ready to hand over IMSA to new owners. The series was sold in 1994 and again in 1996. Then in 1999, Don Panoz began a flurry
of acquisitions that resulted in the new American Le Mans Series, and he acquired IMSA as part of the package. Finally, in 2012, Panoz sold IMSA and the ALMS to NASCAR, which blended its new acquisition with its own Grand-Am sports car series. The result was the IMSA Tudor United SportsCar Championship, which kicked off at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2014.
With the 2016 season, WeatherTech replaced the Tudor watch company as the title sponsor. In a sense, IMSA has come full circle: It began when NASCAR founder France bankrolled the series in 1969, and it is now once again under NASCAR’s umbrella. In the following pages, we look back over the years—and toward the future.
GRAND IDEA John Bishop, left, and NASCAR boss Bill France wanted to do for road racingwhat NASCAR did for stock cars.