THE IN­TER­NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­SPORTS AS­SO­CI­A­TION,

Automobile - - Motorsport -

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.

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