SIX NOTABLE ERAS
With NASCAR progressing nicely, founder Bill France turned his eye to road racing. John Bishop had worked for the Sports Car Club of America, where he was tasked largely with helping develop a pro racing program. Unhappy with pushback from management, he joined France. IMSA started out slowly but began to grow in the ’70s as France brought in new investors. Just as today, Bishop had to negotiate with his European counterparts over the types of cars, engines, and races that could be made common to both continents. Bishop had heart surgery in 1987 and began to consider selling the series.
Mike Cone and Jeff Parker controlled the IMSA Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Florida, and they took over the whole series through a company called CP Ventures and relocated it from Connecticut to Tampa. Mark Raffauf, still involved with IMSA, took over from Bishop as head of the series. There were not a substantial number of changes, save for the introduction of the Exxon World Sports Car Championship for prototype cars that supposedly would cost less to race. By 1994, Cone and Parker were ready to move on.
South Florida businessman Charlie Slater’s first race in a Porsche was at Sebring in 1985: He was black-flagged for going too slow; he didn’t have enough money to buy a proper engine. In 1993, Slater and his partners sold their medical equipment company, Symbiosis Corporation, for a reported $175 million. Slater had enough money to purchase the whole series. IMSA was losing money, and business continued to be tough as he searched for the right formula for success. He concentrated on the opencockpit World Sports Car class, which could be raced for far less than the old GT Prototypes that manufacturers spent millions on.
In September 1996, the International Motor Sports Group bought IMSA, reportedly by assuming its $2 million in debt, and changed its name to Professional SportsCar Racing. Roberto Mueller was Reebok’s former CEO, while Andy Evans managed a portfolio for Bill Gates. Evans was a racer and owned both a sports car team and an IndyCar team. In 1998, PSCR got competition from the new United States Road Racing Championship, founded by, among others, Bishop, Bill France Jr., Rob Dyson, Roger Penske, Skip Barber, and Ralph Sanchez. This further fragmented an already-struggling sport.
Enter Don Panoz. He was not a fan of Evans, so he bought everything, which included the Sebring and Mosport tracks. He had already bought Road Atlanta. Panoz planned to give the newly named American Le Mans Series an international flavor. This troubled NASCAR honcho Jim France, which led NASCAR to form its own series called Grand-Am. Both series found loyal audiences, but fragmentation remained: GrandAm controlled the country’s most important sports car race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, while the ALMS and newly restored IMSA controlled the second most important, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
In September 2012, the two series “merged,” though ALMS employees noticed their paychecks now read “NASCAR.” A great many ALMS elements were incorporated into the new series, and with ALMS chairman Scott Atherton and NASCAR’s Ed Bennett jointly at the helm, the blended league debuted in January 2014. It now represents the strongest, most unified presence sports car racing has ever enjoyed in the U.S.
ARCHIVE PHOTOGRAPHY:COURTESY OF REVS INSTITUTE, GEOFFREY HEWITT COLLECTION AND ALBERT R. BOCHROCHCOLLECTION
Race fans might have specific favorites, but a wide variety of cars has long been an IMSA selling point.