Automobile - - Motorsport -


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.


Race fans might have spe­cific fa­vorites, but a wide va­ri­ety of cars has long been an IMSA sell­ing point.

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