HARD ROAD FOR IMSA
by Larry Roberts
March 16, 1997
IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) has been around for nearly 30 years and it's definitely had a checkered career. Originally it was formed by John Bishop and his wife as an alternative to Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) pro racing. It digressed into just another racing group vying for dates with other clubs at the limited number of road racing circuits around the U.S. Its premiere cars were (and still are) specially constructed full-bodied sports-racers that were conceived as the U.S counterpart of the European factory cars that run at The 24 Hours of Le Mans. In recent years this IMSA class has acquired the name World SportsCar Championship but it's been an uphill struggle to get it on the same level as the mis-managed SCCA Trans-Am series.
The main problem IMSA has had in recent decades is a lack of direction and a lack of continuity. It real troubles began in '89 when Bishop sold it lock, stock and barrel to Mike Cone. Cone lacked dedication and full-time commitment and in turn sold it to businessman Charles Slater. Both lost millions in half-hearted attempts to light IMSA's fuse and last year it was passed on to Roberto Muller (ex-CEO of Reebok) and Andy Evans, deep-pocketed IndyCar owner and driver of one of the WSC teams, but they're facing a Herculean task.
Presenting a professional racing program on a national scale is tough and requires an attractive package to offer to big-buck professional teams as well as their potential corporate sponsors. Without big name teams and exciting cars, sponsors are cool to the idea of putting millions into a program that doesn't get national media and TV coverage or bring droves of spectators through the turnstiles. Last year IMSA-WSC races, combined with its three lesser GT class cars drew less than half a million fans to its 10 events - this after 28 years of existence. By comparison, the NASCAR race truck series was in its second year of competition in '96 and its 24 events attracted over 880,000 paying spectators. World-wide spectatorship of Formula One Grand Prix racing last year was 41 billion, according to a recent report.
IMSA's problem seems to be a Catch 22 proposition. In order to build a base of enthusiastic fans, there has to be a large group of competitive machinery to contest stand-alone races. In the case of a world class series, at least a couple of dozen teams appears to be the accepted formula but there is just over a dozen teams committed to the top-of-the-line WSC class. First-class non-IMSA teams are waiting to see what will happen in '97 before they commit themselves, a move that would boost the number of cars and the prestige of the series.
But despite the Machiavellian politics that surrounded the sale of the organization to Muller and Evans, to avoid its sale to a rival group of team owners, there appears to be hope on the horizon for IMSA. The new owners are partners in the International Motorsports Speedway Group (IMSG) which is the official owner of IMSA as well as the tracks at Sebring and Mosport in Canada. They have infused not only a feeling of hope in the existing teams but a almost euphoric attitude towards the future. By virtue of owning two tracks itself, IMSG has a locked-in set of race dates for its corporate race operation.
But there are a couple of down sides to the upcoming year. One is sellable names. There are just so many world-class drivers to go around and the very best of them are in Formula One. Drivers like Alex Zanardi that are also-rans in Grand Prix racing come to this country and sparkle. Domestic up-an-coming stars gravitate towards open-wheel series' like the Indy Lites or Formula Atlantic that lead to a shot at CART or the IRL IndyCar circuit.
The other is the rising tide of interest in oval tracks at the expense of road circuits. The ovals are easy to televise and spectators can watch all the action at once. NASCAR and the IRL are prime examples.
But hope is high in IMSA and with luck and perseverance the organization and its teams will be around at the turn of the century.