Details of the ALMS/Grand-Am Merger

Call it what you want.  Buyout.  Merger.  Collapse.  Future.  Whatever it is, it is the future of American sportscar racing.  Today the ALMS and Grand-AM held a joint press conference at the Daytona International Speedway.  Here’s what we learned:

For 2013, the two series will operate independently.  Starting with the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona, the series will operate under a unified format.

Jim France of NASCAR/Grand-AM will be director, ALMS founder Dr. Don Panoz will be Vice Chairman, and ALMS President Scott Atherton will be on the board of directors of the new group.

Said Dr. Don Panoz: “I have the Le Mans virus in my blood”.  They will be meeting with the ACO in the coming weeks.

This deal happened over a handshake on the golf course between Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz.  For six months and 14 days this deal was kept under wraps.  They originally made a run at a merger about 5 years ago, but the timing wasn’t right according to Scott Atherton.  They dealt with several of the manufacturers for their input in this future endeavor.  After the initial shock of seeing France and Panoz in the same room together, all the manufacturers were on-board with the proposed merger.

Ed Bennett, President and CEO of Grand-Am racing said overall, between the ALMS and Grand-AM, there are 8 series they govern.  There are still details to be hammered out, but again, they’re all moving forward in the direction of what is best for all parties.

The future class structure is still being defined.  Again, they’re still dealing directly with the manufacturers to come up with what works best for all parties.  Not only are they looking to merge technologies in terms of the competitors, but they’re still working out the best in terms of scheduling.  The 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona will be the initial race, and from there, it’s wide open.  It’ll be a 12 race schedule with the flexibility for the teams to compete at Le Mans.

Dr. Panoz still wants the cars to be able to compete at Le Mans.   There are ideas and issues that are on the table that have yet to be determined.  They’re looking at solutions on giving the ALMS and Grand-AM competitors a common balance.  If Dr. Panoz wants the cars to be able to compete at Le Mans, it looks like to me, that the Grand-AM GT competitors will become GTE competitors.

The merger has been discussed with the ACO.  The ACO expressed interest in working with the new group.

One journalist on the floor questioned the commonalities of the two groups and sees nothing but a “minefield”.  Sponsors, ACO, FIA, NASCAR, broadcasters, manufacturers (tire and auto), competitors…how do they overcome those issues?  Mr. France and Dr. Panoz both said they know of these issues, but they have an open mind and lots of input from all those  aspects and are working to resolve all those issues before the start of the 2014 season.  Mr. Atherton spoke of “cross pollination and synergistic energies” that open up a whole new realm of possibilities that out weigh the issues.

Speaking of P1/LMP1, Dr. Panoz said that’s outside of what the ALMS/Grand-AM is considering.  That class is for the manufacturers to develop on their own.  There is room for both the Daytona Prototypes and LMP1 classes, but at this moment, it’s outside of their discussion.  I’m sure this is something that’ll happen over the next few months as the new group works with groups like Audi, Toyota, and Porsche with regards to their 2014 prototype projects.

Speaking again of GT racing, Mr. Atherton and Mr. France both said the ALMS GT class is the basis and the Grand-AM GT class better step up to what the ALMS offers.  Again, this sounds to me like the Grand-AM competitors have the next 18 months to update or acquire GT cars that can compete in the ALMS model and ultimately compete at Le Mans.

They’ve asked for patience, they’re all on the same page working towards a common goal – and I’m happy to hear – Le Mans is in that goal.

Following the conclusion of the press conference, we began receiving word from organizers, competitors and manufacturers.

From the current president of the ACO, Pierre Fillon:

The merger of these two championships, which was carried out with the approval of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, has become necessary to enable endurance racing to continue to evolve. In 2014, this branch of the sport will have a bigger calendar and high-quality fields. Everybody will benefit from this unified series: entrants in North America, drivers and fans. This rapprochement proves that Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s assessment of the situation is the right one, and one of its major initiatives is to reinforce the presence of endurance racing on the international scene. The foundation consists of three continental series: the European Le Mans Series, the Asian Le Mans Series and this North-American merger in 2014, which will make the base even stronger together with the FIA World Endurance Championship, while the summit of this pyramid remains the Le Mans 24 Hours. I’m happy to meet up with the new team directing this new series in the near future, and to start working with them on this North-American Championship.

Jamie Allison, Director Ford North America Motorsports

“Today’s announcement is a seismic moment in the sports car racing landscape. This is an event that is natural and will endear itself to all sports car enthusiasts, both in the U.S. and around the world. … We at Ford embrace and support this unification and look forward to working with the organization in the future.”

Mark Reuss, President, GM North America:

“This is an exciting moment in sports car racing. This merger combines the best attributes of GRAND-AM Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series to create a singularly focused series. Congratulations to Jim France and Dr. Don Panoz on having the passion for sports car racing and the vision to take it to the next level. The joining of these two series will provide a foundation for Chevrolet to develop technologies and race cars with tremendous relevancy to the production vehicles we sell today and in the future.”

Porsche Cars North America:

“Porsche Cars North America, Inc., one of the few auto manufacturers which has been involved with both ALMS and Grand-Am from the beginning of both series, is pleased that the primary sanctioning bodies for professional sports car racing in North America are combining resources to produce the best possible series for our customers –sports car racing fans.

“Our fans want to see high performance race cars, big fields filled by the world’s top manufacturers, close racing and entertaining events both on television and the internet, and of course, at the race track.

“With events now possible at all the major road racing tracks – Daytona International Raceway, Road Atlanta, Watkins Glen, Canadian Tire Mosport Park, and Sebring – all formerly owned by either one series or the other – the growing number of fans in our sport will truly have a national championship to follow.

“Our fans want to see us compete against the same cars we compete with in the marketplace, and they want to see us win under the most heated on-track, head-to-head competition. We believe this new racing organization gives us that opportunity.

“We are also excited about the combining of personnel talent as the most skilled and experienced racing and rules managers will spend the next year crafting a series that meets everyone’s basic goals and objectives.”

Scott Sharp, Team Owner, Extreme Speed Motorsports (ALMS/GRAND-AM):

“I’m very excited about the potential merger of ALMS and GRAND-AM.  I think bringing together the potential that both series have when it comes to TV package, scheduling, competitors and tracks, it could be huge. Hopefully, it will turn out that way.

“I think sports car racing needs to become more viable.  It has to become more attractive to advertisers and sponsors.  This potential merger has to be able to increase that opportunity by putting all fronts together pointing in the same direction.  This could be a huge boost for sports cars and probably the biggest step forward in several decades.

“From our sponsor Tequila Patrón’s perspective, this can only be a huge benefit.  If we can go to better tracks with bigger audiences and a more solid television package, it has to be something that Patrón will appreciate from all avenues.  That is certainly the hope.”

Ludwig Willisch, President and CEO, BMW of North America, LLC:

“Racing success has helped to define The Ultimate Driving Machine, and BMW of North America, LLC welcomes today’s announcement. The France family has been an excellent steward of the sport since its earliest days in North America and we are pleased to see that a unified GRAND-AM and ALMS will provide the direction professional sports car racing will take in the future.”

Ricky Taylor, Driver, SunTrust Racing (GRAND-AM):

“I think it’s exciting. I never thought I’d be able to see something like this happen in my lifetime. I’ve been following sports car racing my whole life and look at all the old pictures of my dad racing GTPs and what everybody says are the good ‘ol days.

“Hopefully we can get back there and hopefully have sports car racing be right up there with open-wheel.”

Rob Dyson, Team Owner, Dyson Racing (ALMS):

“I’ve won championships in both series and I think it’s good. You have to look at it from the outside in. For fans, now they can follow one sports car series. For the tracks, they can promote one sports car series. Then take a look at the schedule we’re going to have. It’s going to be great race tracks.

“All of a sudden, you have a cohesiveness for the fans and for the tracks. We have to talk about what we are bringing to the tracks and the fans. They have to work at that. Frankly, I think [it should be like] the old IMSA. Bring back GTP. GTP Lites, GTO and GTU. You’ve got people building cars for every one of those.

“The key thing is that the cars have to be fast and they have to be aspirational. Prototypes have to look like fighter jets and GT cars have to represent what people aspire to own.”

In closing, all the parties involved – from the ALMS, Grand-AM, the manufacturers, the ACO and FIA, the competitors – from both the ALMS and Grand-AM – the sponsors, and all the other major decision makers – they’re all saying the right things.  A unified North American road racing championship with direct links to it’s European heritage and, ultimately Le Mans.  There are still mountains of details to be sorted out, rules to be set, venues to be decided upon, and from what I hear, read, and have been told in confidence, they’re all on the same page moving towards a common goal.

Today stands to be an historic day for road racing in North America.  I’m hopeful everyone will stay true to their words and the best decision will be made for all.  Most importantly, the fans.

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