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IMSA’s Atherton: We Learned From Our Mistakes

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 18 2015

The debut season of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship suffered through some bumpy times. IMSA boss Scott Atherton says expect better times in 2015. (Photos courtesy of IMSA)

For Scott Atherton, the president and chief operating officer of the International Motor Sports Association, giving birth to the Tudor United SportsCar Series was like, well, giving birth. Except these birthing pains lasted a year and a half.

“I’ve referenced it as being the most challenging, the most difficult 18 months of my life,” Atherton told RacinToday.com during an interview last week. “If you told me that we had to do it all over again, candidly, I would say, ‘Thank you, no.’ I don’t think any of us (who helped give birth to the Tudor series) would have it in us to go through that again.”

Thankfully, neither Atherton nor his staff will have to go through that again. And hopefully, neither will the competitors or fans who at times, encountered pangs of frustration that came with cobbling together North America’s premier sports car racing series on a serious deadline.

The IMSA-sanctioned Tudor series turns 1 year old this month and will celebrate that birthday with the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway next Saturday and Sunday.

When Atherton was asked if he was feeling confident that the TUSC series – which was born upon the merging of the once-competing Rolex Grand-Am and American Le Mans series – would be a product which all of American racing could be proud, his answer was an adamant yes.

“We’re ready,” Atherton said about his series as it heads into Year Two – a year in which no excuses will be accepted by fans and competitors. “Honestly, we are, and I speak for the whole organization when I say that.”

Even with an off season which spanned a mere three months.

Atherton said that just after New Year’s, the entire IMSA staff was brought to the organization’s Daytona

Scott Atherton

Beach offices. All departments met, reviewed 2014 and presented plans for 2015. When the work was finished, Atherton said his people were so jacked that they were “ready to run through a wall”.

“There has never been a time that I’m aware of where more heavy lifting was accomplished,” he said, “and more results achieved.”

During the interview with RacinToday.com, Atherton fielded questions about the past and future of TUSC. What follows are some of the questions and answers from that interview:

RT: Can you describe the difference between now and a year ago around the IMSA offices?

Atherton: It’s a lightyear-apart difference. Every aspect of the business was affected in some way or another by the merger. We made a big deal out of deploying a ‘best practices’ approach. Those weren’t just hollow words. There was a genuine and sincere effort to do that. Easier said than done, but you’ve got to look at how each entity handled every aspect of the business. Scrutinize it, analyze it and then determine which is the better way to go. In some cases it was easy; ‘This is by far the choice, we’re going this way.’ In other examples it was an agonizing process to get to that, ‘OK, we think we’ve confirmed the best practice and now let’s go on to the next one.’ I think we are all better for it, having gone through last season. No part of it was easy.  A lot of learning came out of it but we’re all better for it now, going into our second season.

RT: In retrospect, do you think waiting a year and launching the series in 2015 would have been the better idea?

Atherton: That’s a great question. I would have to say, from the perspective in terms of timing, I don’t think it would have been beneficial to have another lame duck season for both entities (Grand-Am and ALMS). We operated each championship autonomously in 2013, keeping in mind that the merger was announced back in September of  ’12. We ran an independent Grand-Am season and an independent American Le Mans Series throughout ’13. And it was a full time job to fulfill all the commitments that each championship had. Every waking moment was focused upon all of the minutia that had to be attended to in order for us to be in position in January of ’14 where we could be in competing as a unified sports car championship.

If you would have told me back then that we would have been better off to have two seasons and launch in 2015, while it may have sounded attractive on paper, I think the approach we took was the best way.

We were successful in attracting and confirming an outstanding five-year partnership with Tudor watches to

The 2015 American sports car racing season opened with a Roar.

be the title sponsor. We were successful in confirming a five-year contractual relationship with our TV partner in Fox. We were successful in evolving Tequila Patron from their presenting sponsorship in the American Le Mans Series to the title sponsor of the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup. These were all cornerstone accomplishments. To have those cornerstones in place and then go ahead and not build the structure around it, I think really would have been a lost opportunity. I don’t think, given the timing of how all that came together, we could have postponed that for another year and just said, ‘We’re going to operate independently for another year and we’ll check back with you guys in ’15.’ I think everything happened for a reason.

RT: What was the low point of the first year for you personally?

Atherton: The low point for me was when the realization occurred that we had made a horrible mistake in the officiating that was connected to the conduct of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in that we had wrongly penalized an innocent car, team, driver. Unfortunately in our structure, the way we are configured, you cannot call a timeout and stop play on the field to review the call and come back and make an adjustment. The live action continues and because it is completely live and unscripted, there is no way to turn the clock back and say we made an error on this hour and therefore we need to reset things to the way we were.

(Editor’s note: The penalty was an 80-second stop-and-hold to Alex Job Racing’s No. 22 Porsche 911 GT America, which was penalized for contact with a rival car that it never touched. The AJR car was in contention for the class victory.)

At no point would anyone ever want officiating to be a factor, outside of just enforcing the rules and regulations. In this case, a very significant mistake was made that is inexcusable. For me, that was the low-water mark.

RT: What was the high point of the 2015 season for you?

Atherton: It was a combination of two things. One was omnipresent throughout the whole season and that was the remarkable job that everybody on this staff did in one of the most trying and difficult seasons that I think, is on record.

The other high mark, frankly, was coming into the season finale, the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, and having so many aspects of the championship up for grabs with so many different cars, teams, drivers, manufacturers, tire companies that had won races, achieved podiums, earned pole positions and yet after a tremendous amount of racing, coming down to the last turns of the last lap being the deciding factor in three out of four of our class championships. For the by product of merging two very different forms of sports car racing, that’s the ultimate validation that there’s a lot to be proud of. Nobody ran away with any aspect of this. It really came down to that last race to decide who’s champion and who’s not.

RT: Would you call the first year of the unified series a complete success?

Atherton: I wouldn’t go that far. It really depended on who you spoke with. Some people felt like it was done better than they expected, the whole aspect of the first unified season went off better than they thought it would. Others who had been effected by aspects, some of which I referenced before, weren’t quite as complimentary. I think everybody had a sense of, ‘OK, we survived it, we got through it, it wasn’t perfect but we didn’t expect it would be.’ But when you look at the fundamentals that were accomplished last year: great television package; we had record car counts throughout the season; almost every one of our event organizers reported record attendance. We had so many examples of just outstanding, competitive, entertaining events. I can’t think of a race that I went away from that I said, ‘Wow, we didn’t have a good weekend. We didn’t have a good race.’ Every time we were at an event, I think we felt very proud of the product we put forth.

We embraced our fans. We responded. Every time we went out, we incorporated the learning from that weekend into the next event. Or, we made very copious notes about what we would do differently for those things that are not possible to change mid season. How we would do it different in the coming year. I’m happy to report that all of those notes, all of that learning has now been incorporated into how we will conduct ourselves in ’15 and it goes to every aspect of the business.

RT: Could you give some examples of changes?

Atherton: We’re going to split our starts. We’re going to have prototypes start the race in a pack and the GT cars start the race in a second pack. There were examples of violations last year that resulted in a penalty. By learning from and hearing feedback from teams, there are many examples now that no longer carry a penalty for the same infraction. The first example, may get a warning. Second example it could be elevated if it appears to be egregious.

There are a hundred of those that I could sit and reference from subtle changes, in some cases, more material than others. But we as a group feel very positive. There is a level of energy here certainly that didn’t exist last year because there was a lot of deer in the headlights last year. The lights are on here but it takes on a whole different meaning as we go into ’15.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, January 18 2015
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Philip Bantseev says:

    How did they learn from their mistakes? Who wins overall championship? Certainly not the LMP2 car, same in GTLM, they screw around with the rules to give Vipers the advantage over the Vettes and BMW and guess what? They pull the plug on their factory racing! Teams are dropping off, left and right and yet Scott atherton says they “learned” from their mistakes? It’s not IMSA/ALMS making up the rules, that’s for sure, Grand Am/Nascar is calling it!