After months of rumours it’s finally happened. The American Le Mans Series and the Grand-Am Series have agreed to merge and run a single American sports car championship in 2014.
The ALMS and Grand-Am have been rivals for the past 13 years, fighting with dissimilar rules for the same audience. Much like IndyCar racing’s long and debilitating CART/IRL civil war, American sports car racing and its fans have been poorly served by this long squabble.
But on Wednesday this week the rival series founders Jim France and Don Panoz sat together in a press conference in Daytona Beach to announce that they agreed to merge six months ago. France and Panoz said the two series will run their separate schedules next year but will kick off 2014 as a unified championship, starting with the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and followed six weeks later by Sebring’s classic 12 Hour race. It will be the first time in a decade and a half that Daytona and Sebring will be part of the same series with an identical field of cars and drivers.
Jim France is NASCAR founder Bill France Sr’s second son and the founder of the Grand-Am series. He’s also the vice chairman and executive vice president of NASCAR and CEO of the International Speedway Corporation, owner of a dozen tracks across the United States. France will be chairman of the new combined sports car organisation.
“This is a great day professionally and personally for me,” France said. “I’ve been a sports car racing fan my entire life. I thank my father Bill Sr. for that. He obviously loved stock car racing but had a real affinity for sports car racing as well.
“We want to see a full field of exciting sports cars with a lot of international flare with all the international and domestic manufacturers that you would want to be part of a successful sports car series,” France continued. “We really need to work with the stakeholders – the teams and manufacturers – to get some input about the relevance for them and there needs to be a lot of respect for the investment that’s been made by the teams so we don’t obsolete significant hardware in the process.
“It’s a collective effort, one that we really look forward to, and one of the best things about this relationship I think is the human capital that we both have to be able to manage that process together. It’ll be a very compelling, powerful championship and I believe will truly have some global recognition.”
Don Panoz will serve as vice chairman of the new group. Other members of the board will be NASCAR’s vice chair and executive vice-president Lesa France Kennedy, Grand-Am president and CEO Ed Bennett, ALMS president and CEO Scott Atherton and NASCAR’s vice president and deputy general counsel Karen Leetzow.
“This is an exciting time for the fans and for sports car racing,” Panoz commented. “Jim and I have had some long discussions – personal one-on-ones – and we agreed on a whole host of issues.
“In fact, I don’t think we disagreed on anything. Our passion is to have sports car racing reach its pinnacle and be all that it can be and I think with the agreement that we’ve made that will happen.”
Added France: “We have some hard work with our teams going forward to figure out all the details of how we combine everything, the naming of the series and the schedule and all the things that go into making a series.”
It’s said NASCAR Holdings will purchase the ALMS for $20 million. The terms of the agreement were not revealed but NASCAR will acquire Road Atlanta as part of the deal as well the Chateau Elan Hotel at Sebring and a long term lease to operate the Sebring track.
One of the biggest challenges will be writing the technical rules and achieving workable equivalency formula between the ALMS’s Le Mans prototypes and the Grand-Am’s more restrictive Daytona prototypes. “We need to have some common test days with teams from both series at the same time, same place and same conditions and do that in a manner that we can find a way to make the cars competitive,” Panoz remarked. “We’ve got 14 months to go through all this and make sure we get it right before Daytona in 2014. We’re trying to find solutions to make what we think will be the greatest sports car racing series in the world.”
Panoz emphasised that the new group wants to maintain a working relationship and interchange with the ACO and Le Mans. “I have the Le Mans virus in my blood and it was an important part of our discussion and Jim’s insistence that our relationship with Le Mans continue,” Panoz said. “We are continuing to have discussions with them and will have another meeting in a couple of weeks. We’ll find a way to make sure that we can integrate our series to let some of our teams qualify for Le Mans in the future.”
The goal is to distill the two series into a single, twelve-round championship that could include Daytona, Sebring, Long Beach, Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, Mosport, Elkhart Lake, Laguna Seca, Montreal, Mid-Ohio, Indianapolis and Road Atlanta.
“We both have a passion for sports car racing and the great events that comprise American sports car racing history,” France added. “We’ve both made significant investments in sports car racing and we both have a great team to bring it together with good decision-making and great experience. I think personally that we haven’t seen any obstacles to stand in the way of putting all this together.”
Motor Sport commends Jim France and Don Panoz for doing the right thing. We wish them the best of luck in finding the right formula for the future of American sports car racing.