LAS VEGAS, Nev. — As Scott Atherton put it, Brian France’s presence at the 2013 NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum at the Aria was lost on no one.
France, NASCAR chairman and CEO, kicked off the session on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship by affirming his unqualified support of the racing series formed by the merger of the GRAND-AM Road Racing and American Le Mans Series.
“A couple of years ago, we looked at sports car racing, which we had our own position in with Grand-American,” France said. “It was very obvious that two separate sports car racing series would never achieve what we needed to.
“There were lots of difficulties in pulling that together, but we did. In 2012, we announced that, and then we went on in 2013 to integrate those two companies. The results are tremendous, what we’re seeing with our OEM participation getting bigger and better, our sponsorships getting bigger and better. Interest in the combined schedule for 2014 has never been stronger. You can feel it.”
Atherton, president and chief operating officer of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), the sanctioning body for the new series, concurred that enthusiasm for the merged series is building rapidly.
“Sept. 5, 2012, was when we went public with the announcement of the merger, and since that time, it has been the most incredible process I’ve ever been involved with,” Atherton said. “There’s a large group of people that deserve a lot of credit for pulling this together…
“Next we had to define a new brand and a new name — United SportsCar Championship, and then the decision to put it all under the umbrella of IMSA as the sanctioning body of record. So, GRAND-AM as a brand and as an entity — gone. American Le Mans Series, brand and entity — also gone, replaced by IMSA.”
According to Atherton, the new entity promises more racing for more drivers at historic venues, starting with the Rolex 24 At Daytona in late January.
“For years, we all took a sheet of paper and said, ‘OK, write down your dream schedule,’ and frankly, 2014 represents that,” Atherton said. “To open up with the Rolex 24 At Daytona, followed by the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, followed by the Long Beach Grand Prix…
“You name the track. If it’s a historically significant major-market sports car history venue, it’s on our calendar.”
In addition to the attractive schedule, the series debuts with a five-year commitment from TUDOR, a division of Rolex that previously has marketed the brand primarily in Asia.
“We have this heritage in motorsports,” said Russell Kelly, brand manager for TUDOR. “Rolex has supported motorsports and had a relationship with the France family since 1959. It’s no secret that we have a love of motorsports.
“TUDOR has just come back to the U.S. market in September of this year. It’s important for us because, first of all, the sports car racing series is defined by time. It’s not defined by distance. It’s not defined by the number of laps. It’s defined by time.
“More important, it helped us to reach a demographic where we wouldn’t otherwise have an audience… The TUDOR United SportsCar Championship really gives us an opportunity to come here, with a great schedule in two key markets for us, and speak to the local, domestic customer.”
Atherton also revealed a new technology that will facilitate keeping track of the running positions of all cars in all series, an aspect of sports car and endurance racing that had the potential for confusion in the past.
Those who follow the sport will recall leader lights on the front-running cars. Now fans will be able to see the positions of every car on the track.
“Beginning in 2014 with the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, every car is going to have a digital panel on it, still color-coded to each class, but every position, regardless of where the car is, will be displayed in brilliant color that’s visible in the brightest of sunlight,” Atherton said.
“So you can go away, have a lunch break, do whatever you do, come back, and within one lap you’re going to know every car’s position in every class simply by watching the cars go by in front of you. So we’re tackling some of the Achilles heels in sports car racing.”
France prefaced his introduction of the merged sports car series with a synopsis of the past season in NASCAR racing, referring notably to the introduction of the new Gen-6 race car to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
“We had a couple of things we had to get right,” France said. “One of them was launching the Gen-6 race car at the Sprint Cup level. Understand that we didn’t have a very good track record. If you go back to ’08 (with the introduction of the Gen-5 as the ‘Car of Tomorrow’) — I take a lot of responsibility for this — we didn’t have the cooperation of the OEMs and the rest of the industry, and we didn’t get the proper launch of our product, which is a key thing we have to get right…
“So high expectations from us to get this right, get the OEMs back where they were positioned better with us, get the drivers and the teams liking the cars — how they drive and how they race — and the fans ultimately liking what they see on the track. After all, that’s the heart of what we do.”
France referenced the upcoming testing (Dec. 9 at Charlotte) and review as part of the continuing process in improving the performance of the Gen-6 car on intermediate speedways.
“I’m pleased to say that we got all that right, for the most part,” France said. “We’re still working on one significant part of that. And one part of that is our competition review that we’ve been doing, knowing that the stated goal of NASCAR is very simple: to have the closest, most competitive and safest racing in the world.”
In one of the early-morning sessions, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Steve O’Donnell spearheaded a discussion about creating the ultimate fan experience.
Much of the focus dealt with the influx of new young talent through NASCAR’s touring series and the concerted effort to make the young drivers household names to the fan base.
“What you’ve seen, by investing in the NASCAR touring series, by investing in the NASCAR Next program, you’ve got Ryan Blaney coming up, you’ve got Chase Elliott coming up, Kyle Larson, names that people have now heard of who are winning — Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez out of Mexico,” O’Donnell said.
“So I think that we have really taken the initiative to not just look at Cup, but all the way down to the touring series.”
During a panel discussion focused on attracting new fans to motorsports, NASCAR Vice President of Marketing Kim Brink noted that the sanctioning body had expanded the scope of its advertising to underline the drama and danger inherent to the sport.
“Steve Phelps, our CMO was making a presentation,” Brink said. “And he said, ‘What our drivers do day-in and day-out; it’s dangerous; it’s hard; it’s intense.’ So I said, ‘Steve, we have a body of (advertising) work, and we’re not showing that. Can we have the latitude to really be able to show that intensity?’
“We’re always really careful not to show anything where a fan is hurt or a driver’s hurt… With those parameters, we showed it to Brian (France) and to Mike (Helton, NASCAR president) and to Steve, and there was absolutely no hesitation.”