When he took over as IMSA president in 2020, John Doonan couldn’t have known it would be one of the most unusual and challenging years in the sports car sanctioning body’s history. Doonan and the IMSA staff weathered the uncertainties caused by the global pandemic with aplomb.
2021 has presented some of the same challenges early on, necessitating schedule adjustments and continued focus on conducting safe events for competitors and fans alike. Now, following two thrilling hallmark races to kick off the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season – the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts – Doonan took a few minutes to reflect on what’s occurred thus far this year and on what’s to come.
How has 2021 gone for IMSA to date?
Doonan: We’ve come out of a very challenging 2020. When you look at the car count, we enjoyed at the Rolex 24, when you look at the incredible racing at the Rolex 24 and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring across all of our series platforms, I can tell you we do have people on the edge of their seats when it comes to product on the track. It’s amazing to me that a race like the Twelve Hours of Sebring literally comes down to (the final) 12 minutes. We certainly saw that in the case of the overall win and in several of the classes. We saw every manufacturer lead laps. I thought it was really special that we saw a privateer team in Mustang Sampling take home the overall victory, and in the case of GTLM, we saw the same thing. It was a class dedicated to factory teams and you saw a privateer team (No. 79 WeatherTech Racing) come in and win that class at Sebring. We have seen a lot of positives in that regard most recently.
Have you been happy with the quality of competition in the first two WeatherTech Championship races of the season?
Doonan: There’s no question about that. I’ve been really happy with the car counts when you think of the challenges based on the global economy, and really pleased that so many folks have entrusted their racing investments with us. We are going to keep delivering on our promise of a good experience for our participants and great competition for those who are watching us, whether it’s on NBC or streaming on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold.
From the start of this season until now, what are some of the highlights for you?
Doonan: Without question the on-track action, but also the return of Chip Ganassi Racing to the DPi ranks with all their success over the years. I liked the influx of LMP2 competitors. We had the addition of the LMP3 competitors to the WeatherTech Championship, where we have pillar teams like CORE autosport, Performance Tech, Riley Technologies. These are teams that have been with us (in other classes) and entered LMP3. The quality of racing there has been quite good. Across the GT platforms, in addition to DPi, there’s really a place where manufacturers shine. The representation across GTD and GTLM are up to 10 manufacturers, so we’re really proud of that. We have an all-female team competing with Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen. Then you can look at our single-make championships with the Porsche Carrera Cup North America, which is part of their global formula and their new type 992. It’s a really special piece.
IMSA recently had to make another schedule revision. How has this once again shown the cooperation and adaptability for IMSA, its tracks and partners to work together to find solutions?
Doonan: I think we did eight schedule recasts in 2020. We’re on our third this season, which was primarily driven by quarantine requirements to go across the border. We want to be respectful of our teams and their budgets, keep everybody safe and participating. The flexibility comes with all our promoter partners. We will be racing at Watkins Glen International on July 1-2 (in place of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park). I feel like we are in a good place for the rest of the season with the stability we have with our provisional schedule. We have some unique highlights where our Lamborghini Super Trofeo series will be paired with the NASCAR races at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas (in May). That’s a neat mix as NASCAR adds more road course content to their schedule. The opportunity to bring along an IMSA single-make or challenge series to those weekends is something that delivers for our fan base and for NASCAR.
Does IMSA have an in-house team that monitors the course of the pandemic?
Doonan: We have seen a great collaboration throughout the whole company of NASCAR, which has a government affairs group that monitors state to state, region to region and nationwide. We have medical liaisons and safety folks who are keeping track of cases and vaccinations of places where we are headed and what we are heading into. We have a set of protocols that we continue to refine. Some of our biggest success stories in 2020, which has continued into 2021, is our ability to work with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs to get our international travelers and participants into the country to participate in our events. Some 40 percent of our participants don’t live in the United States, so that’s been a big part of us being able to go back to racing.
Can you give us an update on the LMDh class, which is scheduled to begin WeatherTech Championship competition in 2023?
Doonan: The key words for that response are manufacturers, participation and momentum. We have three official announcements from three manufacturers, including Porsche, Acura and Audi. And stay tuned because the news will get better in terms of number of commitments from manufacturers. It’s their news to tell, but I can tell you we are encouraged by the number of manufacturers who want to showcase their brand and styling, all using an identical hybrid powertrain. We are seeing a lot of momentum. We are really encouraged at what we’ll see in 2023 and beyond, not only here at IMSA, but globally. We have seen 15 or 16 manufacturers are at the table, which we are really excited about. They see this as an opportunity to build on what they are already doing in motorsport, or a new opportunity for overall victories for both IMSA and other top races around the globe.
How about an update on the GTD PRO class that starts next season?
Doonan: We made this announcement in January. The timing was right to do this. We never make changes like this about classes without a lot of input from our manufacturer partners. In particular, GT racing and the consumer-identifying nature of those cars are super important to the long-term strategy of our future. The GTLM class is going to a GT3 spec, which really sets us up for success. GT3 cars are very available globally, for both a factory effort or, as we say, a Pro-Pro driver effort or a Pro-Am program. We are very hopeful that GTD PRO and GTD, as we know it today, will be operating on a single specification. This will showcase the car and the driver who is behind the wheel. We are working closely with the manufacturers to work out the final specs. We have a lot of excitement coming in 2022 in the GT ranks, then in 2023 we will add the LMDh.
What kinds of things are the IMSA tech officials doing now to prepare for the scope and regulations for those LMDh and GTD PRO classes?
Doonan: The really neat part of those classes is global homologation. We are in constant contact with our partners (manufacturers, chassis constructors), who will finalize the installations and specs on those LMDh cars. From the GT3 standpoint, we work with our partners at the FIA, who will homologate those cars globally.
How exciting has it been to see the debuts of the Porsche Carrera Cup North America and Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich under IMSA sanctioning?
Doonan: For Porsche, it’s been a big dream of theirs to establish a North American Carrera Cup. It’s a platform that has been established globally. To have a series here was a big, big dream of theirs. To see it all come together, especially with roughly three dozen cars at Sebring, was really special for them. The MX-5 Cup is near and dear to my heart personally. The racing that has gone on in the first couple of events with photos finishes at Daytona and Sebring, it doesn’t get much better.
What do they add to the IMSA portfolio?
Doonan: Those series create an entry point to IMSA. Both of those series have the potential to launch driver and mechanic, even race team careers, in IMSA. There are a lot of opportunities now, whether it’s a single-make series or the Michelin Pilot Challenge, and ultimately the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. It’s really a good launch pad for us.
What does the IMSA iRacing Pro Series Presented by SimCraft look like this year?
Doonan: It doesn’t take a race car. It doesn’t take a hauler. It doesn’t take a bunch of people. We kicked off a three-race championship last week. That side of our sport, when it comes to eSports and eGaming, continues to grow like it has for many others. This is a growth area opportunity for the next generation, and we are excited about that.