DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Out of two comes one.
The Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and the American Le Mans Series — the two premier sports car racing entities in North America for more than a decade — will merge into one series for the 2014 season.
“I know a lot of people have been waiting many years for this day to come. I’m really looking forward to the merger process,” Grand-Am founder Jim France said during the unveiling teleconference Wednesday.
Added ALMS founder Don Panoz: “Our passion is to have sports car racing reach its pinnacle and be all that it could be, and I think that with the setup that we have done and the agreement we’ve made, that will happen.”
According to USA Today’s Jeff Olson, Grand-Am owner NASCAR bought Panoz Motor Sports Group which operates ALMS, owns Road Atlanta and holds the lease on Sebring International Raceway. The deal is reportedly worth $10 million and includes ALMS sanctioning body International Motor Sports Association.
“Do you realize we set a world record for keeping a secret in motor sports? Six months and 14 days before somebody broke it,” Panoz joked.
According to ALMS CEO and President Scott Atherton, attempts to bring the two series together were first tried five years ago, but no progress was seen. At this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, the wheels toward unification started to turn when Ed Brown, the CEO of ALMS title sponsor Tequila Patron, spoke with France and encouraged him to give Panoz a call.
Soon a meeting was held between Atherton and France.
“At the end of the meeting there was about six pages of a yellow pad that was filled up with common ground, and I ran back to the office … and said, ‘Don, we’ve got an opportunity here.’ “
More than six months later, the opportunity turned into reality.
“This is Day One. Stand back, we don’t know how big this is going to get,” Atherton said.
Details about the merger remain fuzzy. There is no name for the new series, and there have been no decisions on the class structure or rules. The plan is to remain affiliated with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and to make the Rolex 24 at Daytona more of an international event.
“This is an incredible development and my hat is off to Jim France and Don Panoz for coming together to create a single sports car racing organization here in North America,” Grand-Am team owner Michael Shank said in a statement. “Obviously there are a lot of questions to be answered about the schedule, the equipment and the technical regulations. As a team owner these are very important questions to be resolved, but there is always work to be done in racing, and just knowing that this sport is positioned for the future gives us a very positive outlook as we move forward.”
The two series will operate separately as scheduled in 2013 before coming together the following year.
“As we’ve seen in IndyCar racing, this is nothing but great news for the sport, for the teams and for the fans,” ALMS team owner Bobby Rahal said in a statement. “It’s a huge win for racing in general and sports car racing in particular. I commend Jim France and Don Panoz for finding a way to come together and do what is best for the sport.”
ALMS and Grand-Am were born out of the demise of the once popular IMSA Camel GT series in the late 1990s, and each had a different philosophy. ALMS was about manufacturer involvement, cutting edge technology, big budgets and bigger performance. Grand-Am focused on cost-effective, competitive and close racing. Both feature prototypes and GT cars, but in different configurations.
How those two visions of sports car racing are married will be determined over the next year. The goal is to showcase the new vision in a 12-race schedule.
“I view every challenge as just a normal part of the business that we are in,” France said. “We both have a great team that we are bringing together, great experience, and personally I feel like we have not seen any obstacles that stand in the way of really putting this together.”
Wednesday’s announcement reminded France of how his father Bill France Sr. brought together motor sports leaders from across America to form NASCAR almost 65 years ago. He remembers his father saying, “Stock car racing has got distinct possibilities. We don’t know how big it can be if it’s handled properly. We are all interested in one thing, and that is improving the present conditions.”
France echoed those thoughts.
“I think sports car racing has a distinct possibility, and I definitely feel like we are going to improve present conditions,” France said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the answer lies with the two groups who are combining forces starting today.”
Out of two comes one.