Jim France and Don Panoz shook hands today in what may revitalize sports car racing in the United States. The deal to merge the International Speedway Corporation’s GRAND-AM series with the American Le Mans series founded by Georgia tycoon Don Panoz sets a course that has road racing fans saying, “It’s about time!”
This is a reunion no less important than that of the IRL and Champ Car (CART) reunion after those series’ split and floundered, nearly killing open-wheel racing in the U.S.
Here’s how it went down:
Professional sports car racing in the United States has historically been the redheaded stepchild of all motorsports venues (sorry for the pun, Don). Sure, there were moments of brilliance with the Can Am, Formula 5000, Trans Am and IMSA of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Then, the lights flickered and some went out completely.
IMSA brought the world those breathtaking GTP prototypes from Porsche, Nissan, Jaguar and Toyota. On my maiden voyage to Daytona, the first sound I heard coming out of the tunnel years ago was that of Bob Tullius’ Group 44 V-12 Jag GTP echoing off the stands in a practice run. Up and down through the gearbox in the infield then the beautiful increase in pitch as the car rocketed down the back straight to the bus stop. It was simply symphonic to these ears.
In the end, it was the enormous cost of developing ever-faster cars that fueled IMSA’s demise. Panoz founded the American Le Mans series in 1999 when IMSA shut its doors. The exotic prototypes lived on, but the huge factory support did not match the IMSA juggernaut. Car counts dropped and fan interest faded accordingly.
A year later, ISC started the Grand American (GRAND-AM) in Daytona using the knowhow and clout of NASCAR and the France family. While the GT classes of the two series are very similar, the Daytona Prototypes, the top GRAND-AM class, were essentially a “spec” series to control the runaway cost of the IMSA GTP cars. The cars are nowhere near as fast or exotic, but their inherent ruggedness promotes close, door-banging competition a notch or two down from NASCAR.
So now, as Yogi Berra has said: “It’s déjà vu all over again,” as two competitive sanctioning bodies have stopped feuding and agreed to a reunification process that will play out over the next two years. At the announcement news conference, GRAND-AM founder Jim France is enthusiastic about the future: “And there is no doubt in my mind that answer lies in the two groups who are combining forces starting today,” he said as brother Brian and Mike Helton looked on.
Chip Ganassi’s four-time GRAND-AM DP Champion Scott Pruett shared France’s sentiment: "Wow, historic and exciting—that’s what I was thinking," said Pruett. "This is really going to put road racing on a new level. [In] my life, in road racing there has always been so much change. This is the next step, the security for the future."
Stay tuned. The merger could bring real diversity for race fans who have been wandering in the motorsports desert for years and can now see the Promised Land.