IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship President John Doonan has been in his new role for year having been appointed to the position in 2019.
Doonan took part in a Q&A with the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship.
There were certainly many unforeseeable obstacles to deal with right away in 2020. Shortly after the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona, everything changed with the pandemic and the reaction to it …
Doonan: I knew that I was entering a place that had a terrific team of personnel already on the roster. I was inheriting that and thank goodness for that. What we turned the corner into after the Rolex 24 tested everybody’s wits and everybody’s strengths.
But I come into this weekend’s race feeling really positive. We have a ton of momentum right now despite everything we’ve faced, and so I actually feel quite positive.
We took what is traditionally a schedule with a lot of date equity that is sort of evenly spread out, kicking off with the Rolex and 45 days later you’re racing at Sebring and then you come out to the West Coast for Long Beach. We have a really good cadence in our schedule, but we’ve had to recast it, based on all the state mandates and lockdowns and things like that. We’ve pushed a lot of these events from July 4 into the middle of November when a week or so ago at Petit Le Mans, we would have been finished with the season.
So it’s definitely not been for the faint of heart, but we’ve really persevered and have so many positive things that have come out of this that I think that is what has kept everybody so energized.
How tough was the challenge considering this was your first season in this role?
Doonan: It’s maybe a little emotional analogy, but in an endurance race, teams face all kinds of adversity. Things rarely go absolutely perfect. And that’s really sort of the mentality I grew up with because my dad was a sports car racer – only on an amateur basis – but that’s what we’ve had to do. We’ve had to adapt and overcome.
We’ve had to readjust, rethink our schedule, rethink the way we go about it. Thank the Lord for our medical liaisons and the terrific relationships with AMR (American Medical Response). Those folks have helped us develop a set of medical and event protocols in conjunction with our colleagues at NASCAR that have allowed us to run all these race events in a safe manner and get all our competitors back in the U.S.
Forty percent of our paddock comes from outside the United States, so thank goodness for Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border protection and the relationship we now have with them because they made it possible.
It’s been a great learning experience even though I’ve been around the sport for all these years. We’ve learned an absolute ton in the last 12 months.
Has watching the sport come together been a bit of a “blessing in disguise” during this pandemic?
Doonan: There’s no question our community is tighter – the teams, the relationship we have with the teams on the IMSA side, the auto manufacturer partners, our partners like Michelin and WeatherTech. I think we’re a tighter unit because everybody has just had to adapt from different schedule challenges with potentially separating ourselves a little more in the event space. Just doing things differently.
But everybody embraced it right away when we went back to racing July 4 in Daytona. Outside of wearing their masks and doing all the proper protocols, it’s been business as usual once we’ve gotten into the paddock and executed the races. And you know, when competitors are complaining about things like the BoP (Balance of Performance), you know we have not skipped a beat (laughing). They are all racers and they haven’t lost that, for sure.
Talk about the competition on track.
Doonan: When we have the pre-race fan walk there’s a lot of fanfare before the events, but ultimately when the drivers strap on their helmets and get buckled in, when the race teams get over pit wall and prepare to execute that first pit stop, everybody has put their game face on – despite all the distractions of either getting to the track or how we set things up.
In the end, I’m really proud of the entire staff and how the races have come off.
The GTD (GT Daytona) class, the variety of manufacturers we have there, the fact that Lamborghini kicked off the season with a win at the Rolex 24. Go back to the same track (in July) and Lexus puts a stake in the ground and starts a string of now four wins on the season, three in a row. Ferrari comes back at Petit Le Mans and has an outstanding race. BMW has put a few wins on the board.
But when you look at how tight the field is, whether it’s qualifying or once the race is off, everybody’s led, everybody’s been up front and even despite Lexus going on a streak of victories, (team owner) John Wright and his team on the Porsche side are right in the hunt as well right now. So there’s been a huge variety.
You watch the (Daytona Prototype international) racing at Petit Le Mans and for 10 hours it comes down to 10 minutes as Ricky Taylor and Pipo Derani battle it out. Clearly, Corvette has had a historical year (in GT Le Mans) by putting the C8.R in victory lane at Daytona but also putting 100 wins on the board. Porsche put a win on the board at Motul Petit Le Mans, so the variety is one of the special things of what we do in IMSA.
Acura, of course, also not only some great news with some new teams in DPi but (team owner) Mike Shank in the GTD (class) have been victorious, they’ve been strong. So there’s been a huge variety and the racing’s been absolutely spectacular.
The media numbers are up and that has to be very encouraging.
Doonan: The audience has responded in that regard. Our television viewership is up significantly year over year with our partners at NBC. Social media followers on all our platforms is in a momentum trend right now. People have taken in our content in a way they like, whether it’s the NBC TrackPass, whether it’s through IMSA Radio and the amazing broadcasts they put on or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Even TikTok has taken off for us as a platform. It’s really been a way for us to attract newer, maybe younger audiences that haven’t been introduced to the sport.
And to cap it off, we’re going to be live at Sebring for 12 and a half hours with three of those being on the NBC network (and the rest on NBCSN). Just huge opportunity right now in the face of the challenges of the pandemic, to deepen engagement with our current audience, but also, I think, to potentially bring some new enthusiasts to the sport. So that’s really positive.
This will be unusual timing for the popular Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring this November weekend since it is normally a March event. However, there is plenty of excitement for this fall running with championships on the line.
Doonan: It’s hard to believe we’re going to Sebring for the finale. There are so many tight points races still undecided. And Sebring can introduce all kinds of tricky twists and turns in the storyline. NASCAR has concluded their championship weekend and IndyCar concluded theirs in St. Pete (three weeks ago), so we’ll be in the spotlight with all that NBC coverage and we ought to see some really strong numbers to close it out.
Talk about some highlights of the 2020 season and new developments on the horizon.
Doonan: I think nearly all 50 years of IMSA history has had Porsche as a partner. Their single-make championship now is going to be aligned with their Carrera Cup global formula and bring that to the U.S. as part of IMSA’s portfolio.
We’ve announced Mazda’s MX-5 Cup will be coming to us, which is a terrific entry-level platform for young drivers, young teams, young engineers who aspire to be in the WeatherTech Championship or the Michelin Pilot (Challenge) championship. You’ve got a great steppingstone with them, and that sets us up quite well on the single-make side.
Out of the pandemic has also come an opportunity to do some eSports and eGaming more than we have before. So iRacing has taken a leadership role in our future in identifying the next generation or putting our product in front of them in a virtual world, which is really special.
Going from that entry-level piece to the top category, back in September at Le Mans, we announced the final regulations for LMDh, which will be the top-level category (in the WeatherTech Championship). So, in terms of the racing content, we are really positioning ourselves well – from getting people involved in the sport and then at the very top allowing manufacturers to showcase their brands in overall victories in the Prototype category.
Also, as part of our portfolio in 2021, we’re adding LMP3 (Le Mans Prototype 3) to the big show. It is a great platform for both young drivers as well as drivers that aren’t professional in nature. A driver participating in a Prototype category like LMP3 as his or her hobby and partnering them up with a young rising star is going to create some really unique opportunities for us in those cars in the WeatherTech Championship, starting in Daytona.
From the content side, I think we have a ton of momentum. I’m really excited about where we are right now. The next two or three years is going to continue to see IMSA grow and also give our teams the opportunity to participate with platforms that are global in nature.
We’re really in a good position. We don’t rest on our laurels very well at IMSA; never have. And I don’t see us doing that going forward, but there are a lot of positives that we need to celebrate very quietly.
What would you consider the most noteworthy rise from a challenge this season?
Doonan: For sure, the ability for all of us to get back to racing. I think it was March 12 when travel bans began to hit and stay-at-home orders went into effect. I think all of us were concerned, what does this mean state-to-state for our promoter partners? Will they be able to hold events? Will they be able to hold events with fans? Will they have to cancel events completely?
I would say being able to get back to racing, for all of us was probably the biggest priority and biggest accomplishment.
One of the things I’m really proud of is the ability to get our international participants back to the U.S. We literally had meetings face to face – with masks on – with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Patrol to say, “Look, we have a lot of participants outside the U.S. They are all top-level athletes in their sport whether they are a driver, an engineer, a mechanic, and we want to be able to get them back in the U.S. to be at our events. What can you do to help us?”
And they have been tremendous partners. Knock on wood, we have not had a single participant turned away. There have been a few late-night phone calls to help some people. But everyone’s been able to get back and forth safely, so we’re really proud of that.
Most of all, I’m proud of our staff for sticking with it and our corporate partners from WeatherTech and Michelin – who are real pillar partners – to all of our automotive partners, 17 right now and a few coming.
Toyota already announced it’s coming to the Michelin Pilot Challenge with the Supra next year, so we’re going to turn the corner into 2021 with more automotive manufacturers participating than we did to start the season. And, based with the pressures of the economy overall, that’s something that I would have never imagined.’’
Is there a certain pride you and your team can take in the overall successes this year during such unprecedented circumstances?
Doonan: One of the things I really appreciated was I had a relationship with so many of the folks at IMSA already from being a competitor, so there weren’t a lot of icebreakers needed in that regard. From being in endurance sports car racing, you’re used to facing a lot of challenges. We tried to break it down to No. 1, do we have events? No. 2, what are we going to need to do to rethink how we have events – from the way people enter the track, to medical screenings and temperature checks? My first call, frankly, was to our medical liaison asking, “OK, should I be worried? And if not, you tell me when I should be.” And they really helped.
Certainly, the collaboration with NASCAR (was beneficial). They were the first to go back of any professional sport, which we have a lot to be proud about in Daytona. But it was just methodical. We set up a Back to Racing Task Force at IMSA and ended up having nearly daily conference calls to start off. Then it weaned back to every other day and then once a week. It was just methodical.
IMSA, really our core business all these years has been to execute professional sports car events at the highest level. We didn’t forget how to do that, we just had to transform the way we’ve been doing it in a difficult environment. Really, just being methodical and staying calm. Because every time you’d wake up and have a plan for the day – in the early months – you thought you had everything done and by noon there was a different date or you could not have fans, or you could have only so many fans.
It really challenges the business model of how we go about it, but in the end, it’s all about relationships, partnerships and communication. And I think we’ve done a particularly good job of working together with our stakeholders be it the race teams, be it our media partners, track promoters and all the other sponsors that allow us to be able to do what we do.
And we did it in the end. Those are the key words: We did it.
We still have Sebring, but when the checkered flag falls on that one, I think there will be a huge bit of relief; but don’t rest at the end of that. Only 45 days later we’ll be doing it again at Daytona.
I feel very fortunate and honored that Mr. (Jim) France (IMSA chairman) and Mr. (Ed) Bennett (IMSA CEO) gave me the opportunity to lead the team. We’re going to keep pushing hard and I think three or four years down the road we’re going to look back and realize we weathered perhaps the most difficult storm anyone could have imagined in their careers. And that will be a proud moment as well.