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Whither IMSA, er, "SportsCar®"?

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by Richard Welty

rwelty@krusty-motorsports.com
http://www.krusty-motorsports.com/~rwelty/

After a very confusing period at the end of 1996 and the start of 1997, it's starting to seem clearer what is going on with the "Sanctioning Body Formerly Known as IMSA". It was all very strange, though.

Rumor Central, 1996

The rumors swirled throughout 1996 -- IMSA was for sale, SCCA Pro Racing was going to merge with IMSA, SCCA Pro Racing was going to buy IMSA, and so forth and so on. At the 1996 SCCA Northeast Divison Mini-Convention last Fall, SCCA President Nick Craw explained some of what had been going on. It would seem that a deal was complete on paper, waiting for signatures, when the previous owner of IMSA backed out. The deal that never was would have involved a buyout of IMSA (apparently by a group led by Rob Dyson), followed by a merger of SCCA Pro Racing and IMSA to create a new body. This new body would have revived a proud name that is more than three decades old, the USRRC (United States Road Racing Championship.)

But that deal never happened, and shortly thereafter, Andy Evans (owner of Team Scandia, and financial advisor to and buddy of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates) suddenly up and bought the whole thing. Stuff happened pretty quickly after that. In no particular order...

Evans plays with new toy, discovers it can bite back

Reports from the 12 Hours of Sebring suggested that Evans hadn't quite resolved some of the issues relating to owning the sanctioning body that he raced with. Stories of "funny" dealings with the pace car during full course cautions along with some erratic personal decisions relating to the practice schedule were quickly followed by Evan's decision to sell off the Sports Car racing unit of Team Scandia in order to eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest. Evans gets full points for figuring it out before any more embarassing episodes occured.

The Name Has Been Changed, But It's Not Clear Why

Most people were caught more than a little off guard when IMSA suddenly changed their name. With very little warning, we suddenly found out that it was now Professional SportsCar Racing, or "SportsCar" for short. No one was more suprised than the SCCA, but more about that later in this article.

In a bit of mild ineptness, the old IMSA website (http://www.imsaracing.com/) vanished without warning and without fowarding pointers to the new site, http://www.professionalsportscar.com/.

It is unclear why Evans felt the name change was needed. There are some management theories that suggest that any new manager needs to shake an organization up when he takes over, and that Evans felt that this was what was needed. The flip side is that IMSA has considerable name recogition that lingers from the 80s, when the organization was vital and effective, and by making such a severe break, Evans is giving that up. There is an interesting speculation as to why this was done, which we'll get to a little further on in this article.

Race Tracks Change Ownership: Film at 11

Evans, or rather his IMSG organization, has been buying up race tracks. Sebring is now under IMSG control. So is Mosport (after a somewhat entertaining series of events--there was a deal for IMSG to buy Mosport, which fell through when Mosport's debt picture became clearer to IMSG, which was followed by IMSG being appointed receiver by the Canadian courts after Mosport declared bankruptcy.) Evans was also rumored to be sniffing about Mid Ohio and Phoenix, but neither of those deals seems particularly likely. It would seem clear that Evans wants to control venues in order to support his planned expansion of "SportsCar".

One interesting oddity is that there are a lot of ties between "SportsCar" and the Indy Racing League at this point in time, with Team Scandia fielding a number of cars in the IRL and "SportsCar" hiring Jack Long after a year spent running the IRL. It was very interesting indeed when the IRL suddenly started acting like they wouldn't mind a road race at Mosport, after all the rhetoric about oval track racing that accompanied the founding of the IRL. We'll just have to wait and see on this one.

IMSA, er, "SportsCar", and the SCCA

Finally, there is the nagging issue of the relationship between the Sports Car Club of America and "SportsCar". A merger between SCCA Pro Racing and IMSA was a good idea last year, and it still has merit now. The market for this type of racing in the US is limited, and a joint effort has a lot going for it. There are also a lot of issues, though, that make this somewhat problematic at the present time.

Evans stated when he bought IMSA that he was opposed to the merger that was contemplated in mid 1996, the reason being that he felt that SCCA Pro was undercapitalized and wouldn't be able to expand in the manner he (Evans) thought was necessary. Evans has also made it clear that he believes that there is only room for one professional Sports Car sanctioning body in the US, and he intends that "SportsCar" be it.

The name change to "SportsCar" has a direct bearing on this issue. The press release that appeared on the "SportsCar" web site overused the registered trademark symbol (®) to an amazing extent; every single appearance of the name was marked (the law only requires ® on the first usage of the trademark.) At first this seems just a little silly, but those of us who are SCCA members know that every month we get a copy of the SCCA magazine SportsCar in the mail, and for as long as I can remember, SportsCar has had a registered trademark symbol on it. I haven't yet figured out how "SportsCar" can claim a registered trademark when the SCCA has published a magazine named SportsCar for 50+ years, and for 49 of those years, Sports Car racing has been one of the most important topics in said magazine (Because of the uncertainty of the trademark issues, I've been using "" marks around "SportsCar" where it refers to The Sanctioning Body Formerly Known As IMSA.)

But wait, there's more. I learned from someone who took a bunch of business classes in college that one common tactic for bringing someone to the bargaining table is to intentionally infringe on one of their trademarks. Could this have been the first shot in effort by Evans to bring about a merger between "SportsCar" and SCCA Pro? Could be. It might not be very easy, though. The ownership of SCCA Pro Racing (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sports Car Club of America) is explicitly discussed in the Club bylaws, and any sale or other disposition of SCCA Pro Racing must be voted on by the full membership of the club, all 50,000+ of us.

The membership seems divided on this subject. Some of us (this writer included) have great fondness for a past which included Mark Donahue's drives in Trans Am® and Can Am®, and find the current incarnation of Trans Am enjoyable in its own right. These things have been part of the SCCA for a long time.

By way of contrast, there are a lot of matter-of-fact club racers who wish that SCCA Pro would just go away. This group would be more than happy to see the whole thing turned over to Evan's people.

I have no idea of the relative sizes of these two groups; I just know that should a deal be worked out, the membership will have to decide. It will be very interesting indeed to see whether or not the members of the SCCA would be willing to let Pro Racing go. I'm not going to be on the outcome of that one.

Darker Rumors

When I first started looking into this, I was hearing rumors that IMSA was going to try and put a squeeze play on SCCA Pro, with the intent of putting it out of business if a sale couldn't be forced. This rumor was based on Evan's ongoing program of race track aquisition. I never found any real support for this rumor; I'm not convinced that such a plan is really feasible. There are a lot of race tracks in the US, and many of the venues that SCCA Pro races at aren't for sale. Furthermore, now that IMSG runs Mosport, at the present time what we're seeing is cooperation between the SCCA and "SportsCar" in scheduling another joint weekend, as Labor Day at Mosport will feature both the WSC series and SCCA Trans Am.

In any event, an effort by Evans to force SCCA Pro out would be a very bad idea, and I can't imagine that he'd actually try it, unless perhaps he has an imperfect understanding of how the SCCA functions. There would be a very real prospect of SCCA flaggers deciding not to work at "SportsCar" events, and since "SportsCar" has no organic body of people to perform these volunteer jobs, things could get pretty ugly. You can't run a road race unless you have a lot of corner workers, and at events where things happen really quickly, you need experienced ones.

Another rumor that was floating around was that Bill Gates was bankrolling all of this, intending to dominate Sports Car racing the way that Microsoft dominates PC software. Once again, I never found any real support for this rumor, and haven't figured out why Gates would want to dominate Sports Car Racing, because there certainly isn't any money in it. Nonetheless, the question of where all of the money is coming from for Evans' efforts is an interesting one, and I don't know the answer.

Postscript

The previous sections of this article were all written before I worked tech at the Lime Rock Memorial Day weekend. While at that extravaganza, I had the opportunity to chat with a representative from a major manufacturer (which manufacturer it was isn't particularly relevant.) He hinted that various parties at "SportsCar" and SCCA Pro Racing apparently wanted his company to take sides, and he was quite frank about one thing -- his company saw no strategic advantage to taking sides, and wasn't about to. He further mentioned that his company was in the process of setting their racing budget for 1998, and they could easily get sick of it and leave the "SportsCar"/SCCA Pro part out completely.

Territorial spats in motorsports sanctioning don't do anyone any good. The IRL/CART split has only hurt both groups; the potential dispute in NASCAR has a lot of people worried. The good news in all of this is that even as the manufacturer's rep was discussing why his company wanted no part in a sanctioning body war, word in the press room (according to a reputable source) was that Evans had realized that taking SCCA Pro over was not realistic, and that the best approach was a combination of working agreements and cross licensing of properties, which would allow for better coordinated schedules and a general reduction in confusion between the two sanctioning bodies. One can only hope that they'll go through with it; it's what we need.


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