Since 2012, Scott Atherton and his colleagues have presided over a marriage that appears to be getting better by the day. It involves the merger of the former Grand American Road Racing Association and the former American Le Mans Series into the unified WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which is sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association.
The IMSA arrives at Watkins Glen this week for the annual Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen activity, which begins Thursday with various class practices and concludes with the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen on Sunday.
The Sahlen’s six-hour joust is also part of the four-race Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup series. The others in the series will be at Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta.
Atherton serves as the president and chief operating officer of International Motor Sports. He held these same titles with the Panoz Motor Sports Group, which owned the Le Mans Series.
Grand-Am and Le Mans Series merger in 2012 was designed to further the growth of major-league sports car racing in North America. After continuing to run as separate series in 2013, the new organization ran its first season in 2014.
Certainly, much has been achieved by Atherton and his staff, but there is much more to accomplish in the ongoing process of building this major sports car venture.
“This has been a most difficult business situation as this has been a true merger,” Atherton said. “Other motorsports ventures have been called mergers but in most cases that has been a misnomer.
“In our example we were two completely separate sports car series that were still racing and we took a best-practices approach from both series after much deliberation and incorporated the best elements from each series into one unified series. It wasn’t easy but in the end I know that the end justified the means and all the heavy lifting was certainly worth it.
“What made it hard was that each series had very different operating philosophies, separate rules, car construction rules, entirely different accounting systems and benefits. You name it, it was truly a great deal of homework and study to figure out what was best.”
What have been the biggest accomplishments according to Atherton?
“We have brought a big level of stability and sustainability to sports car racing,” said Atherton. “One of the biggest benefits was combining our schedules on one calendar and then replicating that year after year into what I call calendar equity.
“Another one of our other biggest accomplishments is on the television side because we have a five-year commitment from Fox. We also have a 10-year commitment from our major sponsors and that is unprecedented.
Also, “we have successfully retained and grown our fan base. It’s not uncommon for us to attract much bigger crowds now than in the past and sometimes to record levels at our events.”
Not all is perfect. Atherton identified a few priority items on his to-do list.
“What has not translated well for us yet is our television ratings, which have been somewhat lacking,” he said. “When both series were operating separately both had respectful ratings, but under the unified series our ratings performance has been substandard and continues to be.
“On the other hand, the digital consumption of our product continues to perform well with every broadcast. The combination of television and computers has changed sports programming. The digital program such as our IMSA app has been successful. The problem is that when we are live on Fox we are not allowed to stream our racing domestically.
“This is a work in progress and our fans have made it known that they want the ability for our events to be streamed unrestricted and we are trying to accomplish this. TV is our top priority.”
Atherton is fond of The Glen and the event’s sponsor, Elma’s Joe Sahlen and his Buffalo-based Sahlen’s Packing Company.
“The Glen is of great importance to us,” Atherton said. “It cannot be overstated that this track is one of the true gems for sports car racing in North America. The lore of the many decades of great history is on par with Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta. … It has had so much history and we will make more of it this week there.
“The world can use more Joe Sahlens. Also from the business perspective he has an investment in the event by putting his company’s name on it and that goes back 14 years. This is real history.”
All four WeatherTech classes, including the Prototypes, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona, will compete in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, which gets the green flag at 10 Sunday morning.
In addition to the WeatherTech series, International Motor Sports also sanctions the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, Mazda Prototype Lites, Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA, Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada and Lamborghini Super Trofeo Series. All will be in action at The Glen this weekend. Consult theglen.com for complete race and trackside event schedules.