Starting Line: “IMSA: An Intertwined History”

For racers of a certain age, IMSA’s history is likely intertwined with our own. IMSA 1969–1989: The Inside Story of How John Bishop Built the World’s Greatest Sports Car Racing Series” not only recalls the group’s first 20 years, it also reminded me where I’ve personally been and how I got here.

My motorsports life began with IMSA in 1979. At the time I was a student at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. Stetson was not only strategically located near the epicenter of Spring Break, it was also just 30 minutes west of Daytona International Speedway, the home of the SunBank 24–the event we now know as the Rolex 24.

This would be my first sports car race: I was just 19 years old and had been invited to crew for a Shelby club member. It was a remarkable way to begin a history with club racing.

Five years later, I’d start a magazine about this stuff–it’s the one you’re reading right now–and the IMSA event at Daytona would again prove pivotal. Our very first issue was hot off the presses, so Margie and I spent the weekend at the tunnel exit handing magazines out to spectators. Thank you, IMSA, for unknowingly helping us establish a toehold.

A few years after that, IMSA was again shaping our future. Late in the 1980s I had an idea for something that we called the Council of Motorsports Clubs–CMC for short. The plan was to band together all of the small, independent sports car clubs under an umbrella organization.

John Bishop had retired to an airpark in nearby Ocala, Florida, and I figured surely someone of his stature could offer some advice to a fledgling sanctioning body. After all, he was the authority on the subject. So I called him up–and was shocked when I was granted an audience. He spent the better part of a day teaching me the nuances and pitfalls of running a sanctioning body. (And while the advice was much appreciated, let’s just say that CMC didn’t make it too far into the ’90s.)

The ’80s were colorful times for IMSA, and by “colorful,” I mean “fueled by drugs.” This is when people only semi-jokingly said the acronym stood for the International Marijuana Smugglers Association. During this drug-fueled era, dirty money flowed like race gas around the pits at events in Miami and Palm Beach.

The book doesn’t gloss over these details.

It also recounts Bishop’s gory split from the SCCA, a sanctioning body he had headed until the formation of IMSA. While I cringed while reading this chapter–did my SCCA really bungle professional sports car racing and Bishop’s exit so badly?–I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it.

The champions are celebrated, too. “IMSA 1969–1989” chronicles the careers and exploits of the period’s top drivers and builders, men like Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Bill Riley and Hurley Haywood–all of whom we’ve gotten to know and work with over the years. Next time you see one of them at the track, stop and ask for an autograph. These are heroes of our sport who deserve to be celebrated.

The book ends with the 1989 change in ownership: Bishop, facing health issues, sold the company to the owners of the St. Pete IMSA event. Mark Raffauf–who co-authored this book with John Bishop’s son, Mitch–went from IMSA’s deputy president to president of the organization. I remember this historic changing of the guard very well, since at the time Raffauf granted me an exclusive GRM interview.

The IMSA name left us in 1996, when yet another group of new owners changed the name to Professional Sports Car Racing. One of the most enduring names in American motorsports couldn’t be ignored forever, though, and the IMSA logo returned some 17 years later following the historic merger of Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series. (Any recounting of this time period in American racing could only succeed with a full suite of visual aids.)

The cornerstone of this rejuvenated IMSA series? The Rolex 24 At Daytona, where for the last several years, we have hosted thousands of readers in our infield compound. Somehow we managed to go full-circle without ever leaving home.

Check out the book; I’m sure that you’ll find some parallel lines of your own. Have a story of your own that involves IMSA? I’d love to hear it.

 

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racerfink
racerfink UltraDork
6/3/19 2:58 p.m.

Wasn’t Raffauf affiliated with the Tampa Fairgrounds race, not the St Pete race?

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