Exclusive: IMSA President John Doonan on the future of pro racing

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Nov 5, 2023 | IMSA, GTP, GTD, LMP3, John Doonan, LMP2 | Posted in Features | From the Oct. 2023 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy IMSA

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This September, John Doonan will celebrate five years as president of IMSA. The former head of Mazda’s motorsports program signed on to replace Scott Atherton, the former head of the American Le Mans Series, who had moved to IMSA when its parent company, NASCAR, absorbed the ALMS

We asked Doonan to sit down with us during July’s NASCAR street race in Chicago, his hometown, and talk a bit about IMSA’s past, present and future.

[This is the NASCAR Chicago street race in photos]

 

What’s been the biggest surprise from the last five years?

On the competitor side, you show up at an event and everything’s there, all ready for you. And you don’t realize what all had to be done on the back end. 

I have a newfound respect for the people who get that work done so well to make it look seamless from the outside. That was probably the biggest surprise for me.

At the same time, we’re at such an awesome place in our sport where the momentum is just tremendous, and to see the fan attendance that we’ve had–record attendance in most cases, and new fans and young fans and families–I think our entire sport is set up for success, and it’s rewarding and energizing to me to keep pushing and trying to make it better. That was a big realization.

 

You’ve had to make some hard decisions, such as moving the LMP3 class out of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. How do you deal with those moments?

Yeah, the sport evolves, right? And LMP3 has been such a great platform. It’s very cost-effective and a great learning tool, and it fit very nicely into the mix. But as LMP2 goes through a transition, there’s a ton of interest in it, especially from teams in Europe. We had to make some room on the grid as GTP gains new teams and manufacturers. And obviously GT, with the new Ford Mustang GT3 and Chevrolet Corvette GT3 and the new cars Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini unveiled this year–we just had to make some room. 

[Why the first IMSA GTP privateer is an important milestone]

A tough decision, which we don’t make in a vacuum in Daytona. We do it with input from the stakeholders. LMP3 will have a place in the new Sprint series, and there are more announcements to come soon, so we aren’t abandoning the class.


Photography Credit: Michael Levitt/IMSA

 

You couldn’t have had such a successful five years without the support of your boss, Jim France, and Mike Helton, the head of NASCAR, which owns IMSA.

To even have the opportunity to work for the France family, to work for NASCAR, to have insights and experience from Jim France and Mike Helton–they’ve seen it all, they’ve done it all. They have a huge bank of experience that I can get advice from as we transition to more modern race cars. In the end they’re still race cars, and to use their wealth of knowledge is something I cherish. 

And you have to hand it to what we’re doing as a parent company trying new things, from the L.A. Coliseum race to the Chicago street race to racing at Bristol on dirt, and for us, Garage 56 and the new GTP platform. 

To have that knowledge plus coming from 75 years of NASCAR and north of 50 years in IMSA, I couldn’t ask for more. I’m a proud and very blessed member of the team at NASCAR as a whole and IMSA in particular.

 

Your greatest triumph has to be the GTP cars and the partnership with the ACO and WEC to be able to run those same cars at Daytona and Sebring and Le Mans. 

It took decades, and I happened to be the lucky person who helped put it together. We all sat down and used a measuring gauge for what was best for the sport, and that’s how we tried to make decisions on getting to the rules convergence–we had Super Sebring back in March where both platforms raced on the same track on the same weekend, and we had Le Mans where both platforms raced. 

There’s always going to be work to do, but I think the manufacturers decided they want this, and I think the fans are the ultimate beneficiary of us doing the right thing as a collective.

It’s going to continue to evolve. We’ll always have to be aware and vigilant, and I think if we keep making decisions that are based on common sense, the sport is going to be in a really good place.


IMSA has been evolving since its creation nearly 55 years ago. Some of the big recent news: the reintroduction of the GTP class as well as the VP Racing SportsCar Challenge for LMP2 and GT4 teams. Photography Credit: Dave Green

 

What would you like to accomplish in the next five years? 

I think audience growth is huge for us, and the next generation of fan and audience is significant. From a social and digital standpoint, from an event standpoint, we’re going to work with our promoters and try to fill these race tracks with new fans. The next generation is really important for us.

I think technology-wise, we sort of took a leadership position with hybrids, and now it’s time to sit down with the manufacturers again and figure out what’s next. If you look back at the hybrids, the first meeting about where we are with GTP took place back in late 2016, early 2017, so with the pandemic maybe we were one year delayed. And now we’re going to have to think about the next set of technical regulations and start those discussions early enough to be able to deliver what we’ve delivered here for the automakers and the fans.

 

Does that mean electric?

As we say in the office, the market will speak, but a lot of it depends on how the industry trends. The automakers that have joined us believe we’re in a sweet spot right now by retaining an internal-combustion engine along with a hybrid package and renewable fuels–certainly more on the renewable fuels side, and potentially other propulsion ideas.

We’ve got to remember that we’re still in the business of entertaining people. And we have the best of both worlds right now with great sound and a sustainability story that’s authentic and real. We can never forget that we’re in the business of putting on a good show.


John Doonan, shown beside IMSA champion Hurley Haywood, cites the contributions of others for the sanctioning body’s recent success: Jim France, CEO of NASCAR, and Mike Helton, vice chairman of NASCAR. Photograph Courtesy IMSA

 

What have I forgotten to ask?

That pretty well covers it. But let me say that I think there’s a collaboration going on–and Garage 56 was a perfect example–between NASCAR and IMSA and the R&D Center up in Concord and our use of that. Similarly, Garage 56 showed the marketing and media potential between IMSA and NASCAR. As we do more and more of that, I think our sport is set up for some tremendous momentum.

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Comments
Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/4/23 11:21 a.m.

I feel lucky to say I've met Doonan in person. He's such a down-to-earth person.

PMRacing
PMRacing GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
8/4/23 11:50 a.m.

I met him when I was racing in Skip Barber MX5. Very cool and always willing to give advice.  

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
8/7/23 9:47 a.m.

Yeah, John’s good people. Very good people. 

After the Rolex 24 At Daytona, when he was running Mazda’s racing efforts, he was there after the race helping tear down the big canopy. (My wife and I were there helping, too, because of course you had to.)

khanf
khanf
11/5/23 8:37 p.m.

I have been attending IMSA (or previous names) races since around 1998, I will stop going to these if they go all electric, You can have all the new generation you can have ...

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
11/6/23 9:45 a.m.

Maybe call this the PS to the John Doonan interview: Will the electric car secure the survival of vintage racing?

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