50 Years of IMSA: Six Significant Eras of Sports-Car Racing

A look at IMSA's history as it celebrates five decades in existence.

For 50 years, the International Motor Sports Association has been sanctioning, promoting, and nurturing sports-car racing in America and beyond. We're celebrating IMSA's golden anniversary with a series of stories looking at important eras, cars, drivers, and more.

The International Motor Sports Association, founded 50 years ago, has had a massive impact on sports-car racing, and its future appears brighter than ever as the 2019 season kicks off with the Rolex 24 at Daytona January 26 and 27.

When John Bishop and his wife Peggy formed IMSA in 1969 with substantial assistance from NASCAR president Bill France, no one knew precisely what the professional sports-car series would look like. IMSA held its first race at Pocono International Raceway in Pennsylvania in October '69; Bishop, who spent 12 years at the Sports Car Club of America, thought open-wheel cars might appeal, so the event featured Formula Fords and Volkswagen-powered Formula Vees. Attendance was 348.

It took less than a year for Bishop to decide a sports-car series needed proper sports cars, and in 1971 IMSA promoted a series for production-based FIA-designated classes of cars, as well as the Baby Grand series, which promptly became the RS, or Radial Sedan series, named for the then-new Goodrich radial tire. That class showcased everything from Opel Mantas to AMC Gremlins, and that version of IMSA made its debut on April 18, 1971, at Virginia International Raceway. It featured Porsches and Chevrolet Corvettes, which made all the right noises. Twenty-four cars ran in the feature class at VIR, and by the end of the season, 54 cars turned out for the finale at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA was on its way. Other sanctioning bodies, including the SCCA, weren't happy. They would soon be even less happy when the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and its Camel brand of cigarettes became a sponsor, and the Camel GT series was born. That's when IMSA's growth really began, in large part due to Camel's publicity campaign, which continued into the 1990s.

By 1989, though, the Bishops were ready to hand over IMSA to new owners. The series was sold in 1994 and again in 1996. Then in 1999, Don Panoz began a flurry of acquisitions that resulted in the new American Le Mans Series, and he acquired IMSA as part of the package. Finally, in 2012, Panoz sold IMSA and the ALMS to NASCAR, which blended its new acquisition with its own Grand-Am sports-car series. The result was the IMSA Tudor United SportsCar Championship, which kicked off at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2014.

With the 2016 season, WeatherTech replaced the Tudor watch company as the title sponsor. In a sense, IMSA has come full circle: It began when NASCAR founder France bankrolled the series in 1969, and it is now once again under NASCAR's umbrella. Here we look back over the years, and toward the future.

1969-1989

With NASCAR progressing nicely, founder Bill France turned his eye to road racing. John Bishop had worked for the Sports Car Club of America, where he was tasked largely with helping develop a pro racing program. Unhappy with pushback from management, he joined France. IMSA started out slowly but began to grow in the '70s as France brought in new investors. Just as happens today, Bishop had to negotiate with his European counterparts over the types of cars, engines, and races that could be made common to both continents. Bishop had heart surgery in 1987 and began to consider selling the series.

1989-1994

Mike Cone and Jeff Parker controlled the IMSA Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Florida, and they took over the whole series through a company called CP Ventures and relocated it from Connecticut to Tampa. Mark Raffauf, still involved with IMSA, took over from Bishop as head of the series. There were not a substantial number of changes, save for the introduction of the Exxon World Sports Car Championship for prototype cars that supposedly would cost less to race. By 1994, Cone and Parker were ready to move on.

1994-1996

South Florida businessman Charlie Slater's first race in a Porsche was at Sebring in 1985: He was black-flagged for going too slow; he didn't have enough money to buy a proper engine. In 1993, Slater and his partners sold their medical equipment company, Symbiosis Corporation, for a reported $175 million and Slater now had enough money to purchase the whole series. IMSA was losing money, and business continued to be tough as he searched for the right formula for success. He concentrated on the open-cockpit World Sports Car class, which could be raced for far less than the old GT Prototypes that manufacturers spent millions on.

1996-1998

In September 1996, the International Motor Sports Group bought IMSA, reportedly by assuming its $2 million in debt, and changed its name to Professional SportsCar Racing. Roberto Mueller was Reebok's former CEO, while Andy Evans managed a portfolio for Bill Gates. Evans was a racer and owned both a sports-car team and an IndyCar team. In 1998, PSCR got competition from the new United States Road Racing Championship, founded by, among others, Bishop, Bill France Jr., Rob Dyson, Roger Penske, Skip Barber, and Ralph Sanchez. This further fragmented an already struggling sport.

1998-2012

Enter Don Panoz. He was not a fan of Evans, so he bought everything, which included the Sebring and Mosport tracks. He had already bought Road Atlanta. Panoz planned to give the newly named American Le Mans Series an international flavor. This troubled NASCAR honcho Jim France, which led NASCAR to form its own series called Grand-Am. Both series found loyal audiences, but fragmentation remained: Grand-Am controlled the country's most important sports-car race, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, while the ALMS and newly restored IMSA controlled the second most important, the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

2012-present

In September 2012, the two series "merged," though ALMS employees noticed their paychecks now read "NASCAR." A great many ALMS elements were incorporated into the new series, and with ALMS chairman Scott Atherton and NASCAR's Ed Bennett jointly at the helm, the blended league debuted in January 2014. It now represents the strongest, most unified presence sport-car racing has ever enjoyed in the U.S.

Archive photography courtesy: Revs Institute, Geoffrey Hewitt Collection, Karl Ludvigsen Collection, and Ken Breslauer Collection

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