IMSA President Scott Atherton to Retire from Post at Year’s End
After 20 years at the helm of American sports car racing, longtime exec steps down.
IMSA president Scott Atherton on Thursday announced he will step down from his post at the end of 2019, after being one of American sports car racing's leading figures for the past 20 years.
Atherton, 59, alongside his boss and American Le Mans Series founder, the late Don Panoz, was the executive face of the American Le Mans Series for more than a decade, helping to lead the organization from its inception in 1999. When the ALMS merged with the NASCAR-operated Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series for the 2014 season, Atherton carried on as IMSA president and chief operating officer. IMSA has not yet named a successor to the role, though Atherton plans to remain an IMSA board member and to continue to serve as the organization's "primary contact" with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, the organizer of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In a conference call with reporters, Atherton said the move comes because he wants to spend more time with his family and enjoy new pursuits away from the never-ending grind of working in professional motorsports.
"This probably seems as if to be a sudden announcement, and certainly if the news of it comes across that way, it's [actually] been a long time coming," he said. "I've been in this industry for 34 years and I've had the honor of being the president of IMSA for the past 20 years.
" … [My decision] goes back more than a year. I had approached [NASCAR CEO] Jim France and [IMSA CEO] Ed Bennett more than a year ago with the idea of crafting a succession plan. And I actually have used the ACO model as my benchmark because, whenever there's a change of presidency of the ACO, they always name a Lieutenant and that person spends at least a year traveling, attending, mirroring the existing president. We weren't able to pull that off. And after much discussion, it was concluded that I would remain through the 2019 season, which obviously coincided with [IMSA's] 50th anniversary. It didn't take much for me to agree to that. I mean, I love what I do. I still have a passion for it. Many have asked me, what's the motivation? Why are you making this change? I think I've outlasted every sanctioning body president that I'm aware of in this position. It's a very taxing role to be in.
"I've been in this industry for 34 years. I've been married for 32 years. My wife, Nancy, informed me that she was tired of waiting and a change was needed. And I [said], "The only way that my schedule will change is if I'm no longer doing what I'm doing." So there's no more to the story. It's completely my choice. There's no other, you know, action or a force involved. It's nice that it's on my terms and that sounds very trite, but it's accurate.
"I don't have a gun to my head from my wife, that's not the case at all. I think there [have] been a couple of life events that have occurred for me. Without getting too personal, I lost a brother-in-law recently who was very healthy and very vibrant and I considered him the brother I never had. And that was a bit of a wakeup call. There's a lot of things that I've been putting off for a long, long time that I'm looking forward to embracing."
Atherton in his younger days raced motocross, but a crash that broke his jaw at 13 led to a switch to go-karts and eventually a single season racing Formula Ford. But as a young adult, he focused on the business side of racing, and his first job in the game after he graduated from the University of Washington was driving the truck that transported the Domino's Pizza-liveried Indy-car show car (the actual race car was owned by team boss Doug Shierson and driven by Al Unser Jr.) to various venues. Through a strange and unlikely turn of events, within a month he was managing the Domino's Indy-car program. From there, he went on to hold jobs as a Domino's vice president, president of Laguna Seca, president of Nazareth Speedway, and head of California Speedway before joining Panoz's sports car racing start-up. His role working for the latter is the one he identifies as the most rewarding post of his professional life, especially as he played a major role in the merger of IMSA/ALMS and Grand-Am.
"Without question, it is the crafting of the process and ultimately the coming to fruition of the merging of what was the American Le Mans Series and what was Grand-Am Road Racing," he said. "Having started that dialogue myself with Jim France approaching me, the two of us having some very private offsite meetings even before I raised it to Don's attention. And really having the outline of what a merged entity would be, scribbled out on a yellow pad, before going in to talk to Don about what was potentially capable of happening. That is the highlight. And I would say the second highlight is the outcome of that merger and what we've been able to do as a whole since then. When I told the staff this morning, it's been seven years, believe it or not, almost eight, since that merger occurred. And, to me, it's been the most rewarding, satisfying period of my career."
As for less-thrilling moments, Atherton identified a couple of them.
"Honestly, there's no regret that stands out. [But] there have been some low water marks," he said. "There was a single 24-hour period where our previously announced scheduled contracted … an event in Mexico City was canceled and our second-year return to Washington D.C. was canceled all within a 24 hour period, on short notice. I mean, these were absolute panic, 9-1-1 emergency situations for sure.
"The other example, and this is humorous now but it was devastating at the time: It was Thanksgiving day when my cell phone rang and I looked down at the screen and it was Dr. [Wolfgang] Ullrich, the head of motorsport for Audi. And the first words were, 'Scott, there's something wrong with your phone system. I keep trying to dial your office and there's no answer.' And I explained to him that it was Thanksgiving here in the states and the office was closed and for that reason, no answer. And he paused for about one second and said, 'Well, unfortunately, I have bad news. I'm calling to tell you that Audi is withdrawing from the American Le Mans Series effective immediately.' No discussion, nothing else to be said. I remember it as if it happened yesterday. I remembered nothing else of that entire period because I was immediately in the fog. So those are two regrettable examples. [But] my dad had a great saying: 'The only things I regretted are the things I didn't do.' In this industry, [that's] a very short list for me."
Atherton said his successor has been identified and an announcement will make the appointment public once the IMSA Weathertech SportsCar Championship season concludes with the Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 12.