The glory days of sports car racing in North America — those golden years of the 1950s through the 1970s — are on the threshold of returning.
Take it from Scott Atherton, whose job as president of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) is to sell the form of motor sports to race promoters, manufacturers, sponsors — anyone who will give him a few minutes.
There were hundreds of people with a good story at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center last week, but few, if any, were as passionate and confident as Atherton about the product they represent.
Atherton, who once worked for Roger Penske and was promoter at California Speedway in Fontana, believes sports car racing will capture the attention of race fans and casual motor sports followers as makes such as Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, Viper, BMW, Audi, Ford, Aston Martin and Lamborghini duke it out across the country in 2016, starting with the Rolex 24 at Daytona on January 30-31 and June 3-5 on Belle Isle.
For 2016, the former Tudor United SportsCar Championship will be badged the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
The new title sponsorship by the auto accessories company could not make Atherton happier.
Though Tudor still will be the official timepiece for the sports car series, “WeatherTech, well, we couldn’t ask for a better connection with the most aggressive, the most prolific marketer in the industry,” Atherton said. “This [partnership]will bring our form of motor sports to an audience that has not been exposed to it before.”
Atherton has walked the floor of the Detroit Auto Show for almost two decades trumpeting sports car racing. During that time, NASCAR, NHRA and IndyCar have far outpaced the road racing series.
But in the past couple years, the gap has begun to narrow, and Atherton hasn’t taken his foot off the accelerator in his attempts to catch up.
In 2014 and last year, the Tudor United SportsCar Championship put on great shows at Belle Isle, rivaling the Verizon IndyCar Series races for drama and suspense.
With Ford returning to Le Mans in June with the all-new Ford GT, marking the 50th anniversary of the historic race win there in 1966, sports car racing suddenly is on a lot of people’s radar in the United States and Canada.
Belle Isle, in the home of the “Big Three,” is where Atherton is basing his belief in his sport as much as any race venue the series will visit this year.
The visual sights and sounds of the WeatherTech Championship cars are unique. “If you are a fan, you can stand by the racetrack with your eyes closed and know which ones are passing by,” Atherton said. “The Corvettes, for example, are unmistakable. They rattle your cage.”
With Daytona, Sebring, Long Beach, Detroit, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta among stops on the series circuit in 2016, Atherton thinks “the 12-race WeatherTech series has the ability to eclipse the highest level of success and achievement in any era of sports car racing in North America.”
And on Belle Isle this summer — “I don’t think it gets any better,” Atherton said.
So, how important is it that Atherton make the trip to Detroit in frigid cold January to spread his mantra?
“It is the most efficient two business days of the year for us [IMSA],” explained Atherton of his visit there during media days at the auto show. “Without question. Period. Full stop. This is my 18th consecutive year walking the floor. There is no other place in the world where there are so many decision-makers in the automotive industry in the one place. You just couldn’t put a price tag on it.”