IMSA to be resurrected in road-racing plan

 

Official of Grand-Am Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series announced the details for a 2014 reunification.

Special to The Miami Herald

Scott Pruett, then 25 years old, relentlessly stalked rival Willy T. Ribbs through the final lap of IMSA’s 1986 GTO sports car race in downtown Miami and executed a clever pass for the lead exiting Bicentennial Park.

Several corners later, Ribbs rear-ended Pruett’s Ford Mustang into tire barriers framing the left-hand turn off Biscayne Boulevard, depriving Pruett of victory and damaging Ribbs’ own mount sufficiently that he limped home fourth.

That memorable episode serves as a timely reminder that Pruett, a week shy of his 53rd birthday but remarkably the dominant driver yet today in his branch of American auto racing, has borne witness to a wealth of high-speed history.

Few if any can bring a broader background or greater perspective to Pruett’s view that “a renaissance for road racing” is at hand.

Officials of two competing sports car racing series — Grand-Am Road Racing based at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) — put labels and logos to their 2014 unification plan Thursday in Sebring, site Saturday of the ALMS-sanctioned 61st 12 Hours of Sebring.

ALMS president Scott Atherton and Grand-Am president Ed Bennett revealed that International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), sanctioning body during a spectacular 1980s era that showcased Miami’s street race, will be resurrected to regulate the new-era United SportsCar Racing.

The quest will be to recapture the magic that sports car racing generated when the likes of Indianapolis 500 champions A.J. Foyt, Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Rahal ventured over to match skills with international legends like Derek Bell, Brian Redman, Bob Wollek and Geoff Brabham with a glamorous Miami bayside backdrop.

The 2014 schedule has not been finalized. But with an emphasis on traditional road circuits and street courses, a “stadium” road-course setting like Homestead-Miami Speedway’s is not expected to be on the United SportsCar Racing calendar at least initially.

Grand-Am and ALMS total 22 separate events at 17 racing circuits in 2013. Homestead was dropped from the Grand-Am schedule this year. Grand-Am racing’s Rolex 24 at Daytona and the ALMS’s 12 Hours of Sebring will lead off the 2014 USCR schedule.

Pruett launched his 2013 bid for a fourth consecutive Daytona Prototype Grand-Am driving championship and sixth in all by sharing his record-tying fifth Rolex 24 at Daytona overall victory in January with regular Ganassi Racing co-driver Memo Rojas, Juan Pablo Montoya and Charlie Kimball.

A desire to maintain the Grand-Am status quo would be excusable, given Pruett’s unprecedented success at this late stage of a career that has included victories in Indy cars and a brief foray onto stock car racing’s center stage. But he has recognized that, as in Indy car racing, a two-series fracture undercuts both.

“When you have multiple series that are mostly doing the same thing, it can separate the fan base, separate the manufacturer support, separate the sponsor support,” Pruett said by phone from his wine vineyard in Auburn, Calif.

“With unification, all those pieces, all those elements, come together … Talking to manufacturers and sponsors, they’re excited. They now have one focus.”

Redman, an English driver who carved out a storied career in Formula One, Can-Am and IMSA sports-car racing, scored one of his climactic victories in the 1984 Miami Grand Prix in a Jaguar co-driven by Doc Bundy. His perspective at that time was as pertinent as Pruett’s today.

Redman soaked in the atmosphere surrounding visionary promoter Ralph Sanchez’s Miami event a year after his victory and observed that, contrary to those enamored of an earlier “golden era” of sports car racing, “ This is the golden age.”

Porsches, Jaguars, Nissans and Toyotas that looked equipped for space travel brought a special flair to the Miami Prix launched by Sanchez in 1983 and eventually crowded off downtown streets in 1995.

By then, the magic of sports car racing’s spectacular 1980s had faded into what became a barren landscape. Don Panoz’s creation of the ALMS in the late 1990s forged the rivalry with Grand-Am through which sports car racing has labored for national relevance since.

Redman, 76 and involved today in historic/vintage car racing promotion, welcomes the Grand-Am/ALMS merger. “This will be a change for the better,” he said. “It remains to be seen how they meld the two sets of rules.” That’s pivotal.

The prospect that somehow the relatively unrestricted competition and flavor of the late 1980s can be resurrected is impractical, most agree.

Pruett pinpointed the problem, relating it to how the IMSA series flamed out by 1993.

“What happens is manufacturers come in, they spend tens of millions of dollars, and they do it until they achieve the championship or two and then they leave. You end up with nothing.”

But Pruett expressed optimism that sports car racing in this country will get a major boost of adrenalin from organizations that previously operated at cross purposes merging on a unified mission.

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