Welcome to John Doonan’s IMSA. Entering his third season at the organization’s president, the stellar things we just witnessed at the Roar Before The 24 and Rolex 24 At Daytona offer the first real look and feel of his vision and leadership.
After inheriting the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and its many feeder series at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the ex-Mazda Motorsports leader was thrown in at the proverbial deep end, navigated IMSA through rocky waters, and kept the ship afloat with the constant support of IMSA CEO Ed Bennett and series founder Jim France.
Hand-picked by France, Doonan applied his work ethic to the new role, spending 18 hours or more at the office each day as crisis after crisis — from immigration issues during the lockdown, to reconfiguring the schedule multiple times to meet track, sponsor, and broadcaster needs — became the story of the year. That work ethic also manifested itself in actions rather than words.
Private tales of Doonan getting to the Daytona circuit last year at the crack of dawn before the first day of Rolex 24 testing to greet and thank all of the volunteer corner workers, and helping his staff as virus testing was done for hundreds of competitors as they arrived, spoke to someone who cared more about leading by example than seeking microphones, TV cameras and individual recognition.
And the adversity continued in 2021 as more COVID-related scrambling and schedule changes derailed some of his plans, but it’s here where some of Doonan’s first directional changes came to the forefront.
Prior to Doonan’s arrival in Daytona Beach, a major impasse with the ACO and FIA on the future of prototype racing left IMSA and the WEC in a bad way since the two French sanctioning bodies and their American counterpart failed to agree on a single unified formula for all to use.
The ACO/FIA announced their Le Mans Hypercar (LMH) intentions at Le Mans in 2018 without the support or buy-in from IMSA, and from there, a lower-cost Le Mans Daytona h (LMDh) formula was established that met American needs while setting both sides of the debate down diverging paths. Doonan’s refusal to let the years-long divide between LMH and LMDh grow any wider was a key contributor to the convergence that was announced in January of 2021. Both styles of prototypes will race together starting in 2023.
If patching up the relationship with the ACO/FIA on prototypes was a healing exercise for Doonan, his bold call to announce the end of the popular (but declining) GT Le Mans class in 2022 and replace it with a pro-level GT3-based class was a stroke of genius. Where IMSA went all-in with the ACO/FIA in one area, he pulled the series out of GTLM — which uses the ACO/FIA’s GTE regulations — in direct opposition to the WEC’s GT class structure.
In siding with GT3 regulations for a new factory-grade GTD Pro class, Doonan gambled on its success and stood on faith that auto manufacturers and a few privateers would sign up for the category with cars that aren’t eligible to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans or any other WEC round. From a depressingly small grid of six GTLM cars for the Rolex 24 in 2021 and just three full-time cars for the whole season, Doonan’s GTD Pro move was met with 13 cars last weekend, and six or seven are anticipated at every event over the rest of the year.
And if you watched the race, the knockdown fight for GTD Pro honors in the closing hours was the best part of the 24-hour show. Another prime indicator of GTD Pro’s awesomeness, beyond the fact that it launched with seven car brands in the class, was Ford’s announcement last week of a new-for-2024 Mustang GT3 program that will feature a two-car factory GTD Pro program and customer car sales.
Rather than wait on the ACO/FIA to pull their thumbs out and set the course for a single GT platform, Doonan and IMSA broke away and did what was best for their series. As the race revealed on Saturday and Sunday, his aggressive call was the right one, as 35 combined GT3 cars, with 22 in the always-thriving Pro-Am GTD class, put on a whale of a show. The ACO/FIA are expected to follow in IMSA’s all-GT3 footsteps before long.
While trying to dig out of an overall decline in entries throughout 2020, Doonan had the idea to add the LMP3 class to the big series. Few would accuse it of becoming a raging success, but it has served its purpose and bolstered the WeatherTech Championship grids as intended.
The NBC broadcast is another area where vast improvements have been made with Doonan in charge. Beyond securing more hours of coverage than they’ve ever had for the current season, more yardage was gained with all 24 hours of the Rolex 24 being made available in place from start to finish on Peacock. For those who know how maddening it was to be bounced around to five different network, cable, and streaming outlets in the past, the option to stay on one channel for the whole shebang was a welcome upgrade.
And then you have two other moves spearheaded by Doonan that came to light last week. Knowing how important IMSA’s 50-plus years of history happens to be, the pursuit and purchase of the Historic Sportscar Racing (HSR) series was made. In time, look for IMSA to bring HSR closer to its WeatherTech Championship events so old and new fans alike can enjoy the coolest cars from yesterday and today on the same weekend. It makes you wonder why IndyCar and NASCAR haven’t done something similar, but nonetheless, Doonan’s passion for the sport’s history drove the move to solve the problem.
The HSR acquisition was announced moments before another Doonan initiative was unveiled. Among the worst names for any type of car or class that I can recall, LMDh — where the ‘h’ genuinely had no meaning when it was revealed — was just scrapped in favor of GTP, Grand Touring Prototype, which took IMSA to unparalleled heights of popularity when it ran from 1981-1993. The new GTP class will launch at the next Rolex 24 with four heavy-hitting manufacturers who’ve committed to IMSA, and more are on the horizon.
The giant Rolex 24 entry list, the packed infield amid freezing temperatures, and a record 211 motor coaches were crammed inside Daytona last weekend. There are many authors to IMSA’s growing success, so we can’t foist all of the appreciation on Doonan, but it’s hard to imagine the same amount of progress happening without him. He has his detractors, of course, especially when manufacturers receive their Balance of Performance restrictions, but that’s to be expected. On a related note, I’m still not sure I love the new qualifying race that’s been inserted into the Roar; it’s the only significant misstep that jumps out since his arrival.
The most stereotypical Doonan move was found Sunday morning at 2 a.m. ET. Throughout many Rolex 24 broadcasts in the Grand-Am Rolex Series era and its successor with IMSA’s WeatherTech Championship, hearing from a series founder, CEO, or president has been a fairly common thing. And in most instances, due the importance of that series leader, they’ve been placed in an early time slot on the broadcast where larger audiences are reached. Not so for Doonan.
At a point in the race where all but the diehards are nodding off to sleep, he paid a visit to the NBC booth in relative anonymity and had a good old time chatting with the hosts. He loathes the spotlight, hates praise, and has no interest in taking the attention away from the real stars of IMSA’s show. The longer he’s there, the easier it is to understand why Jim France asked him to run the company.
We give endless credit to IndyCar president Jay Frye for all he’s changed, improved, and achieved since turning the open-wheel series in a better and healthier direction since his appointment in 2018. Doonan’s a few years behind Frye in that regard, but it’s heartening to know IMSA’s in the right hands with a selfless character who, like Frye, only cares about his paddock. It’s his series now, and I can’t wait to see what Doonan and the rest of the IMSA leadership team come up with in the future.