Scott Atherton – ALMS CEO
The Man And The Series

dailysportscar.comIt’s something of a rarity to have three chances to tackle the Chief Executive of a major international series: Panoz Motorsports and ALMS CEO Scott Atherton was kind enough to grant the Editor two hours in his company during a very busy Petit Le Mans meeting – and with our two, one hour sessions separated by the ALMS 2004 Schedule Announcement, we effectively had three chances to tackle Scott on a wide range of issues.
This is undoubtedly one of (if not the) most significant items we’ve ever pulled together at
dailysportscar (or any of its predecessors): at the end of this article, make up your own mind about where this series is headed, and how it is managed.

To understand where someone is now, it’s necessary to understand where he’s come from. So is Scott Atherton an executive who just happens to be responsible for a nine race series in North America, or does he have a genuine love of this kind (our kind) of racing?

“The first car I remember was a 1965 Corvette Stingray.”

Thank you Scott, that answer will do very nicely. The follow up comes from dailysportscar reader Matt Campbell. He was watching from above Turn 12 at Road Atlanta (Matt was the guy who set up a dsc canopy- visible in the image below), and was surprised to bump into Scott Atherton: Scott had already indicated that he’d like to go out and see the monster crowd that was building up at the track, and also mingle with the fans. Matt Campbell was obviously thrilled to meet ‘the boss’ and was full of praise that here was a real fan of sportscar racing, out about with the rest of them.

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So Scott remembers one of the all-time great sportscars from the sixties, but from a tender age, he wanted to do more than watch: he wanted to take part.

“I began racing dirt bikes, and this scar on my chin is a legacy of my first accident. I took a bad hit, and my chin struck the clutch lever, so that was the motivation to try four wheels – and at the insistence of my mother, to always use a full-face helmet from then on.”

By the age of 13, he was racing a kart for a top level team, with a dealer connection, up and down the west coast and as far north as Westwood in British Columbia. Dominic Dobson was one of his major rivals.

“There was a handful of us, and we were very serious about our racing. At that stage, Dominic and I were very well matched. I had some great equipment, and I was as close to being a sponsored racer as you could get at that level. When I graduated from high school, I worked as a lot boy at a car dealership, to fund the next stage of my racing.”

That was a season of SCCA Formula Ford, and inevitably, Scott was underfunded – “very much underfunded, and I came across Dominic Dobson again. I was racing a Spartan chassis, with inboard suspension and side radiators: it was innovative, but diabolical to drive. Basically, I scared myself silly, and realised that I had a modest racing talent, at best, and no money.

“Whereas Dominic moved to Sears Point and did anything to get his seat in a race car, I bowed to the inevitable, and went to college. But I was very specific about what I wanted to do: I was going to get a degree and build a career in motorsport.”

Four years at the University of Washington and a degree in marketing, advertising and communications provided the foundations for a 20 year plus career in motorsport in North America, but Scott Atherton’s first ‘marketing’ job was an unusual one (although he had already dabbled in car sales).

dailysportscar.com“I’d been working with Tom Gloy’s Formula Atlantic team during college vacations, which was a chance to travel to the races and get involved. Oddly, because of the timing – with CART just setting up and Atlantic teams evolving into CART teams – the contacts I made then have served me to this day. Domino’s Pizza was doing more in motorsport sponsorship at the time than any other company: they sponsored a CART team, they were involved at Pocono, and they used motorsport as an incentive for their pizza delivery drivers. There was a natural connection between motorsport and delivering pizzas within 30 minutes.

“I pestered a lady I knew called Robin, in their motorsport division: basically I was prepared to do anything, any job at all. Out of the blue, I received a phone call, and was asked if I really was prepared to do anything. I was of course, and that’s how I became the driver of their pick-up, towing a trailer around the country to Domino’s events: inside the trailer was the CART show car, plus Domino’s merchandise.”

And the first event he travelled to was….the 1985 Indy 500, and who was on the grid for his first Indy? “Dominic and I had parted as high school kids, and here we were, both at our first 500. We had slightly different roles though.”

dailysportscar.comNow, if we’re not careful, we’ll spend 5,000 words on Scott Atherton’s background in motorsport. But the point to be made here is that perhaps you don’t just need talent to get on – you also need luck. Or perhaps timing. His good fortune at this point was that the two senior executives in Domino’s motorsport division were having an affair, and they were about to go public.

“They were both fired, and all the staff were summoned to a meeting in Michigan. The advertising budget was $75m, and of that, $20m was accounted for by motorsport. Someone had to take charge of the motosport budget, and when I pointed out that I had some experience in the sport, I found myself in charge. I went from show car truck driver to head of sports marketing within 30 days!"

With the likes of Doug Shierson, Al Unser Jnr. and Danny Sullivan involved in Domino’s cars, “they were four of the best years of my life. We had Little Al battling his father and Arie Luyendyck winning the Indy 500 – it was an incredible time.”

“But that all changed just as quickly as it had started. The 30 minute delivery guarantee was leading to some accidents with the pizza delivery drivers, and as a result of extensive litigation it was imperative that we got out of racing very quickly. I found myself in the pizza business, and over the course of the next five years became one of six Vice-Presidents – but I didn’t have the passion for running pizza stores. I had a nagging drive to get back into motorsport.”

The good fortune (timing?) this time was a friend of Scott’s spotting an ad. in the Wall Street Journal – for the post of President / General Manager of Laguna Seca Raceway.

The tortuous route to securing this position will have to remain a secret until Scott writes his autobiography. In a nutshell, he won through from a total of 750 applications, surviving a selection process that even he found daunting and remorseless. Thinking he hadn’t made it, he was actually trying to get an early flight home for he and his family, at the very moment that the track’s representative was trying to call him to summon him back to the track to ask the question: “Would you like to be the General Manager of Laguna Seca Raceway?”

“For five years I felt that I had the best of jobs at the best circuit. That included the FIA GT Championship coming to the track twice, plus the CART meetings. I actually thought to myself that the only way I could be persuaded to leave would be if Roger Penske called and asked me to manage one of his tracks….”

And he did.

So it was time for Scott to trek east, with his family, to Allentown, Pennsylvania – and the task ahead was managing the Nazareth Circuit.

“I loved every minute there, and in fact my neighbour and I still keep in touch, and he comes to Petit Le Mans every year. With that position in the Penske Organisation, that almost completed the set: I’ve had exposure to every North American series except NASCAR.

“But Roger Penske made it clear – ‘Don’t get too comfortable, this is a stop along the way, not a long term arrangement.’ 18 months later and I was asked to take on the Presidency of California Speedway – obviously a brand new facility, so effectively I started with a blank sheet of paper.”

Times change though, and a year later Penske merged with ISC, and Scott’s position changed from one of “a perfect fit with Penske” to “not feeling the same fit at ISC. I felt out of place.”

Enter Ralph Sanchez into the equation. “I knew Ralph from my CART days, and he called me on behalf of a guy named Don Panoz who was deeply involved with motorsports, but with no one managing his growing interests. I met Don in January / February 2000, and now I had a tough decision to make. Should I leave a great position with the largest motorsport corporation in the world? But the opportunity was there with Don Panoz, and I had to take it.”

So there we have Scott Atherton’s (auto)biography – almost to date. Now the chance to ask questions, to discover where the ALMS is now, and where it’s going – and to understand some of the thinking of the man at the helm.

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Where to start? What about the Le Mans Endurance Series Scott? Some of us in the media felt that the ALMS organisation was taken by surprise with the announcement – first carried in the French press, then by dailysportscar – that the ACO was planning the LMES for 2004. Were you taken by surprise?

“No, we weren’t taken by surprise. We had been approached three months before the June announcement about the potential for organising a group of races (tournaments) in Europe, and we were guardedly supportive from the beginning. Our view was that it was going to happen whether we supported it or not, so we were keen to be involved….so that we could minimise any downside, and have a seat at the table.

“The ACO was interested in our opinions, and proactive in their attempts to both involve us and safeguard the ALMS. We’re pretty good customers of the ACO, but within 24 hours of confidential, off the record, conversations taking place, the same information was in general circulation – and the LMES was beginning to take shape.”

The November race has clearly had an effect on this one here (PLM). Were you involved in the process that led to the announcement of the Le Mans 1000 Km?

dailysportscar.com"The idea of the November race came out of the original idea for the four 1000 km races in Europe, but it wasn’t part of our original discussion. Meetings took place in June, and the people involved in these discussions were the most diverse collection of motorsport professionals you could possibly imagine: there were people there that you just would not expect to get together….

“We viewed the November race as an event that could pull entries from Petit Le Mans. The surprise to us is that it took all all the European entries from Petit Le Mans. It was a very unpleasant surprise.”

To illustrate the ‘damage’ caused, Scott Atherton quoted the following figures:
Sebring 2003: 18 European entries
PLM 2002: 11 European entries
PLM 2003: 0 European entries (the regular Europeans were present of course).

Perhaps it’s a European thing, but based in the UK, with a close eye on events in NW France, we weren’t surprised Scott, at the slump in European PLM entries this year – just a three week gap from October 18 to Nov 9, the cost of air freighting cars across the Atlantic, and above all the importance that some entrants place on being on the grid at the one-off 1000 km event….all reasons why even those Europeans who originally entered PLM then decided to play safe, and stick to just running on November 9.

And that was one hour gone. Part ll would be 24 hours later, at the press conference to announce the 2004 ALMS Schedule. That worked out rather well, because it allowed Scott Atherton to make the points he wanted to make, unencumbered by our questions – but allowed us to follow up on Saturday, addressing areas that we still wanted to pursue.

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Barber Motorsports Park? No, Skip Barber, of Lime Rock Park. Out go the street races at Miami and Trois Rivieres (plus the stand in Chevy GP), and in come Mid-Ohio, Lime Rock – and the return of Portland.

Nine road courses then for 2004. Scott Atherton (in addressing the audience) referred back to where the ALMS has come from, and wasn’t afraid to pinpoint some of the lows of the past five years….(the headings are ours)

Highs And Lows
“Washington itself is an example of the spectacular highs and lows, but I think back to the races we’ve run in font of empty aluminium grandstands, surrounding bare infield courses. Then there was the personal embarrassment of losing both Washington and Mexico……But now we’ve reached a stage where not a single track has had to be rented, and we’ve attracted the best and brightest of motorsport promoters.”

Entries
”In 2000 we had an average of 31.5 cars on the grid, in 2002 it was 34.6, in 2003 it was 37.2, and 32 entries competed in all nine events this year.”

Scott Atherton also paid due credit to the “top quality, world class privateer entries” in the ALMS.

TV
“We had to buy our way in to TV at first, but the association with Speedvision, which was then acquired by Fox in 2001, saw the ALMS posting figures as good as or better than any other motorsport series (with the exception of NASCAR), and at a time when others were in decline, our figures were improving. We’ve got strong business alliances with NBC, CBS and SPEED Channel.

“With this year’s Laguna Seca broadcast, we went head to head with the IRL, and came out on top, with a 1.2 rating and a 3 share.”

Relationship With The ACO
”Some of you would say that our alliance with the ACO is too unwavering, but we all benefit from the rules stability, the fact that it is open competition, and only the best come here to win.

“Our association with the ACO and Le Mans is our biggest asset, and we recognise the need to make the best arrangements for the benefit of one big event and a nine race series. We have to embrace the potentially unique requirements of the series and the 24 Hours and allow both to prosper.

“Monsieur Cosson’s reign has seen excellent growth, and President Elect M. Plassart is a perfect fit for the future.”

Sponsorship
”Our sponsorship is not at an acceptable level. I’m tired of talking about the prospects of a title sponsor for the ALMS, and for the good of all of us, more is required on this front. But an active programme is taking place to secure a title sponsor, with approaches taking place at the highest level. Our series is too good not to have a major sponsor.”

For The Fans
”These are not hollow words. We’ve seen solid increases in the numbers and quality of our fans. We have high calibre fans, who are much sought after. We have developed the on-car lights system, the open paddock, autograph sessions, iCard and scoreboards, all for the benefit of the fans. We will continue to build up the cars AND drivers as the stars.”

Promotion Of Race Meetings
”Our media department has produced 29 video news releases this year, which have been presented to news outlets in advance of the events in each race market. We’ve produced photo CDs which are placed into the hands of sports editors, and we’ve placed ads. in Road&Track and Autoweek and targeted business publications.

“We’ve got a new motto: Continue fixing it, even if it’s not broken.”

Manufacturers
”We need to deliver what manufacturers need from us to help them sell more cars. We need to get new manufacturers involved in the series – while maintaining those already involved. We are targeting manufacturers in the USA, Europe and Japan.”

Privateers
”They need a richer purse, balanced media coverage and a chance to be competitive. But it’s difficult – it is not a series for everyone - we demand that they compete against the best.”

The 2004 Schedule
”For the past three years we have been playing an aggressive game on the schedule. We will only allow iron-clad events to appear on our schedule. I will personally make sure that anything that is announced will happen.

“We will only host top events at top tracks, and we will continue to build our fanbase.”

And with that the 2004 Schedule was formally ‘unveiled’, leaving time for Skip Barber to explain the importance of the ALMS heading to his Lime Rock Park for the first time.

SCCA Alliance
Scott Atherton and Steve Johnson then announced the joining of forces between the ALMS / IMSA and SCCA Pro Racing, and in particular the SPEED World Challenge.

“This is a landmark day,” explained Scott Atherton. “Our success (the alliance between the ALMS and the SCCA) will be measured in the entertainment value, the TV coverage, full fields, competitive racing and the provision of an entertainment and race experience second to none. This is a combined effort to promote road racing.”

Don Panoz

(We’ll include Don’s remarks here, because the series founder was particularly keen to dismiss a number of rumours that have been heard recently….)

“90% of what you hear is bullshit. I am not sick, I am not retiring, my businesses are not for sale, but I am heading to Australia for the winter.

“I am setting up a programme so that the key people in the organisation can acquire equity in the groups we have created.”

So there we are, that is the public part of this ‘interview’.

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Part lll actually took place during the sixth running of the Petit Le Mans. We picked up where we left off (on Thursday), and asked Scott if a growing LMES in Europe was a good thing or a bad thing, in relation to the ALMS. We’ll recount this third part of the feature in a more conversational style than what has come before – because that is how it happened.

“I believe the opportunity to build a platform and be able to race globally is appealing. With ACO and FIA prototype rules coming together, we now have a target for manufacturers to build cars that can be raced everywhere.”

(Just to clarify a point here, when he uses the word “manufacturer”, Scott is referring to Audi and (in 2002) Cadillac – not specialists such as Lola.)

“Manufacturers have yet to embrace the opportunity in the ALMS, but it is of the highest priority for ourselves and the ACO – to bring more manufacturers into the series and the 24 Hours. We’re discussing this issue with the top management of the ACO. The likes of Audi are critical to the success of this type of racing, because they invest in the events, they help promote them, they support the event programmes with advertising and they display their cars at the races.

“But we also need Lola, Courage and Pilbeam, for example, although their contribution is usually to provide chassis that privateers can buy, thereby adding to the grid and the spectacle. The specialist manufacturers play an important role, but the importance of the commercial benefits that come from major manufacturers cannot be over emphasised."

Prototypes next year: there’s a difficult subject. With new regulations imminent, but no sign of new cars being constructed, how is the ALMS going to get over what will hopefully be a temporary period when the prototype part of the grid could be short on numbers – perhaps shorter on numbers than in 2003? Johnny Herbert had already admitted to us that he would like to see more competition in future years – certainly not less.

dailysportscar.com“The complexion of the series will change. We won’t de-emphasise prototypes, but look at the GTS and GT races here, with intense competition in both classes. The intensity has shifted from prototypes to GTS and GT already, but…the people who have the capability of fixing it understand the challenge and, more importantly, are prepared to do something about it.”

This sounds very promising…..

“You’re going to see a lot more offence from the ALMS and ACO to encourage and incent and confirm new manufacturer involvement in the prototype category.”

(Don’t forget Scott Atherton’s definition of manufacturers here.)

“I expect you’re going to see President Elect Jean-Claude Plassart in the manufacturers’ eye, and we will work with the ACO as we both target manufacturers.”

That’s very encouraging. There’s been an impression in the past that those responsible for generating such manufacturer interest, in the 24 Hours particularly, haven’t been successful recently, even for example, in getting French manufacturers involved at Le Mans. There’s the prospect now that representatives from both sides of the Atlantic will actively target major car manufacturers and persuade them to build the ‘Audi-challengers’ of the future.

And in the GT categories. What can we look forward to there?

dailysportscar.com“Representatives of major manufacturers have sat here in this office and said that they’re planning to be involved in GT / GTS. When those announcements will be made, I don’t know. It’s a long process, with approval required at each stage.

“But the projects we know of are both planned to come to fruition in the latter part of 2004, with cars running in races – used as real-time tests – prior to full-on assaults in 2005.”

And finally, we mentioned two manufacturers, and the possibility of their participation in 2004 – Ferrari with the new 575, and BMW, with the model that was doing so well on the track as we spoke.

“It would be great to have a 575 run here, in this series,” was all Scott would say to the first model.

“We are committed to bringing BMW back to the series, but that will not be an easy process.”

dailysportscar.comEditorial conclusions? Despite the particular problems with this year’s Petit Le Mans, the ALMS still managed to present a superb, high quality event, attended by a bigger crowd than ever before, despite the absence of the Europeans.

Scott Atherton and his team are acutely aware of past and present deficiencies, are prepared to publicly accept them, and have either solved them or have plans in place to fix them as quickly as they can.

And finally, the ALMS is in very good hands. There’s opposition building in North America, but the ALMS fans like what they have, and all they want is more of the same – more star quality machines, star drivers and thrilling racing. And they do like the technological challenge of the best taking on the best.

Thank you, Scott Atherton.
Malcolm Cracknell

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