Scott Atherton Q&A
This significant item was produced by the ALMS itself, and we’re
delighted to post it here, so that Scott Atherton’s responses
are read by as many people involved in the sport as possible.
Q - One
of the questions most often heard in the industry concerns the stability
of the series. Can you address that?
- It has been said before, but I'll say again that the commitment
that Don Panoz has to the American Le Mans Series is unwavering.
Going into 2005, we have more resources at our disposal than ever
before - and not just financial, but resources that cover every
critical area measure. Unfortunately there are those within the
motorsports industry who seem to make it their business to spread
rumors about us and others because it would potentially be in their
best interest if we went away. However, we're not going away. In
fact, in the past few weeks, we have made some important staff additions
in our marketing, promotions and PR departments that were new hires
for new positions. We are expanding, not contracting, our staff
with qualified individuals who can contribute as we continue to
grow. We are in the final stages of negotiating a new television
contract that will continue to give the ALMS the best TV coverage
that any professional road racing series in the world has ever had.
The ALMS is a stable, growing platform with decisions and commitments
being made based upon long-term plans. Our future is bright.
Q - Your
car count has been down this year. What steps are you taking to
bring the count back up?
A - We're not hiding
from the fact that we have had some challenges this year in terms
of car count, and we knew it was going to be an issue between July
and the Petit Le Mans in September. This situation did not come
as a surprise, but the solution won't be a "quick fix"
either. I can tell you that it has had our attention 24-7 and we've
made lots of phone calls and personal visits to current, former
and prospective team owners on both sides of the Atlantic. There
is a great deal of interest being expressed in the last two events
of 2004 as lead-ins for the 2005 season and we are confident that
our grid sizes will return to our historically strong levels in
the near future. Our races are open to everyone but we are also
holding firm to our belief that the American Le Mans Series is truly
for world-class cars, drivers and teams. There is nothing else that
compares to it, but with that commitment comes some risk. I have
described the period we are in as a "purgatory" - in other
words, we are in the period when the previous generation of cars
is being phased out and the next generation is just now starting
to come online. At times like this it can be tempting to want to
alter the platform, but we are confidently staying the course.
Q - How
is the 2005 schedule shaping up?
A - In brief, it promises
to be an outstanding schedule. Tim Mayer, the Chief Operating Officer
of IMSA, and I have been working very hard to confirm our 2005 schedule
and we plan to announce it, as has become our tradition, on the
day before the Petit Le Mans. I believe we'll be back at all of
the venues that have hosted us in 2004 and we will also be adding
to the schedule. One of the difficulties we have always had in assembling
a schedule has been the long gap between Sebring and Le Mans, which
had to be on the schedule because of the timing of the Le Mans test
day. After our biggest event, we essentially dropped off the radar
for three months and that has been a situation we have worked hard
to rectify. Don Panoz has been lobbying the ACO for many years to
get them to move the test day closer to the race. I can't reveal
everything yet but can say that Mr. Jean-Claude Plassart, the new
President of the ACO, has been very willing to listen to us and
embrace our point of view. We already feel that we're racing at
the best permanent road racing facilities in North America, with
the possible exception of Watkins Glen, but we continue to have
a strong interest in being part of an event or two on a temporary
racing circuit in a major market. But to add such an event to the
schedule would have to also make business sense; we're not going
to add an event just to increase our schedule.
Q - You
mentioned the ACO. How is your relationship these days?
A - I personally feel
it is the best it has ever been. Mr. Plassart understands that there
are differences between operating a racing series in North America
and operating one epic event in Europe. And now that they have also
been operating a series in Europe with the Le Mans Endurance Series,
they understand even more that what applies to one race may not
necessarily apply to a series. We now have the latitude to make
many of our own decisions on issues that are unique to us in North
America and that has been a tremendous benefit to us in many ways.
The real benefit of our new working relationship has already been
realized, but it will only get better with time. I am very bullish
about our future with Mr. Plassart and his management team at the
Q - Will
the 2005 schedule include any more "long" races?
A - We start the season
with a 12-hour race at Sebring and then have a 1,000-mile race near
the end of the season. Many of our teams go to France in June and
run a 24-hour race. This year we increased the length of the race
at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to four hours. At this time, we have
no plans of adding length to any other events for 2005, but that's
not to say it won't happen at some point in the future. While long
races are great, they do create additional expense for the competitors,
and we have to be very cognizant of that. We also have to consider
the television element because longer races create more expensive
Q - Would
you consider doing an event in conjunction with Champ Car, the IRL
or another series?
A - Yes, we
would, but only if it works for us and makes smart business sense
for all involved. The ALMS was not created to be a support series,
but we would be a co-headline with another comparable series. We
have done it before with good results so the precedent has been
established. However, we are very conscious of the expectations
of our teams, manufacturers, sponsors and fans and because of this
the opportunity to run with another comparable series will always
be a very limited element of our annual schedule.
Q - The
ALMS has had an unfortunate history of having to cancel races, especially
in 2003 when Mexico City and Washington were dropped from the schedule.
What steps have you taken to ensure that what gets announced as
a schedule actually happens?
A - When we announced
the 2004 schedule last October, we made a commitment that whatever
was announced for 2004 would happen, no matter what, and we've stuck
to that. With two races to go, unless you know something I don't,
I think we are about to fulfill exactly what was announced last
year. As I said last year, the only thing we were guilty of was
thinking outside of the traditional box of sports car racing, playing
an aggressive game and trying to grow the sport with the addition
of venues in non-traditional places - often with new event organizers.
In such an environment, when that approach works, as it did at Washington,
D.C., in 2002, you look like a hero. But when it doesn't work, as
in the case of Mexico City last year, you're crucified. We are taking
very dramatic steps to make sure we are aligning ourselves with
proper event promoters who have experience, sufficient capital and
the general wherewithal to make it happen the way it should.
Q - Where
is the ALMS on securing a series title sponsor?
A - Scott Duncan joined
our staff in May as our new Vice-President of Sales and Marketing,
and his top priority has been selling sponsorships, not only a title
sponsor for the series but associate sponsors, award sponsors, etc.
I've said too many times in the past that we were closer than we
have ever been, but we genuinely are closer than we've ever been
to having not only a title sponsor but also several very meaningful
associate series sponsors. Scott wakes up every day thinking about
what he can do to sell corporate partnerships with the American
Le Mans Series. He has been able to get in front of a lot of decision
makers at companies we had never talked to before, and he has already
brought some excellent opportunities to the table for the ALMS.
There is no question that the American Le Mans Series represents
one of, if not "the," best values in motorsports. The
combination of the quality of the series in general, the venues
we race, the markets we impact, the television package, the TV ratings
- all are very respectable and in terms of a cost/value equation,
we are second to none. I am confident that this issue will soon
be addressed in a manner beneficial to all.
Q - Much
has been made of the increased TV ratings that the ALMS has gotten
this year. Are you satisfied with what is happening in that area?
- Satisfied? No. You always want more. Pleased? Yes. What sets us
apart from some comparable racing series here in North America is
our performance on network television. The first three races of
2004 on network TV have earned average final Nielsen ratings that
are 40 percent higher than what was earned with those same events
last year. While some other comparable series are in decline or
barely breaking a zero on the ratings chart, we have maintained
our unique mix of live network and cable broadcasts with ratings
that are trending markedly upward in viewership. And then there
are the sponsor exposure value numbers reported by Joyce Julius
and Associates, showing that ALMS sponsors through the first half
of the 2004 season have earned up to 10 times greater return on
team and sponsor investment dollars as compared to similar sponsors
in comparable series. We feel that the ALMS is delivering in many
areas that other series cannot. This is especially true when you
consider the amount of sponsor and manufacturer promotional support
the TV broadcasts of these other series typically get. We don't
have those resources, but even without the unprecedented national
promotion our results are consistently better. What this indicates
is there is an active and growing audience for the ALMS on TV and
at our events and that bodes well for our future.
Q - You
mentioned earlier that you are negotiating a new TV contract. What
are your plans going forward for domestic and international TV?
A - We maintain that
the ALMS has always had the best TV package of any sports car racing
series in the history of the sport and plan to continue that in
2005 and beyond. We feel that a mix of network and cable is perfect
for our series and helps us reach not only our core fan base of
car and motorsports enthusiasts, but also potential new fans. Internationally,
we have been very pleased with the positive response we have received
from fans in Europe who have been able to watch our races live this
year on MotorsTV. MotorsTV has repeatedly told us that adding the
ALMS races this year is one of the best things they've ever done
and that their viewers have been very positively outspoken and responsive.
MotorsTV is growing rapidly in Europe and we are looking forward
to continuing to grow with them.
Q - What
is the ALMS doing to attract the participation of additional manufacturers?
A - That's another item
that we work on almost 24-7. We have made numerous visits to Detroit
and California to meet face-to-face with decision makers from our
domestic and foreign manufacturers, but we don't put out a press
release every time we have such a meeting. We have also visited
with manufacturers from Europe and Asia. We're in almost constant
contact. We know a lot of things that are in the works but for obvious
competitive reasons we have confidentiality agreements with the
manufacturers and we intend to stick to those agreements. If I could
tell everything I know about manufacturer's plans for the ALMS,
everyone would be pleased. When the time comes, the manufacturers
will tell the world with their own announcements. I believe there
will be such an announcement during the weekend of our season finale
at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The platform of the ALMS was designed
for a balance of manufacturer participation, as well as the welcomed
participation of top level privateer teams, and we want to have
that in all four classes.
Q - There
are rumors that the ALMS may introduce a new class for four-door
race cars next year. What can you say about that?
A - We have been exploring
the concept for quite some time. The original motivation came from
a manufacturer approaching us. There are some manufacturers that
would like to race in our series but don't produce a car that would
meet the current GT or GTS specifications. We have had serious discussions
with the ACO and have also floated the idea of adding four-door
cars to our existing GT and GTS manufacturers through our regular
contact with them. There is a great deal of interest and we may
have something to officially announce very soon, but we are not
going to make a hasty decision. Stay tuned.
Q - What
do you feel is the one thing that sets the American Le Mans Series
apart from all other racing series?
- It would have to be the unprecedented level of fan access that
we offer. Something new we have added this year is that we are letting
fans participate with the buildup to the start by being allowed
out on the grid after our cars have done their recon laps and are
lined up for the start of the race. Anyone who has ever experienced
it knows what a special experience it is and it is really gratifying
to be able to provide this to our fans. For about 30 minutes, they
can walk past the Champion Audi and see JJ Lehto getting ready to
start the race, or be standing next to Ron Fellows as he's going
over last-minute details before he gets into the Corvette. Several
times this year I've been out on the grid and have heard a fan on
a cell phone saying something like "Dude, you won't believe
where I am!" And this goes along with our open paddocks, and
the autograph sessions, fan forums and tech talks we have at every
race. Our drivers and teams are very willing to cooperate and the
fans love it. When Don Panoz mandated a "For the Fans"
philosophy with the launch of the ALMS, I doubt he thought we would
take it this far, but our challenge now is to keep innovating, and
thinking of new ways to deliver unique and engaging experiences.
Fans vote with their wallets and their feet, and with that said,
I think the ALMS in general is working. I can't wait to see where
we will take our fans in the future.