IMSA’s Tim Mayer – On 2006
Aiming For Excellence
Doing It With Passion

With 2006 looking like a very important year for IMSA and the American Le Mans Series, our man Tom Kjos got IMSA Chief Operating Officer Tim Mayer to sit down and answer some questions for us. Mostly, he was more than a little forthright – quite direct, actually – and in only a few cases was understandably reticent to provide detail.

Tom Kjos: Tell us about yourself – age, education, and any other relevant or interesting background. Born and raised where? Describe your previous background in motor sport.

dailysportscar.comTim Mayer: Well, thank you for starting with age. I am about to turn forty; just waiting for that mid-life crisis to begin. I was born and raised in the UK. My parents are both American, but my Father, Teddy Mayer, moved to England in the early 1960s when he and Bruce McLaren founded a small racing company. When I was growing up, McLaren hospitality was my Mother and Pattie McLaren, in the back of the transporter, making tuna fish sandwiches.

Before, during and after college, right up until this spring, I spent twenty years in the US Army, both in the active component and the reserves. And it was as I was contemplating leaving active duty that I met with Emerson Fittipaldi, who offered me a job as his bag-holder / business-manager. The attraction to me was that Emerson was involved in so many different businesses and at the time I was certainly not sure that I wanted to be involved in motorsports.

I worked for Emerson for two years, then ran my own business. I became immersed in a huge variety of things, from producing the International Broadcast of the Champ Car series, in conjunction with ESPN, to building the race track in Rio de Janeiro. I have had some simply incredible (how many people get to charter their own 747?) experiences. Six years later, I had a resumé that was very diverse and Andrew Craig at Champ Car hired me to coordinate all of the different operational departments at the then CART.

CART offered me an extraordinary opportunity to work in the business of motor racing at the very highest level. I saw it all; the good, the great, the bad and the truly ugly. The turmoil of the last few years has sadly obscured some of the truly incredible feats that were accomplished in that series, both by the teams and drivers, and by the organization.

I have known Scott Atherton for nearly ten years. When my contract at CART expired, he was literally the first person who e-mailed me. After a couple of months of discussion, where we discovered very parallel ideas about motorports, he and Don brought me on as the Chief Operating Officer of IMSA.

TK: IMSA is a distinct entity from ALMS. What are the unique responsibilities of IMSA?

dailysportscar.comTM: Yes, IMSA is a quite distinct entity, with its own personality. We are blessed with some great officials, many of whom have been with IMSA through thick and thin. Of course, the American Le Mans Series takes the majority of our effort. However, we do sanction four other series and in 2006 we will have five. As we grow those series, they are taking increasing resources – and also provide us with opportunities to grow our resources.

It is probably best to think of IMSA as the operational side of the business. We have very little to do with the sales, marketing or television side of the business, although having said that, we are all in the same building, and I for one like to wander the halls and offer my opinions, solicited or not. I am sure that I drive John Evenson (VP of Broadcasting and Communications) absolutely crazy. Of course, everyone is a producer when they watch TV – but armed with a little bit of background, I am sure that I am unbearable. Not that that it will stop me.

IMSA’s biggest responsibility is to safety, and it is the first line item on my job description. It is one that I take very seriously. Thereafter, our biggest role is to focus on the basic show that our fans, promoters and participants expect from a great name like IMSA.

TK: IMSA and ALMS, the “headliner” racing series amongst those it sanctions, must share a racing and market philosophy. How would you describe that philosophy?

dailysportscar.comTM: I can describe it simply in two words. EXCELLENCE and PASSION. They fit hand in hand, and as long as we stay true to both, I am certain that we will be successful. Why? Because the passionate pursuit of excellence has been the foundation of our country since the beginning, and it has never been more true today.

Someone recently asked me if our sport wasn’t a little bit like being in the software market against Microsoft. My reply was that I had no interest in taking on Microsoft on operating systems. I want to be the Adobe, the Google, or the Oracle of software. There is no doubt in my mind that the middle ground of motorsports is covered ten times over in the country. Great – to me that creates a clear path, where excellence is the only plan that will work. Hard work? Yes – but that’s where the passion comes in. Luckily, very successful people tend to be passionate people. The Dysons, the Maraj’s, the Fields, the Macalusos of the world – and that’s just a smattering of the prototype guys… These are people who are phenomenally successful people, by any measure; who understand what excellence is. I feel very lucky to be able to mix with these people on a daily basis. It is honestly inspiring.

TK: The Penske Racing-managed Porsche Prototype debuted at Laguna Seca. Let me read to you what an executive of another road racing series said about that entry and its effect.

“If you look at ALMS and the new Porsche LMP2 car . . . I think it’s the biggest threat to their existence. We believe the introduction of that new car, with the factory budget, is going to have a chilling effect. …if they wind up with 19-car fields instead of 25-car fields, because of it, that’s gonna make some people who came and watched this time not want to come and watch next time…Let me suggest that Porsche doesn’t care about the LMP2 class. What happens any time you hang your hat on the manufacturers is that somebody in a boardroom decides that racing will help them sell cars. And once they’ve accomplished that goal, they’re done with it. Whatever they leave behind, whether it’s no privateers or a series in shambles, it’s not their concern.”

Obviously, you have a different point of view?

TM: Yea, that is a pretty well crafted piece of PR bullshit – pardon my French – designed to scare competitors and sow the seeds of doubt. I really respect Rodger Edmondson; he certainly has a gift of the gab, although I wonder what manufacturers in his series think when they see him throwing out barbs like that.

Sports Car racing has always been about excellence; never about finding the lowest common denominator. Twenty, thirty and forty years on, which achievements are we proud of as a nation? Mini-vans or the Ford GT40? What are the lasting brands built on? Quality, excellence, determination – a connection to human emotions, something that people can feel passionate about.

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IMSA always has - and the American Le Mans Series does - stand for technical achievement, fierce competition, the world’s best privateers and well promoted events with great racing. It is possible to regulate cars into such a tight box that they inevitably are close to each other on the race track. But I don’t think that people are that easily confused that they believe that this is great competition.

I have known Roger Penske for a long time. He is one of the greatest examples of someone who is passionate in his pursuit of excellence. But he can be beaten. The mark of a true champion is not whether he was beaten, but whether he got up one more time. Roger never gives up. Do I think he is going to be hard to beat? – I hope so. I also know that the kind of competitors that we have and want in the American Le Mans Series will just see that as a better incentive to participate.

As for Porsche, well they are fierce competitors too. Racing programs, all of them, not just great ones, have natural life cycles. Somehow, in spite of Mr. Edmondson’s cynicism, Porsche and their teams are still working to create the best sports car programs in the world – decades after their first; and so is Audi, and Chevrolet, and Mazda, and Maserati, and Aston Martin, and Ferrari, and Saleen, and Panoz, and Lola, and Courage and on and on.

TK: You were a key player in structuring the 2006 schedule, and as part of that, in negotiations to race at Long Beach in April. Obviously, that did not work out. We have heard that IMSA made a proposal, and there were discussions with the promoters after that. Can you describe some of the issues that were involved there, from the perspective of IMSA, ALMS, and partners and sponsors?

TM: We are incredibly pleased with our 2006 schedule. It delivers teams, sponsors and manufacturers the best road racing venues in the country, in a sensible order that keeps cost down and quality up. It has allowed us to deliver one of the best television schedules in the industry. The promoters that we are involved with have all committed to a long term investment in the sport and are true partners in the growth of the sport.

When I look at new venues, I look at the demographics of the market, both in terms of numbers and in terms of who is there. And in those terms, of course, Long Beach is a no-brainer, and we certainly talked long and hard with the promoter.

However, there are other factors that have to be considered. Are we going to be a headline show – or just one more thing after the celebrity race, but just before the bands start? Is there sufficient room to accommodate the level of show that we bring, or are our tire manufacturers going to be forced into garage basements? Long Beach is, and has been for more than thirty years, an open wheel venue. That isn’t going to change. We had considerable reservations going into the negotiations. Obviously it is no secret that the Panoz organization has many points of common interest with the Champ Car organization. But Jim Michaelian, one of the savviest promoters I know, has always been very forthright with us. We thought that there ways that we could make the equation work for both of us. But when sponsorship interests (both ours and theirs) weighed in to say that unless there was a perfect fit – don’t force it. First Jim, and then we, concluded that we needed to wait for another day.

TK: There are two new venues on the schedule, Houston and Miller Motorsports Park. Why those two in particular?

TM: Location, location, location.

Houston has always been a dream market for our kind of racing. When you look at the demographics, it is simply staggering. The city is sophisticated, diverse and energetic – our kind of people. Our TV ratings are as good in Houston as anywhere in the country.

And the venue is one of the most sensible that I have ever seen for this kind of race. The track is fairly wide, and will be fast, with lots of areas for overtaking. The infrastructure of Reliant Park means that it will be a first class experience for fans and teams alike – from the easy access, parking, all the way though to basics like power and light.

There will always be a healthy tension between two top level race series. And again, we had our reservations about teaming up with Champ Car on a race weekend. Mike Lanigan, who is the President of Mi-Jack and the promoter of the race, is kind of a rough and tumble kind of guy (I don’t think that he would mind me describing him like that) and in one of our first meetings he said to me, “So Sebring and that Atlanta race are your big races right?” He is not yet a sportscar expert. “OK – so here’s my goal – I want to make those your second and third best races.” That’s a pretty good guy to be teamed up with!

Miller Motorsports Park is without question one of the finest road courses to be built in a decade – anywhere. That in itself is hard to ignore. So then you look at Salt Lake City – which is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, with an upscale, well educated population, it is even harder to ignore.

Then you add Larry Miller, the owner. You will never meet a more modest person, but he attracts energy wherever he goes. One of the most successful people in the state of Utah, he is truly a sportscar fan. A passion for excellence is the trademark of everything he does. So he really seals the deal. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that he is the biggest sports promoter in the state already, with a terrific support operation at the Delta Center and the Utah Jazz basketball team. Everything he does is major league and we are proud that we are going to run the Grand Prix of Utah with him.

TK: Of course ALMS is not the only series sanctioned by IMSA. What are the others? Tell us a little bit about each – its purpose, market.

TM: We currently have four. The Star Mazda Series; Formula BMW USA; the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge Presented by Michelin; and the Panoz Pro Series.

The Panoz Pro Series is the pinnacle of the Panoz racing school program, and allows people to start as complete novices and end up racing on some of the biggest race weekends in the country. Several of the people who graduate from the program go on to more powerful sportscar racing, or they have the option to stay with the Pro Series and enjoy the competition at that level.

The Star Mazda Series is currently one of the hottest series in the world. I think that it was a case of right product at the right time. With grids averaging a little over 40 cars, and with budgets that make sense for a car and engine package that is challenging enough to provide great training, but at a reasonable cost. Of course, I may be biased, as the car is built here in the Elan factory, which is part of the Panoz Group.

Formula BMW USA is part of a worldwide effort on BMW’s behalf to develop not just the next generation of stars, but the one after that. Focused on drivers who are just stepping up from karts, or other junior series, it teaches them about excellence from the very start. Most of the drivers are under 18, and like most teenagers, they have all the passion in the world. But BMW has created an excellent training program, on everything from driving technique to business skills and media training, so that they can focus that passion and become champions.

Our newest series is the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge presented by Michelin. It is a spec series based on the Porsche GT3 Cup car, which races around the world in the various Carrera Cup and the Porsche Cup series. Our series is slightly different in that it is focused on the “gentlemen drivers” and excludes professional drivers, or those who have driven at too high a level. It is fun, it is challenging and I think that it is great value. With the support of Michelin and Porsche it has grown rapidly, and after just one year, I think that our average grid size will be 40 cars.

IMSA is first and foremost a sportscar sanctioning body. So everything that we do has to support that strategic mission in some way. Each of these series shares a common thread. They are focused on excellence and training. They each point the way up to the next level. And in that way, we think that we are ensuring that there is another generation of driver and team owner being pushed up the pyramid, each of whom is focused on excellence – and therefore the American Le Mans Series.

TK: IMSA will soon announce a new sanctioned series. Can you tell us about that?

TM: Sure. The IMSA Lites Series is going to be a sports prototype series featuring SC3 and SC4 race cars. If that seems like a thinly disguised way of saying that they are the “steps before” the P1 and P2 cars – well it is. There is a real tradition of sports racers in this country. But they have had very little opportunity to race at pro events. We are going to be creating that opportunity in what we think will be a cost effective way.

The cars will have spec sealed engines, both in the SC3 and SC4 divisions, and the chassis choices will be limited to three (and possibly four at SC4) including the Elan offerings. This will ensure close competition, with real control on the costs, but will also eliminate the stagnation that you sometimes get from a spec series. It is also a way of growing the series quickly from the outset, as some of the chassis builders have very large customer bases already.

Again, from my perspective, the strategic goal is to support the American Le Mans Series. We felt that it was important to have a sports-racer style series, but one where there were a couple of classes on the track at the same time, so that there is the kind of constant passing that you get in the American Le Mans Series. This is going to be a great training ground for the prototype driver of the future, or just a place for current sports racers to compete at the next level.

TK: ALMS participant growth – by teams and by manufacturers – has been elusive. We are told we’ll see larger grids in 2006. As a “rule-maker,” how does IMSA contribute to that growth?

TM: Stability and competition. Every conversation that I have with teams features these two thoughts.

Race cars are expensive – and because ours are the best, they certainly are. But when people realize how long they are going to be able to run some of these cars – I mean really run them, not just how long the President of the sanctioning body says the rules are going to last – they become much more interesting. After all, I think that the Dysons have proven that their cars could remain competitive with the world’s best, even if it did take development. People are beginning to realize that development is an inevitable part of racing, even if you try to homogenize the cars from the tires on up.

On the competitive side, people have been watching our efforts in GT1 with some interest. It is possible to balance performance, keep costs contained and keep some of the purest, best racing around all at the same time – not easy, but possible. The kind of people who are attracted to our sport want to race with the world’s best, that’s what turns them on. We have made considerable investment in the technologies needed to make data driven decisions to manage the racing; to keep the competition pure, challenging and exciting for the fans and the participants.

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TK: You’ve had some experience with events on television before you joined IMSA – what was it?

TM: My first role in television was as the executive producer for Brazilian television of the IndyCar (as it was then – now Champ Car) series and of the Indy 500. During my tenure there, the production team built the audience from five to six hundred thousand per race, to well over six million per race. It was a rather unique situation, and Brazilian television is certainly not similar to the US market. I also worked with ESPN International on the production of the world-wide broadcast.

TK: Again, others have been talking about their television success – and questioning that of ALMS and IMSA. Can you describe what you (IMSA and ALMS) are doing in that area, and how well you are doing?

TM: What’s the old saying? – the best way to lie is to use statistics. Two points on a graph don’t make a trend – particularly when one of the points lies on a completely different graph. Our feeling recently has been that there has been an effort to bait us into a debate. Well, no dice. We’ve had sponsors and participants call us and “Can you believe that stuff? If you guys get into a debate on that, you’re silly”…so we aren’t going to do that.

Their (that other series’ TV) package is perfect for club racing – they have the most expensive form of club racing – and really they’re doing a very nice job with that.

Our television package is simply not even in the same league as that of Brand X. We spend considerable time, effort – and yes, money – to deliver the best value anywhere to our participants.

In 2006 it will include five out of ten races on CBS, network television. The timeslots are terrific, the schedule allows them to be on against the least confusion and the fact that we have five in a row allows for great promotion. Our partners at SPEED allow us to do things on television that simply cannot be done on regular network TV. We will have all day coverage of the Twelve Hours of Sebring; all day coverage of the Petit Le Mans; and SPEED will cover and promote our drive to the championship though some of the best venues on the planet. We have more technology being delivered, new camera angles, and some of the best commentators around.

If that weren’t enough, we are covered live across Europe, on one of the fastest growing networks around, Motors TV. At last count Greenlight TV, our partners for worldwide distribution, made sure that the American Le Mans Series was available weekly in nearly 160 countries.

Frankly, our only interest is in providing excellent entertainment for our fans, and excellent value for our participants at every level. All indications are that we deliver that and it’s just going to get better.

TK: Although Scott Atherton alluded to strong entrant growth in 2006, including both new European and Japanese manufacturer entrants in GT2, it has been quiet – unusually so – on the “announcement” front. Will that change? Should we be expecting some of those announcements soon? We’ve been told to expect a major announcement in Europe in the first few days of December – should we?

TM: Yes.

I don’t want to be coy – but one of our great strengths is our ability to keep the confidences of the manufacturers who confide in us. I honestly have never been in, or heard of, a situation like ours. People are extremely candid with us. In return, they expect, and get our discretion.

TM: dailysportscar’s renowned Society Editor, Murphy H. Bear, recently wrote a column in which he described rather high expectations for the coming season. Let me read a bit of it to you.

”…The Bear don’t know nuthin’ about trends, but the Bear does know that LMP1 and GT2 are hot, hot, hot, GT1 is not, not (at least for now), and LMP2 is, well, LMP2...Ten to twelve big (LMP1) prototypes? It could happen… so Porsches (in GT2) will still number five or six, but be outgunned by the combined numbers of challengers. Murphy can’t remember when that has ever happened…Murphy is thinking he’ll see a “core group” of thirty-six on the grid, and be into the forties more than once (during the season). Of course, don’t forget, the Bear is pretty irresponsible, and all this could be just scurrilous rumor…”

Do you generally agree with that assessment – will there be strong growth in 2006, and will it be particularly notable in LMP1 and GT2? Where do you see the likely growth in 2006?

TM: Well the Bear is a wise creature – although for some reason partial to Minnesota in the winter.

Seriously though, I think that we can expect growth. While I don’t think that four car classes are acceptable, I also don’t think that large grids are the way to measure strength either.

Again – our brand is about the exotic; the leading edge elite sportscars that have been the stuff of legend – not about the herd. The generation of Lolas and the Audi R8s have represented a stable generation of cars that have constantly developed. We are going though a transition to a new generation, but those cars are going to be a great investment for those interested in being part of this elite heritage. Just look at the performance all season long of the Fields. Just look at the performance of John Macaluso. Look at what Jeff Giangrande’s ACEMCO team has accomplished against the world’s best.

To me, those battles ought to catch the Bear’s fur on fire – and with just a few more of those down the road, wow – can you spell e-x-c-i-t-e-m-e-n-t !! I can – it’s spelled A-L-M-S !!

 

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