American Le Mans Series President Scott Atherton Interview
Braselton, GA - The American Le Mans Series is close to completing its sixth season of operation, with two events remaining on the 2004 calendar.
The series will be holding its annual "State of the Series" press conference on Friday, September 24, the day before the running of Chevy presents Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. The 2005 schedule will be announced at that press conference and series officials will make several other announcements as well. The season will then conclude with the Fry's Electronics Sports Car Championships event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif., Oct. 14-16.
With one of the biggest races of the season only days away, series President and CEO Scott Atherton answered some questions about the future of the series and a variety of other topics.
Q: One of the questions most often heard in the industry concerns the stability of the series. Can you address that?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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 ACO.
Q: Will the 2005 schedule include any more "long" races?
Scott Atherton: 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 broadcasts.
Q: Would you consider doing an event in conjunction with Champ Car, the IRL or another series?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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?
Scott Atherton: 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.
About the American Le Mans Series
The American Le Mans Series is a series of North American sports car races based on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's most famous endurance race. American Le Mans Series races feature four classes of race cars competing for class wins and the overall win, with the fields including many of the same drivers and cars that compete at Le Mans. The series holds events at many of North America's premier permanent road racing facilities. The series motto is "For the Fans" and all events feature driver autograph sessions, open paddocks and unprecedented access for fans. All events are on television in the United States. Well-known automotive brand names such as Audi, Corvette, Dodge, Ferrari, Lamborghini, MG, Nissan, Panoz, Porsche and Saleen are represented on the series. The series, which has its headquarters in Braselton, Ga., was founded in 1999 by entrepreneur Don Panoz and is sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA).