How he thinks the first year of the merged series has gone, and what to expect next season.
On Sept. 5, 2012, it was announced that the Grand-Am series and the American Le Mans Series would merge for the 2014 season, forming the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. Jim France, son of NASCAR founder "Big" Bill France, has always been involved in NASCAR, but his affection for sports car racing has kept him largely on that side of the sport. In the photo above, France, of Grand-Am, shakes on the deal with Dr. Don Panoz, founder of the ALMS.
France, also the chairman of IMSA, the sanctioning body, turns 70 later this month. He does not need to work, to show up at his understated office in a building a few miles removed from the Daytona International Speedway and the NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation complex there, but he does, despite the fact that last week Forbes magazine ranked him number 307 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, with $2.1 billion. (Yes, he did pick up the tab for lunch.)
But France loves racing, still loves riding motorcycles, still hates the spotlight. Unlike his late father and his brother, Jim France does not command attention when he enters the room. His sense of humor is dry and well-delivered, and he has been an immense and gentle comfort to Lesa France Kennedy, and her son Ben, currently racing in the NASCAR Camping World truck series, largely because Jim did all he could to step in when Lesa's husband and Ben's father, Dr. Bruce Kennedy, was killed in an airplane crash. Bruce Kennedy was just beginning to get Ben interested in racing quarter-midgets at a track NASCAR racer Mark Martin helped build for his son, Matt. But just as Matt was moving on to other interests, Ben Kennedy, with encouragement from Jim France and Martin, began racing at a local level, and is rising through the ranks. And now that he has graduated from college, Ben could well end up in Sprint Cup, Jim says.
But we digress.
Prior to the Petit Le Mans, the final race of the TUDOR Championship inaugural season, we spoke to Jim France about how he thinks the past year has gone, and what he and his staff are planning for the future.
The last time we formally spoke, it was just before the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and you talked about what your hopes were for this first year of the merged series. Now, as it comes to a close, what are your thoughts about this season?
I feel like it has been a heck of an exciting year. All in all, I think the merger has been very well-executed. We’ve had problems here and there, but that happens when you put two series together. We had some officiating issues early on, but I think we’ve addressed that.
Every race we’ve had has been an exciting one. To me, it’s reflective of the quality of drivers. If you have good teams and good drivers, you’ll have good racing. We’ve had a lot of wheel-to-wheel action. We haven’t lost anything – I think we’ve just gotten better.
What was the toughest aspect to accomplish for your team?
I think [Managing Director, Technical Regulations] Scot Elkins and his team have done a great job in trying to match up two totally different Prototype concepts. We have some good racing in the class, very close – at some tracks, the racing has been closer than others. But I think there was a lot of skepticism when we announced that we were going to run the two Prototypes together, and that they could race each other successfully, and Scot and his people accomplished that. Technically, that was one of the most difficult aspects to tackle, to balance the different chassis, different engines, different bodies – it’s an ongoing challenge that most other series don’t have.
From a business standpoint, has the merger worked?
From the business end, it was a home run. The industry, particularly those companies with an interest in sports car racing, were overwhelmingly positive about the merger. The biggest question we heard was, ‘What took you so long?’ So from that standpoint, participation by the manufacturers and the sponsors has been really positive. One of the most interesting aspects, from my standpoint at least, is that the research and data indicated that the overlap of fan bases in the two series was just 12 percent. When I heard that, I thought, ‘That can’t be true,’ but we’re assured that it was.
This year, I think, the spectator count has been up, some of them significantly, so I think that validates that we have fans from both series coming together. Consolidating the fan base has automatically grown the sport. So we’re very pleased. It’s not often that when you put together a plan -- a competition plan and a business plan -- to put two competing organizations together, you see the model perform like you hoped. This one has reached all the thresholds we set.
There haven’t been many complaints about the schedule this year, and even fewer about next year.
We gave the tracks a year to get all the pieces together and ready to mesh, and the way that’s worked has been one of the major benefits of the merger. And I think one of the major accomplishments of this year is to announce our 2015 schedule as early as we did. To me, that was a major accomplishment to get that in the hands of the tracks and the teams and the fans in August. That was a milestone for us.
The Continental Tire Challenge Series seems to be strong, too.
That’s some of the best racing we have right now. It’s a great opportunity for some great drivers and great teams to showcase what they can do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the TUDOR series or the Continental series, great racing is great racing.
Are you expecting more manufacturers to show up?
Right now between TUDOR and Continental, I think we have 11 different manufacturers. I think we’ll see some new manufacturers in the Prototype series – there’s a lot of interest out there. I think we’ll see some new teams stepping up when we have the new formula ready to reveal. I think once it’s established, we’ll see some additional manufacturers in the series.
I don’t see a lot of the top executives of racing series out there walking pit lane during races. For all the hits Tony George at IndyCar took, I saw him at a lot of races. I see you out there a lot, too.
Tony and I literally grew up in the sport. And I always did have a passion for it. And I still do.