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American Le Mans, GRAND-AM join forces

September 05, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com



American Le Mans, GRAND-AM join forces

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In what's being described as a historical development, sports car racing's two marquee sanctioning bodies -- GRAND-AM Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series -- jointly announced a merger for the 2014 season in a news conference at Daytona International Speedway Wednesday.

*Video: Watch the merger's announcement

"I think sports-car racing has a distinct possibility, and I definitely think we can improve the current conditions. ...And there is no doubt in my mind that answer lies in the two groups who are combining forces starting today."

--JIM FRANCE

GRAND-AM founder Jim France evoked the words of his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., in formally announcing the news to a packed house of racing dignitaries that included his nephew, NASCAR chairman Brian France and the company president Mike Helton, who were seated on the front row.

"I think sports-car racing has a distinct possibility, and I definitely think we can improve the current conditions. ...And there is no doubt in my mind that answer lies in the two groups who are combining forces starting today.'' Jim France told the crowded room and live television audience, paraphrasing his father's prophetic words 65 years ago about the future of stock-car racing.

After six months of what's been described as amiable negotiations, the principal executives from both series say they have agreed to a vision of sports-car racing in North America, even if they haven't finalized the details of the new series.

There is no name yet and, while the executives suggested 12 would be a good number of races for the inaugural 2014 season, the technical rules that will govern the racing aren't even on the drawing board yet.

"There's still 14 months to work on that,'' France said with a smile.

ALMS Founder Dr. Don Panoz and president Scott Atherton were adamant, however, that the new-look series would include a class compatible with the Automobile Club d l'Ouest rules that govern the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans event.

Atherton said from the very first meeting he had with France the two agreed it was fundamentally important to do so.

"It is an important priority to retain the relationship with the ACO and the link to Le Mans,'' Atherton said.

Porsche, SRT, Chevrolet and Mazda had representatives at the announcement and all the manufacturers said they were encouraged -- even excited by this development.

"We know the people on both sides,'' Beth Peretta, director of marketing and operations for SRT, said. "We're really excited what this will mean for the fans, but when you put this all together, this is a global move today.''

General Motors was equally as optimistic about the merger.

"We are already deeply involved in both sides, so the financial reality of what this means is a good thing,'' Mark Reuss, GM president, North America, said. "The sky's the limit."

Tres Stephenson, president of the historic Sebring International Raceway, was especially enthusiastic about what the merger would mean to venues around the country. Several times during the news conference, executives mentioned the possibility of opening the 2014 season with the Rolex 24 at Daytona, then travelling south for the legendary 12 Hours of Sebring.

"There is just so much we can do with this,'' Stephenson said. "This merger gets road racing back to where it needed to be. The timing was finally right.''

Longtime sports car team owner Rob Dyson, who has fielded cars in both series at various times, said he had been part of a movement five years earlier to try to bring the two series together.

"I can't tell you how relieved I am,'' said Dyson, whose primary suggestions for the new look are cars that are "fast and aspirational." He also said, "Our prototypes should be really cool, fighter-aircraft style and exotic."

Dyson also expects a big benefit from GRAND-AM's relationship with sister series NASCAR and with the merger he hopes that fans will better be able to follow the series.

"We'll get date equity again and fans can start putting the races on their schedule," Dyson said.

Four-time GRAND-AM Daytona Prototype champion Scott Pruett said he first got official news of the merger Tuesday in a phone call from France.

"Wow, historic and exciting -- that's what I was thinking," said Pruett, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. "This is really going to put road racing on a new level. [In] my life in road racing there has always been so much change. This is the next step, the security for the future."

Even NASCAR officials were caught up in the significance of the announcement.

The future of sports-car racing in North America is announced with the merger between Grand-Am Road Racing and the American Le Mans Series at the Daytona 500 Club. (Brian Cleary/Grand-Am)

"For motorsports in general, a healthy sports-car series is vital and this is the best opportunity in a long time for that,'' said Helton, who is a longtime sports-car fan and regular attendee of the Rolex 24 at Daytona each February. "The future will define what today's all about."