Scott Atherton found time during the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) Sebring Winter Test in January to grant Motorsport.com and Business Week Online an exclusive interview. In Part 1, we focused on Elan Motorsports Technologies (EMT), one of the companies that Atherton oversees as the chief executive officer and president of the Panoz Motor Sports Group (PMSG).
In Part 2 of our interview, we focus on the other entities owned by PMSG (its racing businesses) and how they interact with world motorsport governing bodies.
Atherton simplifies the company, stating, "The overall structure of PMSG, being the overall umbrella, is that underneath that umbrella you have racetracks, racing schools, racing series, a sanctioning body, and you have a whole manufacturing division that has its own umbrella."
PMSG has not added new companies since 2000. "Just about everything was in place and operating when I came. I don't think we have added any new businesses since I came into play," he says with a smile. "We have just grown the existing business to higher levels of performance."
Atherton's role quickly expanded during his first year with Panoz when "the racetracks became part of my responsibility and with the racetracks came the racing schools."
Over the years, the three tracks (Mosport International Raceway, Sebring International Raceway and Road Atlanta) have had modifications, "components that one cannot always see... mainly safety issues."
Atherton explains that "the only way any of this could be managed by any one person is to have very good people in very key positions. For instance, every racetrack has a president and general manager."
One of the main organizations PMSG owns is the motorsports sanctioning body IMSA, the International Motor Sports Association. IMSA was founded in 1969 as a professional road racing series that also organized competitions. The organization changed hands later but remained the sanctioning body for endurance sportscar racing in North America with connections to the 24 Hours of Le Mans -- the world's premier sportscar endurance race.
In 1997, Professional Sports Car Racing, Inc. bought IMSA. It sanctioned the first ALMS season in 1999, and as 1999 came to a close the group sold the sanctioning organization to Panoz. Trademark rights to the name IMSA were re-established under the PMSG umbrella on October 5, 2001. "The sanctioning body IMSA is completely autonomous -- a totally separate stand-alone business that is managed very effectively by Tim Mayer, who is the chief operating officer, and Doug Robinson, who is the executive director. Between the two of them they literally run all of IMSA. It, in its own right, has become very successful also in the last few years. Ironically IMSA today is the leading sanctioning body of developmental racing series (in North America)."
Those development series are Formula BMW USA, Porsche GT3, Star Mazda and the new IMSA Lites. "So if you look at the Panoz company collectively, we are building the cars, we're sanctioning the series, it is almost a complete closed loop here of companies that are inter-related and that support and feed off each other," says Atherton.
Atherton, Panoz, Robinson and Mayer are also directly involved with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO), which organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). This involvement includes working with the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS), the American affiliate for the FIA. So what value does PMSG gain from being actively involved with other racing organizations?
"I believe that IMSA, and indirectly PMSG, is the only entity that has representation at both the ACO level and the FIA level. Both Tim and Doug have seats on the FIA commissions. Tim is member of the FIA GT commission and Doug is a member of the FIA manufacturers' commission. I believe they are the only North American representatives that are involved in either group. We also have the same situation with ACCUS," comments Atherton.
"I'm personally directly involved with (the) core relationship we have with the ACO," he continues. "Don also plays an important role with his personal relationship, which is significant. But... the day-to-day business contact, that is my role. From the technical side -- for the actual creation and administration of rules and regulations -- while I am involved with that and aware of what is going on, the actual day-to-day focus there lies in Tim and Doug's hands and in turn they deal with their counterparts in the ACO, and to a lesser degree, with the FIA."
Several years back, the FIA and ACO were not as friendly as they are today. IMSA's connection with both groups means the future is brighter.
"I believe that our role is, in part, responsible for bringing the FIA and the ACO together. Five years ago when I started, there was a large separation in philosophy and in rules and just about every category you can measure between the FIA and the ACO. They were not together and they were doing everything possible to make life difficult for each other," explains Atherton.
"If you hit the fast-forward button to where we are today, it is almost the opposite in that rules and regulations have been truly combined into a single book. And the level of cooperation between the two, at least in my mind by modern day references, is at an all-time high in that you have a single platform for sportscar regulations and that is good news for everyone. You can now build a single race car and race it literally anywhere in the world, in Europe,(at) Le Mans, Asia, the US and if you want to go to LMES, ALMS, FIA-GT, you have one set of rules. Now each one has their own interpretation of those rules but if you are a car constructor it is a single platform."
Atherton explains how changing the ALMS series logo (in January) fits in to this: "When we say the American Le Mans Series World Class, here is another example where, truly on a global scale, we are actively involved in not only the marketing element but the administration, the creation of rules and regulations...it is not a passive role, it is a very active position we have."
So why does it take so much time for a new ALMS prototype to actually get on the racetrack? Atherton goes through the steps: "It takes in excess of three years from the point that we formally approach them. It probably requires, over that period of time, half a dozen dedicated trips to the manufacturer and dozens of meetings and a full-court effort by us to justify why the manufacturer should build a prototype. And that is only when you have someone who is genuinely interested and wants to be here."
It takes time, and that leads to the close relationship that Atherton and his staff have with their manufacturers. "We have, I think we are blessed with some of the closest relationships that any sanctioning body can have with a manufacturer who is also a competitor...because typically those relationships are more often than not very stressful and strained. Because normally those two entities' agendas are most likely in conflict more than they are in harmony.
"The rapport and the relationship that we develop is probably unmatched in the industry. I have been involved in enough other forms of motorsports to have a pretty good idea of how manufacturers and series work together. We have demonstrated the ability, for the lack of a better term, to keep a secret. Our handling of confidential information is very valuable to them and helps to bring projects to fruition."
For that reason, Atherton stands firmly by the rule that the manufacturer is the one to decide when to make major announcements, not the series. "It is never our news to announce, but if you look at the Porsche announcement, we worked in concert...and that was well orchestrated. We offer to work with any manufacturer but it is up to them."
Why race in ALMS? That's easy for Atherton. "I heard it today from a competitor who is not actively involved in our series but very well known in the motorsports circle, and the question was one of 'relevance'...they used that word. Their concern was that other forms of motorsports have lost their relevance, especially in the eyes of the manufacturer. What is the point of a manufacturer being involved if it doesn't have a direct link to a high level of technology that they can demonstrate or a direct link back to their showroom -- the product they are selling? And that is where I think the ALMS is positioned better than any one other form of motorsports period, because we literally represent the best of both worlds.
"The prototypes are absolutely beautiful, they're sexy, they're exciting, they represent the bleeding edge of technology. So for a manufacturer that is looking to brand their technology and their expertise and superiority over their competition, I cannot think of a better package than what is embodied in an LMP prototype."
Now if you are a manufacturer that wants to celebrate the product, not so much the technology, then the GT categories are literally direct links back to the showroom...these cars are all production-based. Their drive trains have their origins in the...car as it sits on the showroom floor. The physical appearance is identical to (it), and the technology involved. Every aspect of that car has its roots as it appears in its street-legal form."
Atherton is just as committed now as he was when he signed on for the job, but he does admit with a smile that, "there were times that it was not pleasant to be in this position. Right now it is a pretty fun job to have."
Atherton's eyes light up thinking of the future: "Think about it: cars of this era and the racing of this era, I believe is going to go down in history as, maybe it's not the benchmark but certainly a high-water mark in sportscar racing history. Years from now, what is going to be featured in the Monterey Historics or Goodwood in Europe?
"I am going to go on record that whoever the Steve Earl is of that era is, I believe that the cars that are part of the ALMS will be the cars that are featured. They will be heralded as the examples of this incredible golden era that we are experiencing today. They represent the technology of today. Can you imagine it? Audi has the feature marque, and the excitement of seeing the R8 run?"
Click here for Part 1 of this interview.