JOhn Doonan is extremely kind. The Illinois native isn’t just “Midwestern friendly.” He is widely regarded as one of the nicest men in motorsport. His passion for racing can disarm even the most cynical among us. It’s a good thing in his job.
This story originally appeared in Volume 13 of Road & Track.
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Since late 2019, Doonan has served as president of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA), the NASCAR-owned sanctioning body of America’s premier sports car racing series. Its job is basically to keep a lot of people happy – promoters, advertisers, racers, automakers, drivers, fans and many more. He is also one of the few to preside over the biggest change in sports prototype racing in a generation.
Since 2013, no top sports prototype has been eligible to compete on a global scale, and since 1997 only one car has been able to race the triple crown of endurance racing: Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. That changes in 2023 with the introduction of LMDh, a new set of rules agreed by IMSA and the ACO (governing body of the 24 Hours of Le Mans) that promises to bring an unprecedented number of manufacturer entries to racing. endurance prototypes. Under the new regulatory scheme, hybrid vehicles will be able to compete on an even playing field through the use of a balance of performance mechanism, with cars built to the existing FIA and ACO Le Mans Hypercar class.
Doonan’s first IMSA races as a participant were at Road America in 1979—he was nine—and in 1981, when the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) era began. “It was magical,” he says. R&T in an interview held during the North East Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park. The idea with LMDh was to recreate the magic, and in the IMSA WeatherTech series the GTP name was revived for the occasion. (LMDh is the type of car; GTP is the name of the class in which these cars will compete in the United States)
GTP “was a very memorable milestone in the history of IMSA,” says Doonan. “Now, when we have this incredible opportunity for OEMs to basically do what they were doing back then, let’s recreate that. . . . And then, I think, in terms of cars that can run on multiple platforms , the World Endurance Championship [WEC], Le Mans, and here, there was no question of us talking about it with the ACO and the FIA. . . about how there was a time when an OEM could build a car – it makes my hair stand on end – a car here and race it there without even changing the decal package.
To attract automakers, LMDh must be both affordable and valuable. In the past, prototype racing has tended to turn into an unsustainable spending war, with automakers pricing themselves out of competition. Although never confirmed, Audi and Porsche were rumored to be spending around $200 million a year on their LMP1 programs in the middle of the last decade, which if true is firmly in territory. Formula 1 before the cost cap. It just can’t work in a world where sports car racing isn’t as important as F1.
Offering a global platform is already an attractive proposition, but the design of LMDh cars also helps reduce development costs while creating marketing value. The chassis comes from Dallara, Ligier, Multimatic or Oreca, and a specific hybrid system comes from Bosch, Williams Advanced Engineering and Xtrac [for more details, see “Hybrid Theory,” page 36]. Next year, Acura and Cadillac will transition from IMSA’s current DPi formula to LMDh, with new entries from BMW and Porsche set to join the grid. In 2024, Lamborghini will use an LMDh car globally, while Alpine will build one just for the FIA WEC, which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Doonan was part of the early talks that led to LMDh in his previous role as head of Mazda Motorsports, a position he held for eight years with moderate success. (He was at Mazda for a total of 19 years.) He now views much of his work as fostering collaborations between everyone who has a vested interest in LMDh. “The only way I think ultimately will get to the first-run unveiling of this new platform in 2023 is for everyone to work together,” Doonan said in a previous phone interview. . “When this race starts, it’s every outfitter for themselves, and they’re going to come out and put on an amazing show. But to get us to the starting point, it’s been a very genuine level of communication between everyone to s ensure that, collectively as a sport, we get to the right place, reliably, so the cars can go out and perform.
Doonan is full of praise for IMSA’s technical managers, Simon Hodgson and Matt Kurdock, and their ACO counterpart, Thierry Bouvet. He also says that while he misses being at the heart of the competition, he is fascinated with how the IMSA Series works and the challenges of being Series President.
“For me, actually, the business side of this sport – well, my dad and my grandfather were pilots – the business side is what has always intrigued me,” he says. “I saw or felt it could be a marketing tool, not just for automakers, but for other brands who thought it was fertile ground to sell more products or build a brand.”
Part of his job is to create a good place for automakers and advertisers to invest their money. Part of this is defining classes that are profitable both to enter and to stay. “Another vision of ours is to make sure that we position ourselves, not just IMSA, but all stakeholders, for a pleasant and clear path, so that when people invest to run here, that it is whether it’s an OEM or an individual race team, they pretty much know what’s to come for the next five years.
LMDh cars will be subject to a five-year homologation, so theoretically a car that joins the GTP category in 2023 will be competitive for years to come. The makers have spoken – Doonan thinks others will also join the series – and now it’s all about bringing more people to the show.
It’s an interesting time for motorsport in North America, with Formula 1 finally breaking through, NASCAR’s Next Gen car producing big races and Roger Penske’s successful takeover of IndyCar all offering huge opportunities. Doonan sees a chance to bring more people into sports car racing, especially car enthusiasts who don’t know much about IMSA.
“For us it’s about being there,” he says, “talking about our history, because you’re right: there’s a big spotlight on motor racing in general, and because of the number of manufacturers who participate, we have a great story to tell and an incredible stage. . . . This is the ultimate laboratory and the ultimate proving ground. And we need to tell that story as much as possible to fully leverage the momentum that the whole sport has right now.
Doonan thinks IMSA can replicate the success of NASCAR’s Next Gen car with GTP. “The Next Gen car has enabled Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota to design more than [they did with] the previous generation car,” he says. “And clearly in GTP and LMDh the designers have been given a completely clear palette, obviously as part of a technical regulation, but when you see the Acura, the BMW, the Cadillac, the Porsche [fig. 1]and others to come, it is the ultimate expression of these brands.
The fundamental appeal of sports car racing has always been the obvious connection to road cars. Sure, the days of road-legal cars at Le Mans and Daytona are long gone, but it’s still easy to tell the difference between the cars you see on the street and the ones you see on the track. And that’s why you get Porsche fans, Corvette fans, BMW fans, etc., at every race. Doonan believes that LMDh cars are central to why sports car racing is loved in the first place.
“You should be able to pull an Acura GT car or an Acura road car and position it next to the GTP car and see the mark,” he says. “I think what I’m most proud of and excited about for the whole sport is that I think we’ve achieved that. OEMs have embraced this, and I think the fans will benefit.
Not that the new era of IMSA is a guaranteed success. It’s a tricky time to make big changes to a series that has historically trumped some of the others. F1’s popularity is exploding in the US like never before, and NASCAR and IndyCar are on the rise, meaning IMSA must compete for attention. The economy is facing severe uncertainty, which means the future of everything is uncertain. And motorsport is an extremely complex industry.
If nothing else, Doonan has enthusiasm on his side. His passion is contagious and he comes across as someone who is ready to roll up his sleeves and doesn’t want to become jaded.
He may not have been working for IMSA when the seeds of LMDh were first sown, but he seems like a man in the right place at the right time to succeed. Apparently, it pays to be nice.