The 2020 Rolex 24 will take place this upcoming weekend (Jan. 25-26) at Daytona International Speedway. The 24-hour long road course race and automobile showcase is the first event of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season – it’s also the series’ ‘Super Bowl’. Twelve original equipment manufacturers will participate in the IMSA sanctioned endurance race; more OEMs than NASCAR (3), IndyCar (2) and F1 (5) have combined. The grueling twice around the clock competition serves as both a testing incubator and sales floor for each manufacturing partner.
Howie Long-Short: The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) is the sanctioning body for seven sports car racing series (including the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship). In total, seventeen different manufacturers use IMSA’s “extreme [racing] environment as a proof point for production or as a laboratory to test engine and powertrain technologies and overall vehicle platforms [that will eventually be used in road cars].” The belief is that the difficult race conditions create an environment that enables more testing to be done in a twenty-four hour period than R&D engineers could accomplish in “hundreds of thousands of miles of highway road testing.”
The IMSA series also serves as a traveling auto show for premium manufacturers (think: Audi, AMG Mercedes, BMW). Because “the cars on the track are directly consumer identifiable (i.e. they look like models on the street) and each OEM has a display set-up on the infield to showcase their products” (in some cases, they offer ride and drive experiences that give fans the chance to get behind the wheel and sample the current lineup) there is a direct correlation between competing in (and winning) races and vehicle sales. ISMA President John Doonan said, “[manufacturers] used to say race on Sunday, sell on Monday and there is still a lot of truth to that.”
Doonan believes IMSA’s commitment to ensuring the costs associated with running a car are “less prohibitive than some of the major global championships” is key to retaining so many OEM partners. “Cutting down on the number of days that teams need to operate during an event weekend and controlling the costs on regulations has enabled many of the manufacturers [who lack the budget to fund a NASCAR, IndyCar or F1 car] to challenge in the series.”
While each of the OEMs have a factory team that chases prize money, “many also have customer teams” that serve as profit centers. Customer teams buy race-ready cars (and the necessary spare parts as the season goes along) from the manufacturer who continues to support them. Doonan said “[manufacturers] with customer teams are prime examples of how to establish [a successful] revenue and profit model within motorsports.” The IMSA President considers Porsche the “business case” for investing in racing.
Media (see: NBC television deal + TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold) and corporate partnership revenues (think: 17 manufacturers, WeatherTech, Michelin + 11 others) drive the IMSA business. Sanctioning fees (from the 10 tracks IMSA races at that it doesn’t own), entry fees (from customer teams) and ticket sales and rental revenues (from the two tracks IMSA owns and operates) are the racing governing body’s other income streams “that help to make the numbers work.”
Fan Marino: For those wondering, while the cars (and pit crews) run non-stop for twenty-four hours at the Rolex 24, the drivers operate in shifts. Each team has at least three drivers (some will have four) that rotate throughout the race.
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