Sports car racing series IMSA is kicking off its 2018 season this weekend with the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and IMSA’s top executive said that a confluence of factors have greatly bolstered the event.
For starters, two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso will be among the competitors. Alonso — shepherded to the race by McLaren executive director Zak Brown, who owns a team competing in the Rolex 24 — also competed in, and significantly elevated, last year’s Indianapolis 500 in IndyCar. Scott Atherton, IMSA president and chief operating officer, said his series is seeing a similar response from Alonso joining Brown’s sports car team, United Autosports.
Other highlights of this year’s event include the return of Team Penske to sports car racing via a star-studded driver lineup and new partnership with Honda’s Acura brand, and the presence of Jackie Chan DC Racing, a Chinese team co-owned by actor Jackie Chan.
“There’s never been more momentum, interest, energy and overall buzz surrounding this debut event for our 2018 season, and that’s not a throwaway or PR line,” Atherton said. “When you add together all the news that’s been announced over the last several months … it’s unprecedented.”
Media credential requests are up more than 20 percent from last year, driven by European and other international interest, while advanced ticket sales are up double digits over last year. Infield camping, infield parking and the infield expo display area are sold out, while Daytona International Speedway is nearly sold out of corporate hospitality.
To further drum up publicity about its upcoming season, IMSA, which is controlled by NASCAR’s France family, is conducting a New York media tour for the first time and will have a presence at this week’s NASCAR media tour for the first time.
The Rolex 24 is an endurance race where drivers take turns driving multi-hour stints for a team as part of the 24-hour event. Fox Sports will broadcast the race across its family of channels, including the first three hours of the competition on Fox’s broadcast network.
IMSA boasts an eye-opening 17 auto manufacturers involved and is in talks for others to join. Atherton said all manufacturer deals require full activation programs on site and media buys.
Bobby Rahal, co-owner of the BMW Team RLL in IMSA and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, agreed with Atherton that the series has momentum, but said the key will be to keep it.
“If you’re thinking of manufacturer involvement, IMSA has a huge amount,” Rahal said. “I don’t think IMSA has ever been in as good of position as it currently is; the trick will be maintaining that, but clearly sports car racing is in a pretty good spot right now.”