IMSA, the International Motor Sports Association, has a long history as the premier sanctioning body for sports car competition in North America.
The sanctioning body was founded in 1969 by John Bishop with the assistance of NASCAR President Bill France Sr. Bishop was a 12-year employee of the Sports Car Club of America, who elected to follow his own vision for professional road racing. Bishop and his wife, Peggy, brought a family-style feel to the organization, based in Bridgeport, Conn.
The first IMSA-sanctioned race was at Pocono International Raceway in Oct., 1969, a Formula Ford and Formula Vee event that paid $3,000 and attracted 348 spectators. Bishop abandoned his plans for open-wheel competition by the end of 1970, concentrating on forming a six-race series in 1971 for FIA Group 2 and Group 4 sports cars, along with “Baby Grand” stock cars.
That series became the IMSA GT Series.The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company began sponsoring what became Camel GT in 1972, and the series quickly gained in popularity. Bishop’s vision of adding prototype sports cars in the early 1980s proved to be a huge success, and the series thrived throughout the 1980s with many of the top names in U.S. and international sports cars battling on North America’s top road circuits in Porsche, Jaguar, Ford, Nissan, Chevrolet and Toyota Camel GTP Prototypes.
In addition to the GTP Prototypes, Camel GT also featured Camel Lights Prototypes and production-based competition in the GTO, GTU and American GT classes. IMSA also sanctioned American stock cars in the Kelly American Challenge; small sedans in the Champion Spark Plug Challenge; production cars in the Firestone Firehawk Endurance Championship; exotics in the Bridgestone Super Car Championship; and open-wheel cars in the Barber Saab Pro Series.
Bishop sold the organization to Florida businessmen Mike Cone and Jeff Parker in 1989. The company was relocated to Tampa, Fla. With a sharp drop in participation in the GTP class due to a challenging economy, IMSA announced a shift to a revolutionary concept for 1994, introducing the World Sports Car, an open-cockpit prototype.
There were many additional changes for 1994. Florida businessman and GT racer Charlie Slater purchased IMSA. Exxon USA took over sponsorship of the series, which became the EXXON World Sports Car Championship, while GT competition took place in the EXXON Supreme GT Series.
In September 1996, the International Motor Sports Group – a conglomerate including Roberto Mueller and Andy Evans – purchased IMSA and changed its name to Professional SportsCar Racing for 1997.
Many changes took place over the following three years. The United States Road Racing Championship sanctioned races with the assistance of the Sports Car Club of America in 1998-99.
While originally affiliated with the USRRC, Don Panoz departed to hold the inaugural Petit Le Mans endurance race at Road Atlanta in 1998. He expanded that concept into a full series in 1999, the American Le Mans Series. He envisioned bringing European-style endurance sports car racing to America – highlighted by the 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans. Panoz also acquired rights to IMSA, which became the sanctioning body for the organization.
Faced without a sanctioning body for Daytona International Speedway’s flagship road race, Jim France put together a team of investors who shared his vision for a new North American sports car championship to carry on the legacy of the series co-founded by his father, Bill France Sr., 30 years earlier. GRAND-AM Road Racing debuted with the 2000 running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and ran its opening three seasons with similar classes to the ALMS.
From its birth in 1999, the ALMS proclaimed its racing “For the Fans,” and built a loyal group of followers. The series later undertook a number of initiatives to become recognized as the Global Leader in Green Racing, gaining both national and international recognition for its Green Racing protocols.
GRAND-AM took a radical step when it introduced the Daytona Prototype as its lead class beginning in 2003. The new car became popular with both fans and drivers for its durability, affordability and safety. The DP attracted competitors from NASCAR, IndyCar and international sports car racing, especially to GRAND-AM’s marquee events at Daytona, Watkins Glen and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
While both series were successful on their own, it became apparent that they would have to combine in order to grow the sport. The two groups announced in Sept. 2012 they would merge into one organization beginning with the 2014 season. Fittingly, it was also announced that the unified series would be sanctioned by IMSA.
IMSA's WeatherTech SportsCar Championship opens with a pair of historic events – the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring fueled by Fresh from Florida – building on the vision of John Bishop and Bill France Sr. from 45 years ago.