IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 66th annual Mobile 12 Hours of Sebring N¡77 Mazda Team Joest - Mazda DPi - Oliver Jarvis/Tristan Nunez/Rene Rast

this week marks the 50th aniversary of IMSA, the International Motorsports Association, and to mark that milestone we’re reprinting the lookback on IMSA’s history. Join us for a ride through the decades from June 1969 to the present day.

THE SIXTIES: SPORTS CAR RACING COMES OF AGE

12 Hours of Sebring 1969 . Image by Louis Galanos

The Sixties, where a bitter rival between manufacturers helped elevate the two races to international prestige.

Failing in its attempt to buy out Ferrari in the early 1960s, the Ford Motor Company decided to go all-out to defeat the Italian automaker on the race track. While Ford’s main focus was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, two Florida race tracks would play a key role in this new rivalry.

Modern American sports car racing actually dates back to 1948, when World War II veteran Cameron Argetsinger decided to host a European-style grand prix on public roads around his adopted home of Watkins Glen, N.Y. The event was very successful, and other venues soon followed suit.

After watching the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Alec Ulmann decided to build an event to rival the French classic, using Hendricks Field, an abandoned WWII B-17 training base outside Sebring, Fla. He started with a three-hour race in 1950, and extended it to 12 hours in 1952. The following year, it was part of the FIA World Manufacturers Championship, which would continue through 1972, with crowds packing the facility to enjoy both the racing and Florida’s mild winter weather.

Meanwhile, William H.G. France founded NASCAR in 1948 to sanction American stock car racing, including the events he held annually on a beach-and-road circuit in Daytona Beach, Fla. “Big Bill” also enjoyed sports cars, promoting races at a nearby airport in New Smyrna Beach. France built Daytona International Speedway in 1959, taking the novel step of incorporating an infield road circuit inside the massive high-banked 2.5-mile trioval. After holding club races at the speedway beginning in 1962, France held his first international event, the Daytona Continental, in 1962, as a prelude to the Daytona 500 while running one month ahead of the Sebring event.

Dan Gurney took the checkered flag for the first Daytona Continental, literally rolling to victory after he lost the engine in his Lotus-Climax 19B and stopped just shy of the finish line with a minute remaining. Gurney would go on to play a major role in developments throughout the Sixties – and then would return as a successful car owner in the late 1980s.

With Ford and Ferrari ready to go to war, the stage was set to extend the battleground to the two Florida venues. After two successful three-hour races, France extended the Daytona Continental to 2,000 kilometers in 1964 – approximately 30 minutes longer than the Sebring classic.

Ferrari drew first blood in the battle by scoring podium sweeps at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans in 1964. Dan Gurney took fourth at both Daytona and Le Mans to lead the blue oval. Ford was racing the new Daytona Coupe fielded by Carroll Shelby, but was also hard at work developing prototype race cars designed only for racing.

For 1965, Ford had a new weapon, the sleek GT40, and let Ferrari know it meant business with a top-four sweep at Daytona. Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby led the Ford charge, with the top Ferrari coming home seventh. The Ferrari factory opted not to compete at Sebring, where a Chevrolet-powered Chaparral 2 driven by owner Jim Hall and Hap Sharp won over a GT40. The stage was set for a Ford vs. Ferrari showdown at Le Mans, where Ferrari dominated with a podium sweep while Ford’s new Mk IIs and GT40s failed to finish.

After falling flat, Ford would spare no expense for 1966. Sensing the opportunity, France extended the Continental to 24 hours, with the race also serving as the opening round of the FIA World Manufacturer’s championship. Miles and Ruby repeated as Daytona winners, leading a podium sweep with the Mk II version of the GT40. The top Ferrari was a 365 driven by Mario Andretti and Pedro Rodriguez. Miles and Ruby carried over by leading another podium sweep at Sebring. It was on to Le Mans, where Ford staged a “photo finish” in another podium sweep.

Up through 1966, Ferrari’s efforts at Daytona were led by Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team. But for 1967, the Italian manufacturer fielded a pair of factory-entered 333P4s – and dominated the race. To embarrass Ford in its home country, Ferrari staged its own “photo finish” of the top-three sweep. Taking no chances, Ferrari then opted to sit out the Sebring event, where Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren won in a new Ford Mk IV over the Mk II of A.J. Foyt and Ruby.

The climax of the Ford vs. Ferrari was at Le Mans in 1967, where a pair of American drivers teamed to win in a Shelby-prepared Mk IV. Formula One veteran and 1962 Daytona Continental winner Dan Gurney teamed with Foyt, then a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time USAC Indy car champ.

A mid-1967 rules change by the FIA that limited engine displacement made the powerful Fords and Ferraris obsolete, effectively ending the vaunted rivalry.

But the rules change opened the door for Porsche. Entering five long-tailed 907s for the race, Porsche scored a podium sweep at Daytona (with another staged photo finish). Jo Siffert and Hans Herrmann – who were among the five drivers to share the winning car at Daytona – led a one-two finish at Sebring, where Porsche won overall for the first time since Herrmann and Olivier Gendebien shared an RS60 in 1960.

The decade closed with a wild race at Daytona, where the factory Porsches fell out one by one due to the failure of an eight dollar part in the drive shaft. Mark Donohue and Chuck Parsons went on to win in a Chevrolet-powered Lola fielded by Roger Penske. At Sebring, Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver won in an “old style” Ford GT40 prepared by John Wyer.

Helped by the Ford vs. Ferrari rivalry at Le Mans, Daytona joined Sebring to share the international stage with the French classic. Both races would continue to grow through the 1970s, despite international rule changes and a domestic fuel shortage that threatened American motorsports.

THE SEVENTIES: A DECADE DOMINATED BY PORSCHES

Image courtesy of Speedhunters

The 2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona featured the debut of the Porsche 911 GT America, the latest edition in a legacy dating back to 1973 when Hurley Haywood and Peter Gregg drove a Porsche 911 RSR to victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida.

The Daytona victory was the first international triumph for a 911-based Porsche – beginning a long and successful legacy.

While the models may have changed from the exotic 917K to the production-based 911 RSR to the turbocharged 935, Porsche served as the common denominator for winning cars in the endurance classics at Daytona International Speedway and Sebring International Raceway through the 1970s.

From 1970 through 1984, the 917s and models inspired by the 911 accounted for 21 of the 26 overall victories in the two Florida classics.

“The 911 was – and is – a great car to drive,” said Haywood, who scored four of his five overall Rolex 24 victories in that production-based car. “Back then, it was the car to drive because of its reliability. It was a really strong car, while the competition was not quite as reliable. The Porsche was not necessarily the fastest car on the race track, but it was certainly the most reliable.”

The decade began in the aftermath of the scintillating Ford vs. Ferrari battles of the 1960s. While those exciting prototypes were eventually legislated out of competition, Porsche offered its 917K. John Wyer prepared winning cars for Pedro Rodriguez in both the 1970 and 1971 Daytona races, while Vic Elford and Gerard Larrousse won the 1971 Sebring event in a Martini & Rossi entry. Ferrari continued the heritage of the Sixties in the 1970 Sebring event, won by a team led by Mario Andretti in a 512S.

For 1971, the world governing organization – the FIA – moved from a five-liter to three-liter formula, making the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 obsolete. It also wanted to make all races (with the exception of Le Mans) six hours or less. Daytona experimented with the six-hour distance, while Sebring kept its traditional 12 hours, but both had the same winners – Andretti and Jacky Ickx in a Ferrari 312PB.

Both of the Florida races had the same winners in the GTU class for smaller displacement production-based cars – Gregg and Haywood in a Porsche 911. That was no surprise – Porsche 911s won in class in the four 24-hour races at Daytona from 1966 through 1969.

Five prototypes dominated the field for the 1973 Rolex 24, but it was a pair of Porsche 911 RSRs that dominated the race. Gregg and Haywood took the overall checkered flag for Brumos Racing when a similar RSR fielded by Penske Racing had a mechanical problem. Haywood and Gregg backed up their victory at Sebring, in a different RSR fielded and co-driven by Dr. Dave Helmick.

After both races were skipped in 1974 due to the international fuel crisis, Gregg and Haywood repeated at Daytona in a Brumos RSR. BMW briefly took the limelight at Sebring in 1975 and Daytona in 1976, but Porsches dominated both classics for the remainder of the decade – driven by either Haywood or Gregg in many cases.

Haywood co-drove a former Brumos RSR owned by Helmick in 1977. Gregg and Brumos won the following year in a 935, while Haywood took the 1979 race in a 935 co-driven by Ted Field and Danny Ongais. Sebring had RSRs win in 1976 (Al Holbert and Michael Keyser) and 1977 (Brad Frisselle and George Dyer), while the 935s began a five-year run at Sebring in 1978. The 1977 race saw Porsches sweep the top 10 positions in 1977, while the marque had a top-12 sweep there in 1979.

“They were very reliable,” said Frisselle, whose sons Burt and Brian now co-drive a Prototype for Action Express Racing. “It was basically a customer car. You could buy one and take it to the race. The only cars that could race against them were Corvettes and Ferraris, and they were not quite reliable. I was used to racing other cars, but you had to basically build them from scratch.”

Porsche’s reliability trumped tough competition throughout the decade. John Greenwood captured the pole and turned the fastest race lap at Daytona in 1975 in his Corvette, a showroom car that he rebuilt with plastic and space age materials. It led throughout the opening hour, only to succumb to a series of overheating issues eventually traced to the failure of a $3 part that could have been replaced in two minutes. Greenwood’s Corvette also took third overall in the 1973 Sebring 12 Hours.

A Ferrari 365GTB Daytona took second overall in the 1979 Rolex 24. The car was driven by John Morton and Tony Adamowicz in honor of car owner Otto Zipper, who died suddenly the day before the race. An all-women team of Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Bonnie Henn finished 17th in the 1979 Sebring race in a Ferrari Daytona.

At the end of the decade, Yojiro Terada led a factory lineup that finished fifth overall and first in GTU in a rotary-powered Mazda RX-7, setting the stage for that car’s success in the following decade.

The Seventies had a few odd moments. The aforementioned 1974 fuel crises cancelled both races – although thousands of fans still went to Sebring for their annual celebration. The 1976 Daytona race was red-flagged for nearly four hours due to contaminated fuel, then turned back the clock one hour upon restarting the race. The race was still 24 hours in duration, though.

The 1976 Daytona race also included a number of NASCAR stock cars, part of the “Grand International” class added to that year’s races at Daytona and Le Mans. Porsche swept the top-five positions in the 1977 Daytona race, with the streak broken by a Ferrari co-driven by famed actor Paul Newman.

Porsche’s dominance didn’t end with the close of the decade. Variations of the 935 won at Daytona through 1983 and at Sebring through 1984 (including a 934 in 1983). Mauricio DeNarvaez’s victory at Sebring in 1984 was not the end of Porsche’s domination – it was merely a changing of the guard.

THE EIGHTIES: THE REIGN OF THE IMSA GTP PROTOTYPES

A pair of sleek Rondeau Inaltera prototypes competing in the 1977 Rolex 24 At Daytona captured the attention of IMSA President John Bishop. He felt a GT Prototype class comprised of similar cars would interest American sports car fans.

While the venerable and bullet-proof Porsche 935 continued to dominate the Rolex 24 and Twelve Hours of Sebring in the early 1980s, the first GT Prototypes began to hold their own in shorter events on the IMSA GT schedule.

The first successful GTPs were the Lola T600, driven to the 1981 championship by Brian Redman, and the March 83G – including the Red Lobster-sponsored car driven by Kenper Miller and David Cowart with a paint scheme that included a pair of giant lobster claws. Bob Tullius and Group 44 offered the Jaguar XJR-5.

The 1983 Rolex 24 included a pair of Aston Martin Nimrods, including a Pepsi Challenger driven by A.J. Foyt and Darrell Waltrip. When that car broke early in the event, Foyt was pressed into service to drive Preston Henn’s Porsche 935 – despite the objections of lead driver Bob Wollek. That car went on to win, giving the 935 its sixth straight triumph at Daytona.

For 1984, Porsche introduced the 962 at Daytona. This car was a variation of the 956 that enjoyed success in Europe, with the front axle moved forward ahead of the driver’s legs per IMSA regulations. Mario Andretti captured the pole at Daytona and, joined by his son Michael, had a strong early run in the event before the new car was sidelined by overheating issues. The race was won by the South African Kreepy Krauly team in a Porsche-powered March.

One month later, Colombian Mauricio DeNarvaez won at Sebring in a privateer 935. That was the last hurrah for the model. While March won its share of races and the GTP driver championship for Blue Thunder’s Randy Lanier, Holbert and Bell broke through with the first victory for the 962 at Mid-Ohio and won five of the final eight races.

After finishing second in the 1984 Rolex 24 with a reunited Foyt and Wollek in his 935, Henn purchased his own 962 for the 1985 event. Foyt and Wollek drove to victory in Henn’s Swap Shop entry as 962s swept the top four positions. It was a unique race of father vs. son, with the elder Al Unser winning over his son Al Jr., who joined Al Holbert and Derek Bell in the Lowenbrau Special Porsche 962. Foyt and Wollek backed up the 1985 victory by winning at Sebring, with Holbert, Bell and Unser Jr. second in a podium sweep for the 962.

Holbert, Bell and the younger Unser returned to win back-to-back Daytona classics in 1986 and 1987, with 962s taking the top three places overall in both races. The 962s also won the Twelve Hours of Sebring from 1986 through 1988, with Bob Akin’s Coca-Cola-sponsored entry winning in 1986 while Bruce Levin’s Bayside Disposal car won the following two years.

While the 962 was the car to beat, it wasn’t for lack of competition. NASCAR car owner Rick Hendrick fielded a Corvette GTP that won the pole for the 1986 Rolex 24 with Sarel van der Merwe at the wheel. Don Devendort fielded a Nissan GTP that slowly developed into a top contender.

Jaguar pulled its support from the popular Tullius Group 44 entries in favor of European Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR, with the Tony Dowe-prepared cars quickly challenging for victories. After enjoying success in the production-based GTU and GTO divisions, All American Racers’ Dan Gurney entered the GTP wars with a Toyota factory-supported Eagle. BMW and Ford also fielded factory-backed Prototypes.

At one point, nine factory teams from nine manufacturers participated at the same time in GTP – Porsche, Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota, BMW, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac and Ford – the first and only time that many automakers competed simultaneously.

The result: the “Glory Years” of GTP, five seasons of some of the best endurance sports car racing ever seen. The TWR Jaguars won the Rolex 24 in 1988 and 1990, while Wollek was part of the winning lineup as Porsche 962s won in 1989 and 1991. Nissan broke through with its first of three consecutive triumphs at Sebring in 1989, including brothers Geoff and David Brabham joined by Derek Daly in the latter victory. A factory-fielded Nissan R91CP won at Daytona in 1992 – beating the leading IMSA entry, the TWR Jaguar with a lineup including Scott Pruett. Toyota won at Sebring in 1992, with Juan Fangio II and Andy Wallace in an Eagle Mk III.

The landscape changed suddenly in 1993. With Nissan and Jaguar both pulling their support – and many of the privateer Porsche teams having fallen by the wayside – Gurney’s Eagles were virtually unopposed in the GTP ranks. The Toyotas opened up 1993 with back-to-back triumphs at Daytona and Sebring. The team won every race it entered – it sat out the Road America round with the championship well in hand – and then also called it quits at the end of the year.

There was stiff competition in both the GTO and GTU ranks throughout the Eighties. In GTO – production-based cars powered by engines three liters and over – Jack Roush began a streak in 1985 that saw the former drag racer win the Rolex 24 10 consecutive times over an 11-year span in Fords and Mercuries. Roush also won the GTO class at Sebring four times from 1985 through 1990, including a victory for Pruett and Olympian Bruce Jenner in 1986. Terry Labonte prepped for his 1984 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship by doubling at both Daytona and Sebring, co-driving with NASCAR car owner Billy Hagan and Gene Felton.

The GTU class for smaller-displacement production cars saw a changing of the guard during the decade. With the class once dominated by the Porsche 911, the Wankel rotary-powered Mazda RX7 scored a breakthrough victory at Daytona in 1979, Mazda next won the Rolex 24 in 1982, beginning a streak that lasted until Porsche won in 1994. At Sebring, Mazda RX7 won the class at Sebring every year from 1980 through 1988 with the exception of a Porsche victory in 1985. Yojira Terada, who was part of the Rolex 24-winning lineup for the Mazda factory in 1979 and 1982, returned for Mazda’s first race in the GX class in 2013.

With the disappearance of the factory-backed GTP Prototypes, it was time for a change in sports car racing’s top class – with the result the open-cockpit World Sports Car.

THE NINETIES: A TUMULTUOUS DECADE FOR SPORTS CAR RACING

#23 Nissan R91CP in action during 1992 Rolex 24 at Daytona, FL.

The 1990s proved to be a tumultuous decade for North American sports car racing. Opening with the “glory days” of the IMSA GTP Prototypes that was documented in last week’s report, the decade concluded with open wounds that led to an acrimonious split that is only now healing with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Major teams with the Porsche 962, Jaguar XJR-12, Nissan GTP-ZXT, Ford Probe GTP, Chevrolet Spice and Toyota-Eagle Mk III produced full fields and great racing. However, with the great cars came spiraling costs, driving away the smaller teams and eventually even the factories called it quits.

By 1993, only Dan Gurney’s All American Racing remained. P.J. Jones set the all-time Daytona sports car qualifying record with a lap of 1:33.875 (136.522 mph), and then joined Rocky Moran and Mark Dismore in a 10-lap victory over a GTS Ford Mustang fielded by Jack Roush – his ninth consecutive victory in the class. At Sebring, Juan Fangio II and Andy Wallace scored their second consecutive 12 Hour victory in the team’s No. 99 Eagle. The team went on to win every race it entered (it sat out the Road America round with the title well in hand), and Fangio and Jones finished 1-2 in the final standings. The GTP era came to a close when Jones took the checkered flag for the season finale at Phoenix.

IMSA was ready, though, with a new open-cockpit prototype – the World Sports Car.

As early as 1988, five-time IMSA champion and two-time Rolex 24 winner Al Holbert was working on an open-cockpit Porsche prototype. Serving as director of Porsche Motorsport North America, Holbert met with IMSA officials shortly before his untimely death in a plane crash on Sept. 30, 1988, on the eve of the IMSA GT race in Columbus, Ohio.

With the loss of factory teams over the next two years, plans for the new class accelerated. Plans were announced to competitors at the end of the 1992, with theGTP cars eligible for only one more season.

The WSC debuted at Miami in 1993, with Brent O’Neill finishing 12th in a Buick-powered Kudzu as one of two cars in the new class. By the end of the year, five cars were on the grid for the Phoenix season finale, won by Andy Evans and Fermin Velez in a Buick Kudzu. At first, WSC was populated by chassis based on cars competing in the Camel Lights class for smaller GTP Prototypes – with more powerful engines. Some cut the roofs off existing GTP or Lights cars. Other showed ingenuity, such as Rob Dyson, who put a Ferrari 348 engine in a Spice chassis.

The World Sports Car opened the 1994 season as IMSA’s lead class – and competed at Daytona and Sebring for the first time. Clayton Cunningham’s Nissan 300ZX, competing in the GTS class, won overall in both of the Florida classics. Scott Pruett won his first overall victory in the Rolex 24, joined by Paul Gentilozzi, Butch Leitzinger and Steve Millen. At Sebring, Johnny O’Connell joined Millen in the same car. A Harry Brix-owned Oldsmobile Spice won the class at the Rolex 24, finishing ninth overall with a driver line-up including Jeremy Dale. At Sebring, Derek Bell, Andy Wallace and James Weaver took the class in the Auto Toy Store Chevrolet Spice, taking second overall.

It quickly became obvious that it would take more than a homemade special to win in World Sports Car. Ferrari raised the bar when it commissioned the Ferrari 333SP. Realizing it would take more to win than a homemade hybrid, Dyson commissioned Riley & Scott to build the R&S MK III. The two would dominate the class for the remainder of the decade.

Looking back, the 1995 Rolex 24 was a great “what might have been” event. Porsche entered a pair of turbocharged Le Mans WSC Prototypes, and tested at Daytona with Mario Andretti and Scott Pruett – with four-time Rolex 24 winner Bob Wollek also in the line-up. Only two weeks before the event, IMSA imposed additional restrictions on the air intakes for the new Porsches – and the factory promptly withdrew both cars.

Ironically, the Kremer team raced a Porsche K8 with the restricted engine – and won overall with a line-up including Christophe Bouchut and Marco Werner. The race had a 74-car entry – its largest in recent years – including 20 World Sports Cars. Stealing the headlines from the overall winner was the GTS class Jack Roush returned to the event after a one-year absence, and won it for his 10th straight attempt in the No. 70 Nobody’s Fool Ford Mustang. The car was a 70th birthday present for Paul Newman by his Hollywood studio, with Tommy Kendall, Mark Martin and Mike Brockman co-driving.

At Sebring, Evans, Velez and Eric van do Poele won in a Scandia Ferrari 333SP.

The remainder of the decade was dominated by the Ferrari and Riley & Scott WSCs.

Current Rolex 24 drivers Wayne Taylor and Jim Pace swept both classics in 1996 driving an Oldsmobile-powered Riley & Scott, joined by Scott Sharp at Daytona and van de Poele at Sebring.

Gianpiero Moretti, Mauro Baldi and Didier Theys swept both Florida races in 1998, joined by Arie Luyendyk at Daytona in the No. 30 Momo Ferrari 333SP. Velez and Evans repeated at Sebring in 1997, joined by Yanick Dalmas and Stefan Johansson.

Dyson’s investment paid dividends at Daytona in 1997 and 1999, when a pair of Ford-powered MK IIIs won overall. The 1997 race saw Dyson’s lead car break at 6 p.m. He had entered a second car that year, partly for insurance reasons and partly to reward fellow veterans John Schneider and Elliott Forbes-Robinson, who co-drove with the New Yorker. When the primary car broke, that car was six laps down. Butch Leitzinger and John Paul Jr. (later joined by Wallace and Weaver) made up the distance, and Leitzinger prevailed over Velez in a final hour battle.

The on-track competition was fabulous. Car counts were also solid – the 1997 Rolex 24 had an 80-car starting field, only two shy of the record set in 1984. However, politics dominated the talk as the decade progressed. IMSA had been in good hands under the leadership of John Bishop. A succession of different owners tried in vain to carry that momentum. Mike Cone and Jeff Parker led IMSA through 1994, relocating the organization from Connecticut to Tampa, Fla., prior to selling it to Charles Slater. Two years later, Evans and Roberto Mueller bought IMSA, and changed its name to Professional Sports Car Racing prior to the 1997 12 Hours of Sebring.

Concerned with the future of that sanctioning body, Daytona International Speedway awarded the sanction for the Rolex 24 to a new organization. The USRRC , an alternative series sanctioned by the SCCA, folded only three races into the 1999 season.

Impressed with a visit to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Dr. Don Panoz held a new event to close out the 1998 PSCR season. Styled after the French event, Panoz called it the Petit Le Mans. Encouraged by Panoz and the success of that event, the lead PSCR series became the American Le Man Series, using rules similar to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The move paid immediate dividends. The BMW factory team won the 1999 season-opening 12 Hours, with J.J. Lehto, Tom Kristensen and Jorg Muller scoring a BMW V12 LMR.

A fork in the road had been reached.

THE ‘NAUGHTIES’ (2000S): SPORTS CAR RACING’S FORK IN THE ROAD

Image: Motorsport

Remember the old beer commercials where retired athletes argued the merits of “less filling” vs. “tastes great”?

Sports car fans were caught up in a similar argument at the dawn of the new millennium, and the two Florida endurance classics at Daytona and Sebring found themselves in opposite sides of the argument. Should they opt for great cars – particularly the ones that compete annually in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – or concentrate on great competition?

The split originally began in 1998, when Daytona International Speedway opted to go with a new sanctioning body for the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the USRRC. Sebring remained with Professional Sports Car Racing for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours.

For a year, it was a case of different sanctioning bodies using similar cars – in fact, the same Ferrari 333SP of Gianpiero Moretti, Didier Theys and Mauro Baldi (along with Arie Luyendyk at Daytona) won both classics in 1998. At the end of the year, though, new Road Atlanta owner Dr. Don Panoz held an event themed on capturing the flavor of the French endurance classic, a 1,000-mile race titled “Petit Le Mans.”

Pleased with the success of that event, Panoz shared his vision with the new owners of Professional Sports Car Racing, who opted to rename its full season the American Le Mans Series, using rules based on those of the Auto Club d’Oeust (ACO), used for the French event. Within a few years, Panoz purchased the organization and brought back the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) to sanction the series.

The move paid immediate dividends for Sebring. In 1999, a BMW V12 LMR driven by J.J. Lehto, Tom Kristensen and Jorg Muller won at Sebring – and a similar prototype won that year’s Le Mans classic. This marked the first time since 1967 (when Mario Andretti and Bruce McLaren won in a Ford GT40 Mk IV) that the Sebring-winning model did not compete in the Rolex 24. It also began a streak that will come to a close with this year’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida on March 15.

The following year – actually, the following six years – an Audi R8 drove to victory at Sebring, finishing 1-2 each time. . The Audi R8 gave way to the Audi R10 TDI in 2006, with Kristensen chalking up Sebring victory number five. That Audi repeated in 2007, with four-time winner Frank Biela joined by Marco Werber (three-time winner) and Emanuele Pirro (two victories).

Audi’s streak was snapped by Penske Racing in 1998, won by the Porsche RS Spyder of Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and Emmanuel Collard. Dyson Racing made it a 1-2 finish with Butch Leitzinger, Marino Franchitti and Andy Lally. Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello returned Audi to victory lane in 2009 in an Audi R15 TDI, before Peugeot put together a two-year streak with the 908 HDI FAP in 2010-11. Kristensen and McNish returned Audi to the top of the podium in 2012 in an R18 TDI, while Oliver Jarvis was joined by Marcel Fassler and Benoit Treluyer in winning last year’s race in an R18 e-tron Quattro.

Daytona ran the Rolex 24 under USRRC sanction in 1998 and 1999, with that series folding only three races into the 1999 campaign. Putting together the pieces of the failed USRRC, Jim France (son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.) assembled a team of 25 investors to realize his vision of a new American sports car series. With goals of capping costs, maintaining close competition and returning racing to the fans, GRAND-AM Road Racing was formed.

The GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series debuted with the 2000 Rolex 24 At Daytona. While cars in the lead SRP class failed, a battle resulted between the GTS class factory-backed Dodge Viper and Corvette. The Viper prevailed by only 30 seconds – the closest finish in the history of the event at the time. The following year, Corvette won when the SRPs again failed. Ron Fellows. Johnny O’Connell, Chris Kneifel and Franck Freon drove the winning car and were joined in victory lane by the team’s sister car – the third-place GTS Corvette of Dale Earnhardt and his son Dale Jr., along with Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins.

Concerned with the lack of success of the lead class, France met with Brumos owner Bob Snodgrass and his associate, five-time Rolex 24 winner Hurley Haywood. Over dinner, they sketched a proposed race car, based on the Ford GT40 of the 1960s, that would be fast, safe and affordable. Fabcar’s Dave Klym brought the idea to life, and the new Daytona Prototype was announced on the eve of the 2002 Rolex 24 as GRAND-AM’s lead class beginning in 2003.

Six DPs were on the grid for the 2003 Rolex 24 – including a Porsche-Fabcar for Haywood and JC France in the traditional Brumos colors. While the new cars had teething problems – a GT class Porsche fielded and co-driven by TRG’s Kevin Bucker won overall – the DPs quickly gained traction. Only one year later, 17 DPs were on the grid. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart held a three-lap lead with only 43 minutes remaining when he pitted with rear suspension problems. After his team made repairs to his Chevrolet-powered Crawford, Stewart returned with a one-lap lead. For a half-hour, it seemed that Stewart might be able to nurse the car home. But suddenly, with 17:45 remaining, the car suddenly veered right before the chicane, and his race was over. Defending DP champ Terry Borcheller was joined by Pilgrim, Christian Fittipaldi and car owner Forest Barber in the winning Bell Motorsports Doran-Pontiac.

That set the tone of the racing at Daytona for the following nine races. Large DP fields with as many as 29 cars, with the series regulars joined by familiar names from NASCAR, IndyCar and international sports car racing – even Formula One. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates won five of the events – four with sports car veteran Scott Pruett at the wheel. Brumos Racing scored a popular victory in 2009, when David Donohue held off Juan Pablo Montoya by .167 seconds in the closest contested finish of a major international 24-hour race. Haywood finished third in the team’s sister car. Another milestone was the 50th Rolex 24, won by Michael Shank Racing with Ozz Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger, and Justin Wilson.

It was great racing – but missing some of the great cars and glamour of international competition. France and Panoz got together to discuss unifying North American Sports Car Racing, and shook hands on a merger in September 2012.

Great cars or great racing? Like the Miller Lite commercials, sports car fans will now be able to enjoy both with the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Words IMSA / Photos as credited