Text and Photos: Luke Munnell
If you’re unfamiliar with U.S. sportscar racing, it might be because its organization, structure and title sponsors seem too nebulous and confusing to understand. And that would be a shame, because while its history is a bit convoluted, it seems to have reached some stability in recent years, and—we’re hoping you’ll agree after seeing our coverage of this most recent bout of IMSA racing at Circuit of the Americas, in Austin, TX—it’s some of the most exciting and cutting-edge racing to be found anywhere in the world.
Sitting atop the ladder of professional sportscar racing in the U.S. today is the International Motor Sports Association’s (IMSA: the organization and sanctioning body) WeatherTech (title sponsor) SportsCar Championship (series name), and is the result of 2013’s merger between IMSA’s previous American LeMans Series (ALMS) and NASCAR-backed rival series Grand-Am Road Racing. You might have heard it called the “Tudor” series in its first three years, when Tudor Watch was the title sponsor before WeatherTech took the reins.
IMSA manages and sanctions several competition series for various types of vehicles, in various states of modification. Unlike open-wheel IndyCar or Formula 1 racing, which have been known by those names since time immemorial, IMSA sanctions closed-wheel sportscar racing in the U.S., and doesn’t enjoy such universal recognition. Yet.
Racing in IMSA’s WeatherTech Sportscar Championship series is divided into four classes: two for “GT” cars that appear more faithful to their showroom-stock counterparts, and two for “Prototype” vehicles that are more radically styled, bear very little likeness to their production brethren, but are generally the fastest cars on the grid. Here’s a quick look at each:
In ideal conditions, these are the quickest and fastest closed-wheel cars in North America, attaining speeds around 200 mph on the fastest courses, from their roughly 500hp engines. Their overall appearance and construction is an extreme departure from the cars their respective OEM brands ship to dealerships, but these machines do serve as testbeds for manufacturers’ engine and drivetrain components, suspension systems, on-board electronics, and more. Racing Prototypes are subject to weight penalties or advantages depending on power output, allowing vehicles powered by (for example) 2.0L turbocharged Mazda four-cylinder engines to remain competitive against those incorporating big Chevrolet V8s.
Prototype Challenge (PC)
Similar in appearance to racing Prototypes are the vehicles of the Prototype Challenge class. This is a “pro-am” class, meaning it pairs pro drivers with amateur drivers, and it’s also a spec class, meaning each vehicle must incorporate the same ORECA FLM09 body and Chevrolet LS3 V8 engine (among many other mandated similarities). Prototype Challenge vehicles feature an open cockpit—fitting, since PC is more a driver’s series than a manufacturers competition. PC’s waning popularity has led to rumors that 2017 will be the final year for the class.
Grand Touring Le Mans (GTLM)
GTLM cars might appear more like their respective production models, but they’re still full race machines built from the ground up by professional race teams. Like the Prototypes, GTLM cars’ sponsoring manufacturers also utilize some factory equipment, including engine and drivetrain components, certain electronics, interior and exterior components, and more. Power here is comparable to the Prototypes, but with less aerodynamic equipment, around 185 mph seems to be the speed limit for GTLMs.
Grand Touring Daytona (GTD)
The spec and pro-am series of IMSA GT racing is the GTD class, but things aren’t as cut and dry as they are in PC. Competing GTD machines are open to incorporate the appearance and engines of various carmakers, but many other components—like their wings and tires, for example—are all a “spec” model produced by just one manufacturer. On track, they’re almost impossible to distinguish from GTLM cars, save for their green number signs and LCD readouts (as opposed to red, for the GTLMs).
Joint Operations Schedule
In the world of sportscar racing, there’s endurance racing and sprint racing. Sprint races can last anywhere from about 20 minutes to over two hours and while some may mandate tire or driver changes, pit stops and fuel efficiency are usually less of a concern than peak speed around the racetrack. The flip side is endurance racing, which can last anywhere from several hours to several dozen, like IMSA’s season-opening 24 Hours of Daytona and season-ending 12-hour Petit Le Mans. Here, fuel efficiency, tire and brake life, driver changes, engine longevity, and more are all concerns alongside lap times. The WeatherTech race in Austin lasted two hours and 40 minutes, the median duration of IMSA WeatherTech races throughout the season—long enough to involve all the aforementioned strategies, but short enough to fit a televised timeslot, maintain fan engagement, and keep cars running fast and fighting for position.
Though there was only one SportsCar Challenge race for all the cars of the series this weekend (as well as one race for IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge series, and two each for the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge and Lamborghini Super Trofeo series), SportsCar Challenge cars took to the COTA track throughout the weekend in dedicated practice and demo sessions, and ran their hardest during Friday’s qualifying sessions, where clocking the quickest lap and being able to start the race as close to the front of the grid as possible was the mission.
Having won the first three rounds of IMSA SportsCar Challenge racing at Daytona, Sebring and Long Beach, brothers Ricky and Jordan Taylor, in the #10 Konica Minolta Cadillac, clocked the fastest lap of the P-class practice sessions on Thursday, with a best time of one minute, 56.595 seconds around COTA’s buttery-smooth 3.427-mile course.
The PC class didn’t run at Long Beach, but did at Daytona and Sebring, where the #38 Performance Tech car of drivers James French and Pato O’Ward won both races. Fitting, then, that that same team and drivers clocked the best PC-class practice laps on Thursday at COTA.
Moving on to GT classes, it was Alexander Sims in the #25 BMW Team/RLL BMW M6 leading the GTLM pack, with Tristan Vautier leading in GTD competition from behind the wheel of the #75 SunEnergy1 Mercedes-AMG GT3.
As expected, the Taylor brothers ran even faster in Friday’s Prototype qualifying session and earned the pole (the ability to start the coming race at “pole position,” or at the front of the pack). But beating expectations was their blistering 1:54.809 time, which was over a second and a half faster than their next-fastest competitor—about the same amount of time separating the next nine competitors behind them.
Pulling an even bigger lead were James French and Pato O’Ward, who backed up their PC-class practice performance with a 2:00.066 qualifying jaunt, nearly two and over four seconds faster than their two competitors in the class, respectively. Impressive driving, considering the spec mechanical limitations of the series.
More excitement was in GTLM qualifying, where driver John Edwards and the #24 BMW Team/RLL BMW M6 ran a 2:02.833, setting him and the team as not only the top qualifiers in the class, but also as the new GTLM-class lap record-holders at COTA. All nine GTLM competing cars qualified within 0.9 seconds of each other and the top seven within 0.252—a foreshadow of just how close competition would be for the race!
A bit of a surprise came in GTD qualifying, where series newcomer and French transplant Mathieu Jaminet ran fastest in class with a 2:06.531 from behind the wheel of the #28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R. Running nearly as fast was Jack Hawksworth and the #15 3GT Racing Lexus RCF GT3, but he would be moved to the back of the GTD pack (at the very last position of the race) after a violation in the car’s ride height was found.
Zero-Day — Saturday
Sometimes racing is anyone’s game. Sometimes it goes exactly as planned. Either way, when all the elements come together in an arena with countless moving parts and sky-high tensions, what unfolds will leave you on the edge of your seat.
The format for IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is as follows: After a pre-grid in which fans and race teams mingle and enjoy a brief calm before the storm, all competing cars line up according to class and in their qualifying orders, and follow the pace car for a parade lap around the course. As that lap draws to a close, the pace car pulls into the pits and the field of competitors holds a steady speed in formation until they cross the start/finish line where the chief starter waves the green flag, and then all bets are off—what ensues for the following two hours and 40 minutes is a raw mix of speed, strategy, and at the base of it all, cut-throat competition.
Fans and viewers watching Saturday’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race at COTA got a great mix of all that. The Taylor brothers further cemented their names in the history books of IMSA Prototype competition by winning their fourth-straight race for the season, maintaining their perfect season thus far and marking the longest winning streak in series history. They each switched off driving the #10 Konica Minolta Cadillac prototype to an overall win by a margin of 18.855 seconds, and joined fellow Cadillac wheelmen Dane Cameron and Eric Curran in the #31 Whelen Engineering Racing car, and Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the #5 Mustang Sampling Racing car, respectively, for an all-Cadillac podium sweep.
PC-class competition also went to the safe bet: James French and Pato O’Ward in the #38 Performance Tech Motorsports car, picking up their third-straight win for the season after passing a rival competitor 10 minutes into the race and holding the lead through to the end. It was O’Ward’s birthday, and by strategy and circumstance, he celebrated it by bringing the car over the line for the win.
But GTLM class is where the “anything goes” part of racing became evident. A multi-car Turn 1 wreck damaged five cars, including Ford’s two GTs that entered the weekend ranked First and Third in points for the season. The pile-up also allowed sixth-place starter Antonio Garcia in the #3 Corvette Racing C7 R to move ahead several places and eventually surpass the favored #24 and #25 BMW/Team RLL BMW M6s, to take the GTLM class win.
GTD class racing also saw its share of upsets, with top qualifiers Alegra Motorsports unable to advance past seventh place and #2 qualifiers TOTAL Lubricants and their #48 Lamborghini Huracan GT3 missing the podium by one spot. The winner? Texas Native and auto dealer Ben Keating, claiming his fourth win in five years at the annual event, joined by co-driver Jeroen Bleekemolen in the #33 Riley Motorsports Mercedes-AMG GT3.
So now that you know a little more about the U.S.’s premier sportscar racing series and some of the competition involved, what’s the best way to go about enjoying it? Well, bar-none, seeing a race live. As of the close of the Advance Auto Parts SportsCar Showdown, we’re only a third of the way through the 2017 season and upcoming events are scheduled for Detroit, MI; Watkins Glen, NY; Clarington, ON; Lakeville, CT; Elkhart Lake, WI; Alton, VA; Salinas, CA; and Braselton, GA. Tickets range from $15/day (teen, one day) up to $100+ for weekend access, as well as VIP passes for a bit more. Can’t make it to a race? You can always stream qualifying and races live on IMSA.TV or watch live on Fox Sports 2 (check local listings).
Check out a ton of additional images in our gallery, and if you like what you see, tell a friend (or several)!