Text and Photos by: Luke Munnell
Earlier this year we brought you coverage of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, IMSA’s season-opening 24-hour endurance race of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and four-hour enduro of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge—with a little Ferrari Challenge thrown in for good measure. At the time, it might’ve seemed like good sense to expect the teams that fared best in a pair of endurance races to emerge as front runners for the season. But in the subsequent seven events that have followed, it seems that was only partially true.
Championship points leads changed hands, different teams claimed the podiums at each stop, legendary rivalries grew, and we knew we had to check back in for a closer look. So to get one, we ventured out to Elkhart Lake, WI’s Road America 4-mile circuit for the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase. Road America is the longest and one of the most challenging stops on the IMSA calendar, and coincidentally, is the inspiration for the name of Front Street’s parent company, Turn 14 Distribution. Here’s what we found during our trip.
Practice and Qualifying
When the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi team led qualifying at Daytona, and two other Cadillacs (the No. 5 Mustang Sampling and No. 31 Whelen Engineering cars) finished first and second overall after 24 hours of racing, it seemed like the Cadillac teams would be the ones to beat in WeatherTech Prototype competition…
With possibly two exceptions, that is. The No. 54 CORE Autosport Oreca LMP2 team, which was the only other car to complete 808 laps in the race; and the No. 7 Acura DPi, which qualified a mere thousandth of a second from the No. 10 Cadillac.
After eight subsequent competition rounds, a lot had changed, and a lot stayed the same, heading into Road America. The No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac team led the series, but by just one point over the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac team. The No. 7 Acura and No. 54 CORE teams each stole a win and second-place finish of their own, and the championship seemed within reach of about a half-dozen teams.
This time around it was Mazda Team Joest who set the high-water mark early on the first day of practice, with the No. 77 Mazda DPi team of Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez circling the 14 turns and 4.048 miles of Road America in a quick 1-minute and 52.627-seconds.
Jordan Taylor and Renger Van Der Zande improved on that in the second session with a 1:52.402 from the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R, but then the No. 85 JDC-Miller Oreca LMP2 of Simon Trummer and Robert Alon pulled ahead in the third session and led qualifying with a blistering 1:51.933 best time, followed by the No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi of Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves with a 1:52.140, and the No. 54 CORE Autosport Oreca LMP2 of Colin Braun and Jonathan Bennett jumping up into third.
The No. 10 Cadillac DPi was just a few hundredths off third position, but the No. 5 and 31 Caddies were quite a few places back, as was the No. 77 Mazda, and neither car was able to improve on their practice session times, begging the question, “Why?”
Even closer has been the GTLM championship. When Corvette Racing led qualifying in their Corvette C7.Rs, and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing won first and second in their Ford GTs at Daytona, we knew this season would ignite a legendary rivalry.
And that’s exactly what happened, with Ford and Chevy teams trading off pole starts and wins at Long Beach, Watkins Glen, Mosport, and Lime Rock Park. Only two points separated the No. 66 Ford GT, No. 3 Corvette, and No. 67 Ford GT in the GTLM championship points chase heading into Road America, with the No. 912 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR just 11 points behind them in fourth.
Practice sessions saw Patrick Pilet and Nick Tandy in the No. 911 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR set the fastest time in the first session, the No. 66 Ford GT team of Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand improve on that in the second, and the No. 24 BMW Team RLL car of Jesse Krohn and John Edwards run faster than all of them in the third.
And just when you might’ve begun to think that Ford/Chevy rivalry had cooled off, the No. 66 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT belted out a blisteringly fast 2:02.479 in qualifying to claim the pole, with the No. 67 car landing in second position with a 2:02.650, followed very closely by the No. 3 Corvette C7.R and the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR. All was right in the world, once again.
Competition might not have been so close in the WeatherTech series’ largest class, but it’s given every bit the sense that anything can happen. The No. 51 Squadra Corse Garage Italia 488 GT3’s clinching of the GTD-class pole in Daytona qualifying might not have been one of those moments (as it had done so the preceding year), but the win by the No. 11 Grasser Racing Team’s Lamborghini Huracan GT3 was — it was Lamborghini’s first Daytona win and happened by a very close margin.
Since then, the Grasser team has dropped out of competition entirely, the No. 51 car had run in only the three races of the Tequila Patron Endurance Cup, and the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini of drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow had pulled to the top of the championship points tally, with a 10-point lead over closest challenger Katherine Legge and Meyer Shank Racing of the No. 86 Acura NSX GT3.
Still, that left several teams within striking distance of the championship, coming into Road America. And with fastest-lap honors throughout practice sessions being traded off between Andy Lally and John Potter in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS GT3, and Joerg Bergmeister and Patrick Lindsey in the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R—and with Patrick Long and Christina Nielsen unexpectedly qualifying fastest with a 2:06.593 in the No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R—the race seemed as if it could go to anyone.
Road America is one of the country’s most formidable motor racing circuits; at 4.048 miles it’s the longest on the IMSA WeatherTech calendar. Its varied elevation, mix of off- and on-camber turns, as well as the accident-prone “kink,” “Canada Corner,” and fast Turn One all make it one of the most treacherous and grueling courses out there. Drivers really aren’t on easy street until they round Turn 14 and race uphill to the start/finish line. In the course of a two-hour, 40-minute race like this one, drivers have to do that nearly 70 times.
One more very important characteristic of Road America is its rough asphalt. Together with its length and terrain, fuel and tire considerations stay front-and-center for teams who determine pit strategies, and drivers who need to stay ahead of the pack.
Living proof of just how closely professional racing teams toe that line was seen in the final 12 minutes of the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase, as the Prototype-class lead changed three times with each race leader needing to pit for a splash of fuel, beginning with cumulative lap leaders Felipe Nasr and Eric Curranno in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi.
But the most painful moment was when Jonathan Bomarito and the No. 55 Mazda Team Joest DPi inherited the lead with only about three minutes left—looking like they were about to score their first win of the season—only to let it go moments later to pit for fuel and finish a distant eighth.
While all that drama was unfolding, the No. 54 CORE Autosport Oreca LMP2 of drivers Jon Bennett and Colin Braun was slowly working its way up the ranks. When Bomarito pulled off, Braun pulled into the lead and took the checkered flag just 2.389 seconds ahead of his rapidly gaining competition … and then ran out of fuel himself on the cool-down lap.
Claiming second was the No. 99 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca LMP2 of drivers Stephen Simpson (finishing) and Misha Goikhberg, with the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac regaining quickly to claim third in a photo finish by Felipe Nasr—and in the process retain the championship points lead.
Had a yellow flag come out when Mazda inherited the lead, they almost certainly would’ve won.
Even more tragic to watch was the GTLM finish. The No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE of drivers Connor Di Phillippi and Alexander Sima led the race for laps and speed, but it painfully ran out of fuel with just two minutes remaining, no doubt also gambling on a yellow flag that never came. Richard Westbrook managed to pull the No. 67 Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT from third into the lead and across the line 7.938-seconds quicker than his nearest competitor.
Taking second was the No. 4 Corvette Racing Corvette C7.R of Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin, followed by the No. 3 ‘Vette of teammates Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in third. Despite putting on one of their more impressive performances in recent memory throughout most of the race, the No. 25 BMW finished sixth of eight GTLM competitors.
After all that drama, Ford still owns the GTLM championship points chase, only with the No. 67 car in the lead, and with the No. 3 Corvette team just four points behind. Only five more points back sits the No. 66 Ford team, with another five points separating it with the No. 4 Corvette team. See what we meant about legendary rivalries?
As close as Prototype and GTLM racing was, GTD was a bit of a blowout, but an awesome one to witness. The No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R team—of previous 12 Hours of Sebring winner and Luftgekuhlt co-founder Patrick Long and two-time defending GTD champion Christina Nielsen—hadn’t landed on the podium yet in 2018. That changed at Road America, when the team earned that elusive win with a flawless performance and some good luck.
After winning the Pole in Qualifying, the team made two pit stops in the race (the only GTD team to do so), the second of which happened just ahead of a full-course caution that allowed them to rejoin the race in second position behind the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 of drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow. After a clean pass by Long just minutes after the green flag dropped, the rest was history.
As rewarding as it was to see Long and Nielsen earn their first win together, even more exciting was the performance put on by the No. 63 WeatherTech Racing Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 team of Cooper MacNeil and Alessandro Pier Guidi in the final 20 minutes of the race, when it charged from ninth position to finish in third place behind the No. 48 Huracan.
The top seven GTD finishers in the race were each from different manufacturers, and leading the championship points chase now is the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Huracan team which has a healthy lead over the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX team of Katherine Legge, followed by the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports AMG GT3 of drivers Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating.
With only two races remaining for GTLM and GTD teams — and just one for Prototype teams — before the season-ending 10-hour Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, championships in all classes of IMSA WeatherTech competition seem to be up for grabs by a number of teams. If you’re a true racing/performance/tech nut, we can think of few better ways to satisfy your automotive cravings than by following IMSA SportsCar racing. Catch a race yourself by visiting www.imsa.com for the complete season schedule and details, or just keep Front Street bookmarked for more.
Until then, check out our gallery below!