France, Panoz to be honored by Motorsports Hall of Fame of America

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Two motorsport icons instrumental in the preservation and expansion of road racing in North America will be honored during the 26th Annual Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s (MSHFA) Induction Ceremony on Aug. 6 at The Fillmore Detroit.

Jim France and Don Panoz will receive the Bob Russo Heritage Award in recognition of their long-term support of sports car racing in North America and their effort to bring about the landmark merger of GRAND-AM Road Racing (GRAND-AM) and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). On Sept. 5, 2012 it was announced the two series would merge to form the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship for the 2014 season with the unified series sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA).

The award, named in honor of the long-time motorsports journalist and historian, is presented at the recommendation of the MSHFA Board of Directors in recognition of the recipient’s contributions to motorsports throughout their career.

“To recognize two sports car racing icons with the Bob Russo Heritage Award is a tremendous honor,” said Ron Watson, president of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. “Their names are synonymous with sports car racing in North America. Through GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series they established a firm foundation and have assured the future with the merger into the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.”

France launched the Grand American Road Racing Association as the sanctioning body for various forms of road racing in North America. The announcement was made in 1999 with the first race in 2000. It served as the governing entity for five series including the Rolex Sports Car Series and its premier event, the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Panoz founded the American Le Mans Series with the objective of bringing European-style endurance sports car racing to North America. A partnership with the Automobile Club de I’Ouest (ACO) allowed ALMS teams to earn automatic entries in the Le Mans 24 Hours. The announcement was made in 1998 and got its official start with the 1999 season.

Both France and Panoz serve on the board for IMSA.

The 2014 class that will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Aug. 6 include Ole Bardahl, Raymond Beadle, John Bishop, Ricky Graham, Arie Luyendyk, Marshall Teague and Rusty Wallace.

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”