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Photo courtesy of IMSA

TRG, Porsche reunite, Buckler looking to recapture glory once more at Rolex 24

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The question often asked of Kevin Buckler and TRG in the early-to-mid-2000s as the team built up its brand, arsenal and fleet of Porsche 911 GT3s for the Rolex 24 at Daytona was rather simple.

How many Porsches are you racing this year?

For a team that once ran as many as six Porsches in 2005, with two Riley-Pontiac Daytona Prototypes added for good measure to make a race record total of eight entries from one team, TRG enters this year’s Rolex 24 in a different position: as a team with just one car only, and one of the five Porsche 911 GT3 Rs on the grid.

Photo courtesy TRG
Photo courtesy TRG

It’s fair to say even though the 2017 model of TRG is an underdog compared to the usually stacked two or three all-pro TRG cars of yesteryear, and overall within the 27-car GTD field, the TRG Porsche now represents the manufacturer’s most prepared bet in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class this go-around.

Here’s the reasoning. Few doubt CORE autosport’s endurance expertise – they’ve won at Daytona and Sebring before – but to expect everything to go swimmingly for the team’s first race with its new 911 is unrealistic. Park Place Motorsports has been frequently unlucky at the Rolex 24, having not even cracked the top-10 the last few years. Alegra Motorsports’ lineup has a wealth of youngsters high on upside, while the Manthey Racing customer entry is primarily stacked with gentlemen drivers.

In TRG’s five-driver lineup, there’s Porsche factory veteran Wolf Henzler, sports car veteran Jan Heylen, and past Nissan driver Pablo Sanchez set to lead and two capable Bronze-rated drivers in Mike Hedlund and Santiago Creel.

Despite a lineup that includes proper pro-am drivers (some teams have stacked the deck), Buckler and TRG have enough experience from 20-plus years, four past Rolex wins (all with Porsche, including its famous overall win in 2003) and strategy to contend and surprise if the car makes it through the night unscathed. The team is back with Porsche after several years with the Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3, with the team fully branded under the TRG-AMR moniker.

Buckler. Photo courtesy TRG
Buckler. Photo courtesy TRG

“It just feels right,” Buckler told NBC Sports. “We were talking about this a month and a half ago, whenever it started, having a good conversation with my friends at Porsche and having been with them so long, we felt not only is it a feel-good story, but with all the factory efforts you have over here in GT.

“Even though we’re probably the most successful in the engines (with Porsche), we’re a total underdog and I love that. We’re going to have to fight against these big factories, and who better to do that with than the team, the car and company I know best.

“Not only that, it was really fortunate that there were a couple of great Porsche guys that were available, so we’ve taken our best of the best and combined it with some of the best guys out there and hopefully we have a shot at being competitive. That’s the whole idea.

“But getting the band back together was exactly it. Like I’ve said many times, don’t bet against a Porsche in a 24-hour endurance race.”

The new 911 GT3 R impressed in its debut last year and came up just short of a class win in the hands of Black Swan Racing.

Porsche’s GTD effort is entirely customer-driven, unlike some of the other manufacturers in class, notably newcomers Acura and Lexus. Factory drivers are peppered in throughout all of the nine manufacturers entered in GTD.

The evolution of the race has also changed to where GT is now firmly featured given that level of investment. The new Prototype cars (DPi and 2017 LMP2 chassis) will be focused but with half the field, GTD is going to be where a lot of action – not just among itself, but potentially the leading classes – will take place.

“If the game was juggling more plates, we’d win every year. We’ve been really good at that,” Buckler explained.

TRG's last Rolex 24 win came in 2011. Photo courtesy TRG
TRG’s last Rolex 24 win came in 2011. Photo courtesy TRG

“But I’ve been beating the GT drum for 25-plus years, and for many years, GT was supporting the race, but they always promoted the prototypes.

“Now we see all this factory involvement, it’s professional sports car racing, it’s GT racing, you recognize the brands, you recognize the cars. I love it, I love being part of it and having helped shape it to an extent, even in a small way.

“It’s real awesome because I’m involved in a lot of partnership and sponsorship deals with companies that would be looking at golf or tennis or stick and ball sports, and now they’re hear with us, participating. That’s very refreshing.”

RingCentral, Crowdstrike, LaSalle Solutions, Cavall 7 and Buckler’s Adobe Road Winery are among the partners on the newly renumbered No. 991 Porsche 911 GT3 R. The usual No. 66 or 67, TRG hallmarks of its Porsche past, are unavailable with the two Ford GTs having those numbers. Buckler’s Le Mans-winning No. 81 was also unavailable with DragonSpeed running it.

“We went with the 991. It’s a brand new car for that chassis number. That was no real significance for that number, but it was the best number we had. The full completion of the band would have been the 66 number,” he said.

Buckler hopes to have his full-season Silver-rated driver alongside Henzler sorted by February, with a couple options percolating. Craig Lyons and Kris Wilson will share an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge GS ranks and Buckler expects to have multiple entries in Pirelli World Challenge SprintX.

Trying to star as a one-car, fully privateer entry in IMSA’s changing GTD arena is a challenge Buckler and TRG are relishing.

“If there’s a good end game, then we will participate. If there’s not, then I don’t see why we would waste our money,” Buckler said.

“I’m really looking forward to this year with the competition, although I think some of the (factory) guys got confused which class they’re in.

“At the same token, I hope we can also come up with a strong lineup and have a rockin’ year because it’s just really satisfying to see the class so vibrant with so many manufacturers pushing so hard.

“To me, it’s like the sport has arrived mainstream.”

CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.