Photo: CJ Wilson Racing

IMSA: CJ Wilson set to drive in Porsche GT3 Cup

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For years, CJ Wilson has more or less joked that he’s a race car driver with a Major League Baseball pitcher’s frame. Being a left-hander has its benefits.

Wilson’s racing career though has been limited to occasional tests and running at the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill at December in recent years.

That is set to change this year, with Wilson confirming during IMSA Radio’s coverage of night practice for the Rolex 24 at Daytona that he’ll be driving himself within the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama in one of Porsche’s newer 991-spec GT3 Cup cars. The entry has partnered with Porsche of Fresno for the effort.

The CJ Wilson Racing team principal formalized his racing relationship last year with the premiere of two Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge GS class, a step up to the top category of the series after winning the ST class championship with Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer in a Mazda MX-5 in 2015.

That Cayman GT4 program continues this year for its second season, but this announcement formalizes Wilson’s long-stated desire to expand his team into additional championships.

“The time is now, really,” Wilson told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “We’ve been looking at expanding into Porsche GT3 Cup for a while now, and we’ve been working really for Danny (Burkett) to put together a Canada Cup program. As a younger guy, he needs to continue to get challenged by higher-power cars. If he’s in a Cup car, that helps him for his steps forward sooner rather than later.

“With Danny and I talking, we saw GT3 Cup was good. I’ve wanted to go there for a while. Porsche has come out with the second-gen 991, and I’ll be testing it and racing it as well.”

Wilson expanded on how valuable a Porsche GT3 Cup car can be beyond just a North American standpoint.

“That’s what I’ve wanted to do for some time,” Wilson said. “(Porsche) really has the ultimate customer program. You can put anyone in one of those cars, and stick them in a race in so many possible series – Pirelli World Challenge, IMSA, Porsche Club, NASA, SCCA. Or you could be more ambitious and run Bathurst, or Spa, or any historic race.

“Let’s look forward to having this car and keeping it as an asset, and maybe travel with it to Europe or Bathurst. There will be one-off races in the States; I think there’s an eight-hour at (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca), and possibly another endurance race at COTA.

“If the COTA thing comes to fruition, I have to do to that race. Say if you’re running an endurance race there – Circuit of The Americas is the best track in America – and if it’s 2 in the morning and you want a taco, you can go get a taco! You’d be racing cars, listening to some music and eating a taco.”

Food aside, it’s the passion of driving that is fueling this planned transition for Wilson, as he winds down his professional MLB career. He recently participated in a brand video for Porsche (linked below), and it also in the process of ramping up his automotive business interests.

“You have to feel it… you feel this urgency and the danger, precision, emotion that comes with it,” Wilson said. “When a team like Toyota loses at Le Mans, it’s super painful.

“But that’s what racing is. That’s what sports are about – that human triumph and effort level. I’m really excited to get the racing season going, but I’m super nervous to actually drive.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.