Road America IMSA weekend musings, notes, observations

1 Comment

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Another weekend at Road America is in the books. Here’s a quick download of some of the items from the latest race weekend for IMSA’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship:

  • Multiple Road America winners aplenty. Dane Cameron (second straight win), Bruno Junqueira (fourth overall) and Jeroen Bleekemolen (fourth overall) added to their own Road America record books with wins in Sunday’s race.
  • Daly’s disappointment. “I got held up behind the Aston, but I went conservative. When you go conservative, you lose the race.” Such were the words of a dejected Conor Daly in the victory podium area after his latest heartbreak result, spinning from the lead on the last lap, as a first sports car win continues to elude him and co-driver James French this season. At least at Lime Rock, when he and Christopher Haase collided, there was some solace in that it was a racing incident. On Sunday, Daly called it what it was: a gut-wrenching mistake. Here’s hoping there aren’t lingering after effects for the talented young American driver.
  • Porsche’s dominant weekend in GTLM. Yes, the Porsche 911 RSRs received a 10 kg minimum weight break heading into the weekend, but the pace from the two factory cars on Michelins was unmatched in the usually tight GTLM class from start to finish. Arguably, the polesitting No. 912 car could have won, but the No. 911 car of Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet rebounded nicely from a couple issues throughout the weekend.
  • The GTD title everyone wants to win, even without winning. The top four driver pairings entered Sunday’s race separated by only 10 points, none having won a race. They stayed close coming out, with Christina Nielsen of TRG-AMR unofficially moving into the class lead after her and Kuno Wittmer’s runner-up finish in the aforementioned Aston Martin. Meanwhile the No. 48 Paul Miller Audi, No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari and No. 22 Alex Job Porsche continue their season-long winless dry spells.
  • Great Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge drama. In both GS and ST, there were dramatic finishes on Saturday. Matt Plumb (Rum Bum Racing Porsche 911) held off a hard-charging BJ Zacharias (Doran Racing Nissan 370Z) in GS, while in ST, Spencer Pumpelly’s fuel gamble fell short and the win fell to Ryan Eversley ahead of Owen Trinkler and Eric Foss. The win was emotional for Eversley, paying tribute to NF hero Drew Leathers, and he also ensured to note the job done by Honda co-driver Chad Gilsinger, who took the car from 18th to second in his stint.
  • A weekend of change. I noticed this leaving on Sunday night, but there were signs of the past still very much present at the iconic, picturesque 4.048-mile road course. The Champ Car stickers underneath the tunnel on the walk to and from the infield bring back memories of the last major open-wheel race there some eight years ago in 2007. Now, there will be IndyCar signage when the series comes back next year. Meanwhile, with Saturday night’s announcement that WeatherTech would replace TUDOR as entitlement sponsor of IMSA’s flagship SportsCar Championship, suddenly everything TUDOR United SportsCar Championship becomes vintage in three months. Go figure.
  • Timing is everything. With hindsight, the way IndyCar’s announcement of its return to Road America occurred could have been handled better. Me, in my boyish enthusiastic state that this was actually real, wanted to be giddy as all hell as the lone full-time IndyCar reporter present in the media center at that time. So I ignored the fact that this hastily organized press conference – complete with IndyCar signage on a Road America banner – was essentially trolling the IMSA weekend as it was happening, during a TUDOR practice session. The announcement hit at 11 a.m. ET, 10 a.m. CT and local time, in what was a coordinated strategic effort by IndyCar and the track to maximize exposure on social media and with local reporters. From that standpoint, it worked. But the issue arose with the fact there was nothing to really, properly herald the fact IndyCar and Road America were getting back together after a nine-year absence. There were no past photos or graphics, no videos, no real IndyCar component – just the series’ outgoing president of competition of operations, Derrick Walker, next to track president George Bruggenthies. Walker had only switched from his Falken Motorsports shirt to his IndyCar one minutes earlier. If communication about the announcement was poorly delivered to key stakeholders, then it made for a more awkward presentation than it could have been. Am I stoked that IndyCar is finally returning to Road America? Hell yes, as are many others. But after a couple days to stew on it, I’d have to agree with other opinions I’ve seen that this could have been presented and revealed in a much better fashion, or at a better time. Especially as the sense for weeks has been that this was, in fact, coming, but was just a matter of when.
  • On the subject of awkward announcements… IMSA’s Saturday night “State of the Series” announcement went well, and according to plan, right up until we got to the partner announcement stage of the program. TUDOR and Rolex were announced as having extended for 10 years apiece; TUDOR as the Official Timepiece of IMSA and Rolex with Sebring International Raceway. That’s when things got weird. David MacNeil, founder and CEO of WeatherTech and son Cooper, who races the No. 22 Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT America with Leh Keen, and the four WeatherTech girls came on stage. Some awkward introductory comments followed and for those who were on site, they’ll not soon forget what they heard. As above, it’s good for the championship to have a clearly defined automotive brand in WeatherTech take over and hopefully increase activation and the championship’s profile. But the way the introduction occurred was arguably one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in 10 years covering motorsports.

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).