New Cayman, new lineup, same big goals for CJ Wilson Racing

Photo: CJ Wilson Racing
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Within the year when “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” premieres, it’s kind of fitting that one of racing’s biggest names is invoking the Dark Side to nickname its new car.

CJ Wilson Racing is, like a young Jedi, continuing to grow into an incredible force in the galaxy – in this case the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

And, to improve to the next level, it’s nicknamed its new Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport “Darth Cayman.”

The premise? The stealthy dark grey car looks sinister, badass, and might kill the competition if the rest of the Continental Tire Challenge GS class isn’t careful.

This all becomes funnier when you realize most of the CJWR crew are down-to-earth, fun people who purely love the sport, are good at their jobs and have fun with it too.

“We like the camaraderie on a very high level,” says the eponymous team owner, Wilson, during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

“This is where you can have a lot of fun. Andris (Laivins, team manager) is serious. But we can joke around. We’re a very tight knit team. We have a very cool team environment.

“Which is why people are always kind of sniffing around our space, because they’re like, ‘How are they doing this where they’re laughing and having fun? Wait, their boss isn’t a huge jerk?’ Maybe we can have fun.”

They’re having fun going into the season even though the challenge – no pun intended – is serious for CJ Wilson Racing to win a second consecutive championship, now in a second different class, in as many seasons.

There’s big changes here for 2016. Gone is the team’s tried-and-true Mazda MX-5 – Wilson has parlayed the team’s trajectory at a methodical pace and only switched cars, classes or series when the time is right.

A case in point: CJWR began as a Mazda MX-5 Cup series team. It won races, then the 2012 series championship with Stevan McAleer. By 2013, the team was in the Continental Tire Challenge as well and McAleer’s eventual co-driver Chad McCumbee was winning poles as a NASCAR convert to road racing. Then McAleer and Marc Miller started winning races.

Once the MX-5 Cup program went away, the design was to build and mold the team into an ST class title contender, which McAleer and McCumbee did last year. All the while Wilson and Laivins had the foresight to know Porsche had big ambitions, and a new car coming for GS.

A two-race trial run in 2015 with Miller and Tyler McQuarrie – note the volume of “Ms” in the driving lineup – has now led to this year’s full-on GS effort with “Darth Cayman” and a new lineup of Miller and open-wheel convert Daniel Burkett, who impressed during the Roar test, in the team’s No. 33 ONE Capital Management/Motor Oil Matters Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.

Meanwhile, in his first official test, Burkett was working to ensure his posterior was intact.

“The first time on the banking I was like, ‘What the hell’s going on man?'” said Burkett, who transfers to sports cars after a pair of Prototype Challenge starts and a prior run through the Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 and Pro Mazda.

“I couldn’t see what was in front of me. I was like ‘Guys, can we take the banner off?’ It’s been a huge transition. And my butt was pretty sore after the first session, just from all the clenching. But I’ve gotten used to it now.”

Jokes aside, it’s been a big but rapid transition for Burkett into the world of sports cars.

“It’s been a massive learning curve,” he said. “I had a few days at a local track in Austin before we came to this event. The first time I got in the car, I was perplexed at the differences. I was almost like, I don’t want to race this car, how am I ever going to learn, it’s so completely different. That was in the 997.

“So in the Cayman, having the mid-engine, it was a little more like a formula car type feel to it. The Cayman is very easy to point and shoot. It has a very pointy steering to it. It felt like a formula car. I felt right at home immediately.

“I feel like ready to race the car at the end of the Rolex 24 weekend at the end of January. So far I’m loving it, loving the paddock, and loving my new team boss, CJ.”

Wilson noted Burkett’s intense, innate competitiveness as he sought to match Miller first time out in official sessions.

“For Danny to come off and be right near where Marc is out of the gate … his talent is apparent,” Wilson says. “He’s a funny guy. He likes to make jokes. We all do. We keep it loose. Although he tries to keep his bowels tight, we like the car loose.”

For Wilson, who’s now transferred cars from the ST class Mazda MX-5 to the new Cayman GT4, having a readymade car off the shelf is paying dividends already.

“There’s always a thrash to get something ready,” said Wilson, who noted the team only took delivery of the two new Caymans from Porsche on December 23.

“It wasn’t because we had the struggle to build the car to a certain spec like previously with the MX-5s. We’d always have to fix something or improve something before. That’s the nature of building something in your own shop.

“But with the Porsche being a turnkey car, they’ve done such a good job doing a car that can go out and flat out race. We’re not having apparent issues. There’s some little things like teething, checking the oil, it’s all digital – there’s no dipstick, for example – but that’s a bit of a thing. If that’s the biggest problem you’re having in the weekend, you’re good.”

Wilson wants competition as right now the GS class is heavily Porsche dominated, with the new Cayman GT4 and a handful of older Porsche 997s.

“It’s a really good car. I hope some of the other manufacturers take this as a positive indication it’s good for them to be in the series. Porsche comes out with a new car and sells four, five, six or seven, whatever it is, right away.

“If another manufacturer does that it’ll make the racing better. That’s why ST is so cool, and GT is cool. Here’s five, six, seven brands, and body styles, and we need that. Variety is the best thing for racing overall.”

Variety is good. “Darth Cayman,” though is also good within the GS field and arguably one of the key cars to watch this year as it seeks another championship with its new puzzle pieces.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500