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New Cayman, new lineup, same big goals for 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.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”