IMSA notes: Riberas, Rum Bum, TRG, tires and more in news

Photo courtesy of IMSA

A number of notes from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge have popped up over the last 24-odd hours. Here’s a quick recap:

  • What was already a small GS class field in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge took a hit this week with news on Monday that the Rum Bum Racing team announced its withdrawal from the championship. In a statement, the team said, “The team will continue to evaluate competition possibilities in the future as well as investigate partnership opportunities.” The winningest team in series history won 21 times in 66 starts and won series titles in 2012 and 2013. Brothers Matt and Hugh Plumb campaigned the previous generation Porsche 997 car.
  • Alex Riberas will replace Ian James behind the wheel of the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R for the balance of the season in the WeatherTech Championship, with James slotting into the third driver role for the remaining two Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds at Watkins Glen and Petit Le Mans. “Mario is like the brother I never had,” Riberas said. “We get along extremely well and it’s a dream for me to race alongside him this entire season. He is one of the quickest drivers I have ever seen and he already has some experience in the USA.” Both are Silver-rated; even though both are professional drivers, they fit under the Silver categorization by the FIA. In other words, don’t hate the players, hate the game.
  • GT Le Mans class teams will get the latest 2016 specification Michelin tires, in preparation for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Three IMSA teams – Corvette Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Risi Competizione – are preparing to carry the flag for the series with their Corvette C7.R, Ford GT and Ferrari 488 GTE at Le Mans this year. Additionally, the drivers from the two Porsche North America entries will be racing Porsche Team Manthey-entered Porsche 911 RSRs at Le Mans. “This will be the first time that our WeatherTech Championship teams race on our latest 2016 specification tires,” said Chris Baker, director motorsport, Michelin North America. “We have run the first three races on our special 2016 ‘low energy circuit’ tires. Our tires used in the FIA-World Endurance Championship (WEC) Series, which includes Le Mans, are designed for double and triple stints, meaning the tires must deliver exceptionally high and consistent performance for over three hours,” said Baker. The WeatherTech Championship has different pit rules permitting tire changes while refueling. Le Mans and WEC separate those functions. The challenges at Monterey are a bit different than at Le Mans, but our technical partner teams welcome the opportunity to get actual race miles with the new tires.”
  • How’s this for a cool Continental note? From the tire manufacturer’s advance release: “Tires from dandelions: Yep. That’s right. We’re constructing tires made from dandelion-derived latex. Continental Tire is using the Russian dandelion to extract latex and produce tires, replacing rubber that is currently extracted from rubber trees. The first tires have been produced and successfully tested but tires aren’t expected to hit store shelves for another five to 10 years. And race tires aren’t out of the question. Find out more about it here: Continental Constructing Tires From Dandelions.”
  • Paralyzed driver Michael Johnson makes his debut this weekend in the series in a BMW 228i, modified as Johnson is paralyzed from the waist down. He’s been in the Mazda Road to Indy the last few years. A separate post on him will follow this week. Johnson posted the livery earlier this week:
  • TRG is going to have a jam-packed weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The team returns its No. 007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3, now driven by James Davison and Brandon Davis instead of the Perez boys (as was done at Daytona), to the WeatherTech GTD class. Davison will also be in one of the team’s new Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2s in the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America, with Derek DeBoer also driving. The full release is here.

  • Jens Klingmann and Bret Curtis will have a new livery on their No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 this weekend, a white, red and black color scheme serving as a major departure from the usual yellow and blue Turner livery thanks to aFe Power. For one race at least, we won’t go a bit crazy trying to distinguish the two similarly liveried cars.

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on doors of people or businesses in my town. So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”