Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: JDC/Miller Motorsports hitting its stride heading to Monterey

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The dominant force in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge class has, for the last five years, been CORE autosport.

And while others such as Starworks Motorsport, PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and RSR Racing have occasionally taken them on and edged ahead at certain races, none has yet enjoyed the full-season consistency to beat CORE for the title.

It’s PC’s newest full-time team though, the John Church-led JDC/Miller Motorsports, that has finally arrived within the class in its third season – thanks to a dynamic start to its 2016 season – and is upsetting the CORE domination.

Church has always run a quality operation in the Mazda Road to Indy and provided a launching pad for young drivers. The crew includes Rick Cameron and Barry Mumm as engineers – Mumm primarily on the sports car side with Cameron’s expertise in open-wheel – and a wealth of talent further down the order. But its sports car acclimation has taken a bit of time.

JDC/Miller missed Daytona in 2014 and debuted at Sebring the second round of the year. But while it was another car on the grid, consistency was sorely lacking in the driver lineup; it was pushing double digits in terms of number of drivers between 2014 and 2015.

Last year, Misha Goikhberg moved into PC full-time after capturing the 2014 Mazda Prototype Lites championship, but he had a revolving door of co-drivers. At any point, it was Stephen Simpson, Chris Miller, Rusty Mitchell, Zach Veach or Matt McMurry alongside in the No. 85 Oreca FLM09.

This year though things are more stable within the team with Goikhberg and Simpson set for the full-season, with Miller and Kenton Koch, last year’s Prototype Lites champion, having joined at the first two endurance races at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

JDC/Miller won Daytona to secure its first PC win, despite a rare mistake overnight from Koch in his PC race debut, but the superstar-in-waiting was entrusted enough to bring the car home to the finish.

Simpson told me pre-race at Daytona that wins were to be expected this year, and the South African who now lives in Indianapolis proved prescient with that prediction.

Long Beach, earlier this month, served as the site of the team’s second win – and in a rarity, at a new venue for racing veteran Church.

The pair now head to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this weekend, where the PC and GT Daytona class will be split into one two-hour race with the Prototype and GT Le Mans classes in a second, with an eight-point lead on Starworks’ pair of Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande and nine on PR1’s Robert Alon and Tom Kimber-Smith.

The CORE pair of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett, the defending class champions, have a mountain to climb at 39 points back with two DNFs from the first three races.

“The win at Daytona was a dominant win; Sebring was a little bit different. But now, after Long Beach, we’re ready to challenge for the championship, and that’s what we’re here to do,” Goikhberg said following the team’s most recent win.

Added Simpson, who will pull double duty this weekend in a new modified BMW 228i in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge ST class, “It means a lot. From my point of view, this one is really done by JDC/Miller Motorsports. Misha and I did the easy part. As Misha said from last year, we’re building up to where we are now. It all goes to the team. They’ve been fantastic.

“When we started first practice on Friday, we had a lot of time to find. To end up at the end of the weekend from where we started first practice to win the race, it shows the teamwork we have and chemistry we have as a unit. It’s one race at a time at the moment.

“We’re going to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and we want another win. These wins get addictive.”

Simpson was also thrilled to have got the chance to race at Long Beach again – he’d made his Formula Atlantic debut there in 2006 but hadn’t raced there since.

“I hadn’t raced there since 2006 and I never thought I would race there again, and in 2010, I wasn’t sure if I’d race at all again,” said Simpson, who’s enjoyed a bit of a career renaissance the last few years driving besides coaching.

“Winning with this team as we get stronger makes it even more special.”

JDC/Miller Motorsports seeks its third win in four races as part of a seven-car class, with the winner here going to be an overall winner.

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.”