Indy Lights debutantes Grist, French impress at Road America

French (45) and Grist (3) learned and grew this weekend. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Both Garett Grist and James French delivered solid debut weekends in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America, even if both drivers felt they left a bit on the table in the two races.

Grist stepped up from the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires ranks, and took over the No. 3 Team Pelfrey Dallara IL-15 Mazda that had been driven by Scott Hargrove, while French stepped into the renumbered No. 45 Belardi Auto Racing entry usually driven by Felix Rosenqvist.

Grist, the 22-year-old Canadian, had never been to the 4.014-mile permanent road course before and the Gary Neal-led team hadn’t tested, which made it a case where Grist’s eighth place qualifying effort driving the Buy Gap Guard/Lander Property Management/Mac Tools entry in the 14-car field on Friday was particularly impressive.

French hadn’t run an Indy Lights car since a test at Circuit of The Americas in November; however, track experience for the 23-year-old Sheboygan native undoubtedly paid dividends throughout the weekend.

Combined they had four out of a possible four top-10 finishes. Grist was seventh and 10th, with French eighth in both races.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“I ran into the back of the guy ahead of me. I was just so much faster that I didn’t think they’d brake that early,” Grist told NBC Sports Sunday after making a mistake when he damaged his front wing going into Turn 14.

“We were the fastest car on rain tires. (Ed) Jones and (Dean) Stoneman went to dries and then they were first and second quickest. But other than that, I was consistently the fastest car on the track by a lot. I did my best lap without push-to-pass and we were the quickest on wets. So it was just a bad mistake on my part.

“We definitely had a podium car there for sure, coming from eighth, but a silly rookie mistake that I shouldn’t make at this point.

“But I’m really happy with my first weekend. We had so much pace, we were so fast, so that’s a positive. As a first weekend, it was a learning weekend, and I’ll take it.”

French was more methodical in both races and blamed himself for not readjusting the engine mapping on his car back from wet to dry conditions in Sunday’s second races. Otherwise, he said he “had a blast.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“When it was consistent, I felt pretty comfortable,” French told NBC Sports. “I knew what to expect from the rain at least, but when it transitioned to dry, I found myself a little lost. I made the mistake of not going back to the dry fuel map, so I lost a little bit of time there.

“It was definitely a big learning curve, but I learned so much throughout the experience. Managing tires I kind of struggled with, when they’re not looking so good. That was definitely the difficult part. In full dry conditions I knew what to do. But finding somewhere in between and following the grip, I kinda struggled. Overall though, I had a blast.”

Grist’s next start will be on home soil in Toronto, as he wasn’t scheduled to race the Iowa Speedway oval.

French hopes to return for at least one and perhaps two more race weekends later this year. Brian Belardi told IndyCar Radio’s Rob Howden this weekend he expects Rosenqvist back for Toronto.

French has race weekends three and four of eight in a row the next two weeks, back in his usual Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09 Prototype Challenge class at Watkins Glen International, then at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

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).