All photos courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Road America 2016 thoughts, musings, observations

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There’s a lot of thoughts to take away from a busy weekend at Road America for IMSA.

The Continental Tire Road Race Showcase itself provided a thrilling conclusion to a weekend jam-packed with news, nuggets and platform decisions.

Here’s some quick thoughts and takeaways:

  • I like IMSA’s 2017 schedule. I think the moves for Circuit of The Americas and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to essentially swap May and September dates gives both a shot at re-establishing themselves as premier events. IMSA felt the undercard on the Lone Star Le Mans weekend at COTA with the FIA World Endurance Championship and legacy-wise, ALMS tended to do better in September or October than the switch to May, which started a few years ago.
  • Both COTA and Mazda Raceway will hope for increased crowds in their new dates, as those two venues have not had huge turnouts in recent years.
  • imsa_28902133And for schedules, kudos to both IMSA’s Scott Atherton and WC Vision’s Greg Gill – the mutual respect and continued dialogue between the two of them have produced two schedules for the different series that have no foreseen conflicts. This will hopefully make it easier for stakeholders to run in one or both series in 2017 if the budget or opportunity allows.
  • Also, kudos to IMSA for a really well-executed presentation of platforms and future plans on Friday (right). The outdoor setting in the new Road America victory lane was a welcome change of pace, and fortunately, there was no encore of the 2015, we’ll call it awkward moment in the room when WeatherTech was announced as the series’ new entitlement partner last year.
  • On the subject of crowds, it felt as though Road America’s IMSA turnout was down this year, albeit through no fault of IMSA, the track, or the weather. Road America did the usual heavy advance promotional blitz, as Dane Cameron was deployed a couple weeks out, and the DeltaWing pair of Sean Rayhall and Katherine Legge were also busy with IMSA advance work. I think simply, more people who opted to go to one weekend at the track this year chose the IndyCar return weekend in June rather than the IMSA weekend in August.
  • And on another WeatherTech note, the last-minute Leh Keen departure from Alex Job Racing’s No. 22 WeatherTech-backed Porsche alongside Cooper MacNeil was a genuine weird one. Few in the paddock seemed to see it coming and fewer still had an answer as to why, particularly given “off the track circumstances” was listed in the departure release. Anyway, the Nos. 22, 23 and 77 AJR cars finished in formation… in 11th, 12th and 13th in the 15-car GT Daytona field. To say the least, it was an odd weekend for the usually dependable team that’s a regular win contender.
  • I think IMSA was caught between a rock and a hard place with regards to LMP3 implementation. You have to view it from all standpoints. I can understand IMSA wanting to simplify WeatherTech Championship classes by moving from four classes to three, and potentially two if GT convergence ever occurs. I can understand the ACO relationship wanting to see LMP3 machinery make its way to the U.S. market. But I also understand the concerns of PC owners who now have to figure out where they can run without LMP3 as a like-for-like replacement for PC at the end of 2017. What will their customers choose to do? It was a hot-button issue this weekend in the paddock, and it will be interesting to see the PC owners’ next moves from here.
  • CpHLV3oXEAEZ-UDQuite honestly, I don’t like the renaming of LMP3 as PC1 in the rebranded Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda series, while calling the now current Prototype Lites car PC2. If you’re going to bring in LMP3, call it LMP3 (pictured right). In 2017, you’ll have the quirky situation of having Prototype Challenge, the class, with PC as shorthand and then Prototype Challenge, the series, with the PC1 and PC2 classes.
  • To those points, I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again – one of the unfortunate parts of sports car racing is how confusing it is, even if you work in it full-time. I put in the below flow chart/class outline below to explain how complicated it is in terms of understanding which class is in which series, as well as which car fits into each equation.
  • Action Express Racing is on a roll with three straight 1-2 finishes and Cameron is driving better than ever – which is saying something considering how good he’s been since the merger. His move on Jordan Taylor, while not for the outright win at the time, was a masterstroke by the 28-year-old. Coupled with co-driver Eric Curran, who’s also driving excellently at the moment, the No. 31 Whelen Engineering pair look determined to topple their teammates.
  • imsa_28903383Mazda’s strategic mistake was an unfortunate misstep while pursuing its elusive first overall win with its Prototype program. Once the Mazda stayed out on Lap 28 while the rest of the field pitted, the car was stuck on a certain strategy and would always be playing catch-up from a time standpoint. It was tough to see the usually clean Tristan Nunez make a couple aggressive maneuvers and hit other cars. And it was tough for the quality of people assembled by Mazda and SpeedSource to watch another pole (Jonathan Bomarito with Mazda Motorsports head John Doonan, right), its third this year, produce a result off the podium. The frustration of this year will only make the first win that much sweeter when it eventually arrives.
  • imsa_28906588The final caution produced quite a championship shakeup. Corvette Racing went from a possible tie in GTLM points to up 13 following Tommy Milner’s late-race heroics. Meanwhile Action Express Racing’s two cars are split by only one point (right), and PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and Riley Motorsports’ pairs of drivers both entered the title fray after their wins in PC and GTD, respectively.
  • How cool was it to see Sean Rayhall drive the radical DeltaWing prototype at Road America, then a 360 Sprint just down the road at Plymouth Speedway, on the same day? Rayhall hightailed it from Road America after qualifying to Plymouth, and it was no issue he missed the driver’s meeting Saturday night. He missed the A-main, but had a blast driving.
  • imsa_28906523Congrats are in order to a pair of Dutchmen – first to Jeroen Bleekemolen on the GTD win and a second place in the Continental Tire race on Saturday, and second to Renger van der Zande (No. 8, right), whose girlfriend is expecting their first child. Van der Zande and Stephen Simpson both clarified there was no contact between them that led to the final yellow.
  • The Radio Show Limited team produced another sterling, wall-to-wall, no breaks effort this weekend on IMSA Radio. That’s not exactly breaking news, but still deserves plaudits all the same.
  • I hadn’t been to an IMSA-only weekend since Sebring, so seeing and hearing the new IMSA announcer for a portion of the pre-race and podium ceremonies, was … let’s call it interesting.
  • There was no shortage of action in Saturday’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race, from the second lap nudge that inadvertently put Paul Holton and Till Bechtolscheimer’s cars on their sides/lids to the fuel mileage gambles in both GS and ST that shook up the podium. It was nice to see the Murillo Racing team rewarded with third in ST for Eric Foss and Jeff Mosing in a rebuilt Porsche Cayman.
  • Ryan Eversley’s last four Road America race results? First in the 2015 ST race, first and first in the two Pirelli World Challenge GT races in June, and now second in the 2016 ST race. All in Hondas (or Acuras). Not bad for the Georgia native who’s quickly adopted Wisconsin as his second home state.
  • A reduction to two hours for Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge main races in 2017 I think will be the right call. The two-hour, 30-minute shows are rarely lacking for action, but they are close if not identical to WeatherTech Championship length. They’ll also fit better into a TV window given that shorter length.
  • Although Jesse Lazare completed a weekend sweep in Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama, the shout out here goes to past Team USA Scholarship winner Jake Eidson, who finished second in both races in his series – and sports car – debut.
  • Prestige Performance swept the weekend in the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America Trent Hindman and Craig Duerson won overall on Saturday before Shinya Michimi took the Sunday win.
  • An unfortunate side effect of Delta’s systemwide computer outage meant a bunch of IMSA folks were left stranded Monday in Milwaukee. Tough travel luck for sure, although I’m sure Sunday night at Siebkens had nothing to do with it…

AN ATTEMPT AT EXPLAINING SERIES CLASSES

WeatherTech: Four classes in 2017 (Prototype, featuring Daytona Prototype international and LMP2-spec cars, Prototype Challenge in its last year, GT Le Mans and GT Daytona) and three in 2018 once PC is eliminated.

Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge: Two classes in 2017, with GS still a mix of GS legacy and GT4-spec cars before a full GT4-only class in 2018, then ST as status quo through 2018 before possible TCR-homologated cars introduction. If TCR arrives, would it be a separate class or an ST replacement? Only time will tell.

Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda: Two classes, with LMP3 cars entered under what’s dubbed the “PC1” class, and a second class called “PC2” for existing Elan DP02 chassis.

And then beyond the “Challenge” series there are the one-make championships from Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini, each of which have their own classes and structure.

Compare this to the FIA World Endurance Championship, which has four classes – LMP1, LMP2, GTE-Pro and GTE-Am – and the European Le Mans Series, which has three – LMP2, LMP3 and GTE. And that’s before you even get into Pirelli World Challenge, which has seven classes (GT, GTA, GT Cup, GTS, TC, TCA, TCB) and two potential race formats (Sprint, Sprint-X).

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.