End of eras define buildup to the 2016 Petit Le Mans

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BRASELTON, Ga. – At a race that has long featured guest appearances from all-star drivers, cars and teams, it’s the current star cars of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship that sign off the 2016 season for the final time in competition at this year’s Petit Le Mans.

IMSA’s new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) era begins in 2017, which brings to an end the three-year merged fusion of the prior GRAND-AM Rolex Series Daytona Prototypes and the Le Mans style LMP2 coupes.

The new DPis will take cues from both: the overall chassis component of LMP2 from the four ACO homologated chassis manufacturers, while embracing the DP brand of allowing OEMs to design their own bodywork styling for the exterior, and to put their own engines in the back.

There’s also a beginning of a drawdown in the Prototype Challenge class and the end for a couple cars in the GT classes, which are at the end of their competitive life spans.

Teams have been planning for the next phase of car evolution over the course of the year and so Petit Le Mans this year marks the race to say goodbye to the original Daytona Prototype formula, which premiered in 2003, as well as some other previous generation models.

The Prototype class will see the biggest change for 2017. All nine cars competing this weekend are expected to field different machinery next year.

Wayne Taylor Racing and Action Express Racing have only run DPs since their entry into GRAND-AM in 2004 and 2010, respectively. Meanwhile, Visit Florida Racing (the former Spirit of Daytona Racing) will shift away from Corvettes – whether it’s been an old AGT class Corvette as early as 2000 or now the Corvette DP which premiered in 2012.

These teams are expected to run Cadillac-branded DPis in 2017, but no formal announcement has been made yet by General Motors, nor a timeline revealed for when that will occur.

BRASELTON, GA – OCTOBER 04: Ricky Taylor,L, and Jordan Taylor celebrate in victory lane after winning Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 4, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

The Taylors, in particular, have professed their appreciation for the DP. Jordan Taylor – one of sports car’s youngest and most talented drivers who has made a name for himself as much for his social media presence as his on-track prowess – has often posted about his relationship with the Corvette DP as if it were his long-term girlfriend (send off note below).

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Goodbyes are tough. Nobody likes to say goodbye. We've been together for four years now, but this weekend will be our last. People say you're old and ugly, and let's face it, you are old, and you are kind of ugly. But that never mattered to me. All that mattered to me was the way I felt around you and the way you made me feel when I was inside of you. I've put a few scratches on you over the years, but only one that would count towards a domestic violence accusation. I felt bad about it, and honestly, wanted to go back in time to take it back. But we moved on, we learned from it, and we grew stronger. We've had some great times together and made some great memories, but all great things must come to an end. I thank you for what you've done for me and my career. I can't wait to see you again, one last time this weekend in Atlanta, Corvette Daytona Prototype. We'll do our best to give you an honorable send-off. #Corvette

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But on a serious note, Jordan says the car’s been a good workhorse and he’ll be sad to see it go.

“I’m very sentimental about the DPs going away,” Jordan Taylor said. “These cars mean a lot to the whole Taylor family and we have had a great history with them. I’m looking forward to getting to drive it one last time and pushing hard to win the last race ever for the package.”

Elsewhere Mazda’s pair of prototypes takes their bow for the final time, which also brings to an end the competitive lifespan of Lola chassis. Although Lola has been out of business for several years, the legacy prototypes live on from their Lola B12/80 homologation that Mazda has utilized the last three years. This year, the engine changed from a SKYACTIV diesel engine back to an AER gasoline powerplant dubbed the MZ-2.0T, which has shown speed but not reliability for most of the year.

“It gives me goosebumps to finish the season with the last Lolas that will ever race professionally,” said Tristan Nunez, who shares the No. 55 Mazda Prototype with Jonathan Bomarito and Spencer Pigot. “Growing up, watching Lolas, they were always beautiful cars. The history behind Lola is iconic, and it has held a special place in my heart since I climbed into one in 2014. To be saying good-bye to the car is bittersweet. Everyone says that we have the most beautiful car out there. And we do, but I have the utmost confidence the next car is going to be just as beautiful. I’m honored to drive it in its last professional competition.”

The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The quirky DeltaWing, the prototype that conformed to nothing except shaking up the establishment, takes what was expected to be its final race outing at its home track, although managing partner Dr. Don Panoz made a surprise announcement on Wednesday that the car is set to run the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona in a one-race exemption – details of which should be finalized over the winter.

Panoz helped save sports car racing in the late 1990s and founded the American Le Mans Series, and his DeltaWing creation provided a shot-in-the-arm from when it went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2012. Many of the initial partners involved – Michelin, Nissan, All American Racers and Highcroft Racing – all left thereafter but Panoz has pressed on solo the last four years, and it’s kept a lot of good people employed to field the radical lightweight car through its roadster-to-coupe evolution. An innovator, a dreamer and a racer, it would be a shame if Panoz is not a part of the new-look IMSA fabric in 2017 past Daytona.

Lastly the pair of LMP2-spec Ligier JS P2 Hondas could continue in another privateer hands, but with Michael Shank Racing having secured the factory Acura NSX GT3 program and with Tequila Patron ESM running Ligier JS P217 Nissan DPis next year, these existing cars run their final races in these two teams’ hands.

Outside the top-level Prototype ranks, the Prototype Challenge class is down to seven cars this weekend. PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and JDC/Miller Motorsports have announced steps up to the new-look Prototype class for 2017, and Starworks Motorsport has also announced a purchase of a new DPi. CORE autosport, the five-time class champions, have stepped out of PC having announced a switch to the Porsche 911 GT3 R for 2017.

It leaves Performance Tech Motorsports and BAR1 Motorsports, both of which also field cars in IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites (set to be renamed Prototype Challenge in 2017) series, as the only two PC teams yet to reveal their plans beyond 2017 for the last year of PC, the class. Both Brent O’Neill (Performance Tech) and Brian Alder (BAR1) figure to continue in Prototype Challenge, the series, with customers in either LMP3 or existing Prototype Lites machinery.

In GT Le Mans, Porsche’s current model 911 RSR makes its final scheduled North American start with the CORE autosport-run factory Porsche North America program. This car premiered on U.S. shores in 2014 with a win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and its most famous win occurred here last year at Petit Le Mans, when Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet won overall in the waterlogged, rain-shortened race after a pitch-perfect performance. A new GTE car was revealed earlier this year and will debut in 2017.

GT Daytona also sees one sendoff to the class’ lone American car, the Dodge Viper GT3-R. This year saw an infusion of second-generation FIA GT3-homologated cars – the new Audi R8, Porsche 911 GT3 R, BMW M6 GT3, Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and Ferrari 488 GT3 all debuted this year in Daytona.

The Viper GT3-R. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The Viper GT3-R. Photo courtesy of IMSA

But the Viper, which was there in GTD from the start of 2014, signs off its program this weekend. Ben Keating, the nation’s largest Viper dealer (Viper Exchange) has announced a purchase of a Riley Mk. 30 LMP2 prototype next year but figures to maintain a two-car, manufacturer-level presence within GTD next season as his primary full-season effort. Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen, along with ace third driver Marc Miller, look to send the Viper off with a win this weekend.

Beyond the cars, there’s also two driver sendoffs of note. After an incredible 20-year career that’s spanned various series, cars, classes and continents, Englishman Johnny Mowlem makes his last planned professional start this weekend in BAR1’s lone PC car along with Don Yount and Tomy Drissi. Mowlem achieved much of his success with Porsche but in recent years has still produced that occasional blinder of a moment, his pole for BAR1 at Daytona in 2015 a standout performance.

John Pew also makes his last scheduled professional start as part of the lineup in the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda. Pew shares the car with longtime co-driver Ozz Negri and third driver Olivier Pla and has been part of the fabric with Shank’s prototype program – both DPs and P2s – for a decade. The team makes its 250th start this weekend and Pew, who made his Le Mans debut with the team earlier this year, will move outside the spotlight.

Sports car racing is sometimes – OK, often – confusing to follow, but one cool thing is that it’s always evolving from a machinery and technology standpoint.

This weekend, forget the future for a bit and embrace the good ‘ol cars and drivers set to compete for one last hurrah.

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”