IMSA: Kenton Koch goes for another title after a balancing act year

Koch with Jim Swintal after his title print last year. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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BRASELTON, Ga. – The driver who once compared himself to “Gumby” can wiggle his way into a fifth consecutive championship in sports car racing at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans.

If Justin Wilson was considered IndyCar’s “gentle giant,” then Kenton Koch is well on his way to being sports car racing’s version of the man who balances his lanky frame, incredible talent and even more incredible humility, all at the tender age of 22.

Most drivers who would be in Koch’s situation this year would have struggled to comprehend why they aren’t in a full-time ride.

Instead Koch, to his credit, did not let it get him down publicly and has maximized his limited opportunities throughout the 2016 season.

“It’s definitely difficult being in the position I’m in, but, I also have to be so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” Koch told NBC Sports. “I’m here driving a racecar, and I get to try to have other opportunities like this for a full ride next year.

“Brent (O’Neill, Performance Tech Motorsports team principal) helped me a lot on this. It’s cool to have someone like this in your corner. They just got the ‘Extreme Spirit’ award; he’s a super good dude, and they worked hard to get me in the car.”

He looks to complete the quintet of titles after driving for two different teams this year, JDC/Miller Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports, in the Prototype Challenge class as he goes for a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown.

In 2013, Koch firmly “arrived” on the sports car scene after making selected Mazda MX-5 Cup starts in 2012 and winning the Mazdaspeed Challenge class. He won the Skip Barber/Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge class that year, and for good measure, added an overall win in the rain at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park while in the class.

A year later in 2014, Koch advanced into the primary class of MX-5 Cup with Alara Racing and edged the driver who he’d lost the Mazda club racing shootout to in 2012, Patrick Gallagher, for the overall title.

In IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites presented by Cooper Tires (then called Cooper Tires Prototype Lites presented by Mazda) in 2015, Koch controlled the season with 11 wins in 14 races en route to his fourth straight title.

Koch seemed a natural, then, to follow in the footsteps of Tristan Nunez, Sean Rayhall and Misha Goikhberg as a full-time Prototype Challenge driver in 2016. Instead, Koch was only confirmed for the opening two races in PC with JDC/Miller Motorsports as a third driver alongside Goikhberg and talented South African teammate Stephen Simpson.

Koch was immediately on pace and despite an incident at the Bus Stop at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was trusted enough with the car to bring it home to the finish in his race, series and class debut.

It was mission accomplished, and his win was one of the most emotional of 2016. It came just more than a year after in 2015 his mom, Karen, had undergone a heart transplant and was on site to witness the achievement. His dad, Chris and girlfriend Dani have also provided support at nearly every race along the way, as well.

Koch’s two IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship starts since ended fourth with JDC/Miller at the waterlogged Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and then second for Performance Tech with Kyle Marcelli and James French at Watkins Glen International in the team’s No. 38 Oreca FLM09.

Koch leads the PC points standings, 34-32 over the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports trio, heading into the fourth and final round of the Patron Endurance Cup. If he can secure the title, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Cameron Lawrence and Al Carter, who were last year’s GT Daytona Patron Endurance Cup champs while doing an endurance-only schedule.

All the while, Cal State Fullerton business student Koch has maintained a presence at the track in the races he’s not driving, doing a mix of either testing the new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car, driver coaching, or providing color commentary for the Mazda MX-5 Cup races with IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

“The Mazda ladder system has helped me in that, there are other things than just trying to go fast in a race car,” Koch explained. “There’s a lot more involved than meets the eye from an outsider perspective. Being a part of that has helped me see things from a different perspective.”

Koch accurately predicted who’d emerge victorious in MX-5’s crazy photo finish at VIRginia International Raceway in the form of Nathanial Sparks, even though Sparks wasn’t leading out of the last turn.

“It’s just what happened in the corner before. ‘Sparky’ was there sitting pretty. There it was! I was like oh, ‘He’s gonna do it!’”

Few drivers pack his combination of pace, poise, maturity and humility at once.

And to be able to be on the verge of a title while driving for two different teams, with two different sets of teammates and setups, speaks to a true talent who’s as adaptable and bendable as his 6’4” frame.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.