IMSA: 2017 Midseason Update with Scott Atherton

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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While technically the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is past the “midseason” point, Road America traditionally serves as the site of the sanctioning body’s round of updates on the year passed and the year ahead.

IMSA President Scott Atherton generally plays off the weather to make a number of jokes at the presentation after the formal words. While last year’s sun-drenched presentation prompted an Atherton “the future’s so bright, we need to wear shades” line, this year witnessed quite the opposite weather-wise. Rare rainy, cloudy and overcast conditions meant a last-minute shift of the presentation from Road America’s victory lane into the Tufte Center conference room, thanks to some quick work from the IMSA staff with the track.

It was against that backdrop though that Atherton’s 2016 words about the future actually shone through the miserable weather conditions, because IMSA has one hell of an opportunity at the moment, and stands at the precipice of even greater things as it’s preparing for 2018 – what will already be the fifth season of the combined series between the former GRAND-AM Rolex Series and American Le Mans Series.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

In the last month, Team Penske and Acura and Joest Racing and Mazda have formally confirmed their Daytona Prototype international (DPi) programs, the burgeoning JDC-Miller Motorsports team has announced a second car, other teams from other series are candidly expressing interest in the series, TCR is coming into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge ranks, there’s been recent partnership extension announcements (BUBBA burger and VP Fuels), and IMSA announced what will be a popular return to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Has Atherton and for that matter IMSA – in this current form – previously had as good a month in terms of overall, big picture announcements?

“To be really brief in a response, no,” Atherton told NBC Sports at Road America. “As I alluded to, there is so much momentum now. We as a group believe what we’re experiencing now is a result of efforts made by an army of people for the last four years. It looks like it’s all come at once; but it’s been a long process.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ralf (Juttner) in the American Le Mans Series with Audi and its prototypes, so we want to welcome them back to our paddock.

“Of course now we can be candid; (the Penske Acura news) was one of the worst kept secrets. It’s now out and open. Everyone is very enthusiastic. The early reports are that the car turned its first wheels. Calling this a ‘game changer’ is accurate, with the Penske organization coming back in.”

Ironically, the fact most of the news trickled out before the annual schedule presentation meant there wasn’t as much new news revealed to those key stakeholders on site at Road America.

Not that that’s a bad thing, but in “Atherton speak”, the fact of the matter is that the “soufflé hasn’t risen all the way yet,” with other potential changes to get revealed later this year.

“I’d say yes and no about this being one of our better presentations,” Atherton admitted. “The reason for the yes part is that it’s always great to stand up to confirm a wonderful schedule for the WeatherTech Championship and several other platforms.

“Alas, what is frustrating is that our real news here – Mid-Ohio – was announced a week ago. Some of the other examples that I’ve hinted about are not quite ready. From a news factor, I think we’re probably there’s been other years with bigger news. But factoring in Mazda Joest, Penske Acura, Mid-Ohio, and all those others in 30 days, it’s never been that good.”

Mid-Ohio’s addition has been a hit, Atherton saying on that front, “As expected it is all positive. It’s rare we can make an announcement that’s received that way. There’s always someone with an agenda for the other direction; but if it exists, we’re not aware of it.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

The decision to take Long Beach off the WeatherTech Championship calendar for the GT Daytona class is the one schedule bit of consternation in the paddock. From several discussions with GTD teams at the Road America weekend, it was suggested that this was a major market loss for the class, and the cost savings for doing 11 races versus 12 races aren’t as pronounced as it may seem.

Atherton cited multiple factors as the reason for the drop, but it’s worth noting the IMSA paddock was close to capacity at Long Beach this year with the GTD addition for the first time.

“It was a combination of reasons; I would say primarily, it was from feedback from our GTD stakeholders,” Atherton said. “There’s the budgetary implications of another event – this was one race added for this year. There’s the potential for significant crash damage in a street circuit environment. So there are many factors taken into it.

“There are people on both sides of this equation, and yes, this does makes a lot of sense for brands and OEMs. But at the end of the day, it’s GTD stakeholders who made the ultimate decision.”

This removes, for 2018, seeing the Continental Tire-shod GTD cars racing on the same streets as the Pirelli World Challenge GT cars, which have not formally confirmed their 2018 schedule but are expected to return to Long Beach.

IMSA, as a unit, is managing relationships with several other racing organizations. In PWC’s case, Atherton and WC Vision President/CEO Greg Gill are working with each other to ensure no domestic conflicts to allow drivers interested in driving in both series to do so without sacrificing one championship or another, as has been the case this year for the betterment of a number of drivers in both paddocks (PWC’s midseason report is linked here). It also maintains a healthy relationship with INDYCAR; IMSA’s races on the Long Beach and Detroit weekends continue with other IMSA-sanctioned championships competing at Barber and Sonoma.

The DPis have been an unquestioned success. Photo courtesy of IMSA

On an international front, IMSA won’t admit it publicly, but they’ve indeed positioned themselves better for the future with the DPi formula allowing manufacturer identity at the fraction of the cost of LMP1 hybrid, which has lost Nissan, Audi and now Porsche within a three-year period – and leaves only Toyota within the top class of the FIA World Endurance Championship for 2018.

IMSA has also now entered into a relationship with TCR, with that class of cars set to be introduced speed-wise between the GS and ST classes in the 2018 Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and then set to be the second class only in 2019 with the ST class expected to be phased out.

Quite how IMSA positions itself within the overall global sports car landscape is a full-time job on its own but Atherton hailed the staff that’s allowed these relationships to develop and grow.

“Well, it’s a full-time job and then some; we have some really good people,” Atherton said. “Simon Hodgson and his crew on the technical and competition side, they’ll travel to several meetings in Europe with the FIA and TCR.

“Meanwhile we’re in constant communication with the ACO; it goes back so far, we’re very comfortable with each other. There’s no issues.

“Bringing in a new platform – TCR – is always a challenging undertaking. With Simon at the helm, no one is concerned. It’ll take some time and effort, so it’ll be good.”

Photo courtesy of IMSA

TCR interest appears to be on the rise with Karl Thomson’s C360R team having announced at the weekend the purchase of two Audi RS 3s, with more teams set to announce their plans in the coming weeks.

For the WeatherTech Championship itself, one of the issues it may face in 2018 is related to another recently announced incentive – the “36 Hours of Florida” meant to attract international teams.

We don’t yet know the state of the WeatherTech Championship grid next year but if the Acura and Lexus GTD programs evolve as they shift away from full factory programs, and we figure the full-season Prototype grid will increase with the aforementioned additions and the potential step-up of Prototype Challenge teams, you wonder how much room will exist if a bevy of international teams arrive.

This year, Rebellion Racing and DragonSpeed were in Prototype while the GTD field added a number of international entries, including the factory Aston Martin team and ADAC GT Masters-winning Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi team.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

If such a situation arises where the car count exceeds the potential maximum grid, Atherton expects preference to be given to full-time IMSA entrants.

“We’ve faced that before. With the first year of the merger, running combined in ’14 we were oversubscribed, so we have some experience in how to manage it.

“We don’t have, I won’t call it a ‘pecking order,’ but there is a criteria that full-season teams with a full-season commitment to us, and those running for a championship are given greater consideration than those that might be only doing one or two races.

“Right now, we’re not concerned. Based on some of the reports we’re seeing out of Europe and the level of interest especially for Daytona and Sebring seems at a very high level.”

How does IMSA go forward from here? After a month of banner, positive news for the overall health of the championship, the key is getting that excitement to penetrate a greater market share beyond the hardcore sports car fans and stakeholders in the paddock. Atherton noted a number of increased metrics though across IMSA’s social media and web platforms at the start of his formal presentation.

“We couldn’t be more pleased. The best part is we’re not done,” he said.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.