PC class ends this weekend at Road Atlanta. Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA’s Prototype Challenge class era ends at Petit Le Mans

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An eight-year run for the Prototype Challenge class comes to an end at this weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans, and while it’s easy to have cast jokes about the class’ decline into 2017, it cannot be understated what the class accomplished over its tenure between the American Le Mans Series and the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

When looking at the IMSA field now, it’s fascinating to note the teams and drivers that have spent time in PC before landing at their current spots, and how the spec class came in at just the right time to help the ALMS during a downturn in car count.

Come 2010, the spec-Oreca FLM09 chassis was introduced as a way to bolster the prototype field with many of the high profile manufacturer LMP1 and LMP2 entries having dropped out in the two previous years. With the remaining LMP1 and LMP2 cars merged into one class for one year, it was left to LMPC to make up the numbers with an additional half-dozen prototypes or more.

Other than the first year when Level 5 Motorsports had a clear budget edge over the other privateers, the teams from 2011 onwards were all closely matched throughout the paddock, and parity in race wins and poles followed.

With great racing and great development of drivers and teams over eight years, the PC class signs off this weekend at Road Atlanta having accomplished its intended goals.

“That car has delivered well beyond our wildest expectations,” IMSA President Scott Atherton said at the series’ 2018 schedule announcement at Road America. “With the drivers and the crews, it’s done everything and then some. But it’s time for us to evolve.”

Popow, Baron and van der Zande together after winning Lime Rock overall in 2016. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Eventual sports car stars such as Renger van der Zande were unknown quantities when they arrived in North America. But thanks to the PC class, they had room to grow and develop as drivers – van der Zande, the rapid Dutchman, now races for VISIT FLORIDA Racing in IMSA’s Prototype class and a Mercedes-AMG GT3 in Europe. He scored his first Prototype class win last time out at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca following a daring move on Dane Cameron at the Corkscrew.

Van der Zande began with the DragonSpeed/MISHUMOTORS team with co-driver Mirco Schultis in 2013, and then transitioned to Peter Baron’s Starworks Motorsport outfit. The two clinched the 2016 title together (Alex Popow was co-driver) and as van der Zande explained, seeing what he could do in PC taught him a lot about himself.

“Looking back, it was three and a half years of really tough competition, and what was so nice about it was no BoP. Everyone had the same car. Everyone pushed every session,” van der Zande told NBC Sports.

“There were always five or six cars able to fight for the win. And it was properly pro-am with real pros in the car that made it so interesting! Sometimes I was P8 when I got into the car and we would still win races! Those are the kind of races you remember. It brought me a lot for my career, and taught me a lot.”

Cameron, too, made his entry into prototype racing thanks to PC. Now entering his last race as reigning Prototype class champion with Action Express Racing, the 28-year-old will head to Team Penske’s new Acura DPi program in 2018. But the origins of his prototype career came six years ago with veteran engineer/team manager Tom Knapp at Genoa Racing.

“It was my first sports car win at Sebring, in my first try!” Cameron reflected on his 2011 triumph, co-driving with Jens Petersen and Mike Guasch. “It was the only PC race I won, but was able to get poles with various teams. Funnily we got pole at Petit Le Mans later that year, but didn’t start the race because we were a reserve entry!”

Simpson and JDC/Miller graduated into Prototype. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Stephen Simpson, like van der Zande and Cameron, is also now in the Prototype class, and also had his career reborn thanks to PC. JDC/Miller Motorsports was the last new team to enter the class – it debuted at the second round of the merged championship in 2014 at Sebring – and Simpson, who’s stayed connected via coaching in whatever way he could, was its lead driver.

“That was my first Sebring race, and my first sports car race in a long time, since the Creation days! It would have been ALMS, final race of the year, the four hours at Laguna Seca in 2008, so it’d been a hard long time,” Simpson told NBC Sports.

“The PC class in general was fantastic, not just for myself, but also for the JDC team. It taught us a lot about the series. It helped us all raise our game.”

When Simpson, Misha Goikhberg, Kenton Koch and Chris Miller won the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona in PC, they’d reached a summit in the class after two years of growth. The result helped lay the groundwork for the team’s step-up to Prototype this year, where the No. 85 Oreca 07 Gibson – dubbed the “JDC banana boat” – has overachieved all season.

Beyond JDC/Miller, PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports also advanced from PC into Prototype this year, the Bobby Oergel-led team having won a number of endurance races along the way but coming up short of titles in gut-wrenching fashion despite running in class from 2010 to 2016. Oergel’s team also provided a place for car owners Ray and Leslie Mathiasen, as well, after both PR1 and Mathiasen had run separate Atlantic series programs through the late 2000s – notably for eventual Mazda factory ace Jonathan Bomarito.

CORE autosport was long the standard bearer in PC. Photo courtesy of IMSA

CORE autosport has grown thanks to PC in another way entirely, having been the standard bearer for most of the class’ tenure. The Jon Bennett-owned and Morgan Brady-led team established itself as a championship-winning outfit renowned for its preparation and results, winning five team titles in a row from 2011 through 2015.

It grew to a point where CORE autosport, the Rock Hill, S.C.-based team, was entrusted to run Porsche North America’s factory GT Le Mans program. This year, what was the PC team of Bennett and Colin Braun have saddled up in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT3 R, and now will move back to Prototype next year with an Oreca 07 Gibson.

One of CORE’s earlier drivers was Ryan Dalziel, who never ran a full PC season but ran and won enough with CORE in 2012, often driving with Popow.

Dalziel also raced more regularly with Baron and Starworks in GRAND-AM Rolex Series DP, ALMS PC, and the FIA World Endurance Championship in LMP2; the latter series, they won the title as an American team in a World Championship in 2012. The two often joke they are “thunder buddies for life” owing to their friendship resembling that in the movie Ted between Mark Wahlberg’s character – coincidentally named John Bennett – and Seth MacFarlane’s titular character that’s an anthropomorphic bear.

Dalziel admits the PC class served its purpose but as sports car racing has moved on, it’s time to evolve.

“I think the championship was great for a number of years, because cost-wise there wasn’t anything that was going to touch it. It was a true pro-am championship,” Dalziel told NBC Sports.

“I think it went a couple years too long – the equipment is starting to look a bit tardy. It could have ended sooner. But it was well needed at that time, especially with the low car count in DPs, P1 and P2.”

“There were a lot of pros that it birthed that were unheard of – Renger for instance – so it’ll be missed in that regard. But it’s time for a change.”

French, O’Ward, Masson have rewarded O’Neill’s faith in young guns. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Performance Tech Motorsports has stuck it out the longest, having fielded an entry at least in one race in each of the eight seasons. Brent O’Neill’s team’s dedication has been rewarded this year with a flawless campaign that’s seen them secure the title in advance of the finale this weekend, having won each of the first seven races over Brian Alder’s BAR1 Motorsports, who’ve also been a PC stalwart through various name iterations over eight years. Both plan to graduate to Prototype in 2018 with to-be-announced LMP2 chassis.

O’Neill and the family environment there for the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based outfit has fostered a place for young drivers to grow and develop. James French and Pato O’Ward have brought home the success in all events this year, joined by teenager Kyle Masson in the endurance races.

“The PC class from the inception has been awesome,” O’Neill told NBC Sports. “It’s been a big part of our business model for years, as the young drivers graduated from Mazda Prototype Lites, they had a place to go. The FLM09 and its budget was the best bang for the buck in IMSA.

“If you look at this year, we’ve had three young guns in the car who have done a great job all year, setting poles and lap records throughout. It’s been a really special year for us in the PC class. It’s a shame there haven’t been more cars, but we’ve been quick, with zero mechanicals and almost zero mistakes.”

PC had some deep fields and great liveries in 2014. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The talent level of pros that came to the class was staggering. Beyond the ones already mentioned throughout this piece, some of the other renowned drivers who raced in PC full-time included Gunnar Jeannette, Elton Julian, Christophe Bouchut, Andy Wallace, Kyle Marcelli, Bruno Junqueira, Butch Leitzinger, Marino Franchitti, Ryan Lewis, Raphael Matos, Tom Kimber-Smith, Memo Gidley, Tristan Nunez, Luis Diaz, Sean Rayhall, Conor Daly, Johnny Mowlem, Jack Hawksworth, Duncan Ende, Buddy Rice, Gustavo Yacaman and more, and the list of stars grew even greater when you added in endurance race extras.

Just last year at Road America, PC was still 7-9 cars strong before reductions. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Similarly, gentleman drivers such as Goikhberg, Bennett, Popow, Schultis, David Heinemeier Hansson, Chris Cumming, Mike Hedlund, Eric Lux, Robert Alon, Henri Richard, Don Yount, Scott Tucker and others provided the entry point for these pros to race alongside.

Extracting the most out of the car, which went through a recent electronics update package, was always part of the fun, and helped produce a better type of driver, as van der Zande explained.

“It was not an easy car at all! To get the lap time out of it, you really needed a hard push,” he said. “The car was so rough and in terms of stability, it was always a lot of work on the steering wheel, but also, it produced lot of torque out of the corners.

“You were power sliding, from left to right. It was a real fight to get the lap time out of it! I still have it in my head that when the car isn’t perfect, I’m able to get a lot out of it compared to others. I think it’s from 3.5 years of that car.”

Van der Zande’s summation of what PC did for him is a good summary of what it did for many others over the class’ eight-year run in North America.

“It brought me a lot and it made me a lot stronger. It helped give me a chance in the U.S. Together with Mirco Schultis, who brought me to Laguna Seca, it was my first U.S. race… and I never left again!

“I want to do 10 years again in the U.S. in prototypes and GTs, and thanks to PC, that’s where it all started!

“Looking back at it, it was a very cool time in that car.”

PC podium at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca 2014 has a lot of talented faces. Photo courtesy of IMSA

‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits still chasing drag racing records, more innovation at 86

All photos courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
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At 86 years old, legendary drag racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has found the fountain of youth:

Batteries.

No, we’re not talking about batteries for a heart pacemaker or the kind you put in your TV remote control.

Rather, the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history is still attacking the quarter-mile just like he did when he got into the sport more than six decades ago.

The difference for the Ocala, Florida, resident is rather than using nitromethane, which powers the Top Fuel dragsters he used to drive to countless wins and championships, Garlits is now piloting dragsters that are battery powered.

Or as many refer to them as “electric dragsters.”

Garlits has been working on electric dragsters for about four years now, and he’s just as competitive now as he was back in his hey-day.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is still going fast at the age of 86. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

He holds the world record for electric dragsters at 185.6 mph at 7.25 seconds. He actually has gone quicker – 7.05 seconds – but it was not recognized as a record.

Garlits has done all that with a former Top Fuel dragster that was converted to battery power. He calls it Swamp Rat 37, which continues the long line of innovations and technological advancements that Garlits has been know for his whole career.

“It’s all batteries now,” Garlits said when interviewed by MotorSportsTalk recently at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

MORE: ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, 82, sets yet another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

The electric dragsters have definitely helped “Big Daddy” in many ways, but most notable is his look and demeanor. He could easily pass for early-to-mid 60s, and his drive and desire to be the best pioneer of the battery-powered cars is just like it was when he was racing in Top Fuel.

“I feel good, real good,” Garlits said. “Well, of course, developing the electric dragster has been a big part of that.

“A man doesn’t really go to seed, so to speak, until he has nothing to do. You’ve gotta have goals, no matter how old you are.

“It’s as important to exercise your mind as it is to exercise your body, because your mind can get stiff and out of whack, too.”

At an age where most individuals would be enjoying retirement to the fullest, Garlits refuses to retire. Instead, he keeps busy with a schedule that someone half his age would have a hard time keeping up with.

In addition to constant tinkering on his electric dragster – with the goal of becoming the first person to break the 200 mph barrier – he also spends every day (except when he’s traveling on business) at the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, which he founded in 1976.

And then there’s his latest project.

“Now I’m building Swamp Rat 38 that is designed around all that I’ve learned about electronic dragsters over the last four years,” Garlits said. “My goal is to reach 200 mph on batteries and to have a car that’s consistent and simple to operate so that a group of people can have dragsters and not cost a fortune to do it. It’s not very expensive.

“It’s going to take about 1,300 to 1,400 horsepower in about a 1,500 pound car. And I have the electric motor to do that.”

Garlits’ milestones in drag racing history are truly legendary. He was the first Top Fuel racer to break speed barriers of 170 mph, 180 mph, 200 mph, 240 mph, 250 mph and 270 mph – all in the quarter-mile – as well as was the first driver to exceed 200 mph in the one-eighth-mile.

Each of those milestones came because Garlits has spent his entire life tinkering, tweaking and strategizing. He got his mechanical curiosity from his father, an engineer for Westinghouse, who was on a team that invented a number of significant appliances, including the electric fan and the electric iron.

“That’s one reason I’ve gotten so excited about this electric dragster is because those genes are coming out,” Garlits said with a laugh.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits back in the early stages of his drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

But seriously, innovation and the desire to never give up and always strive to be the best has been Garlits’ mantra since he first started drag racing in the late 1950s.

“The biggest difference in drag racing today vs. my era in Top Fuel is definitely the cost,” Garlits said. “I’ll never forget when I showed up at Bakersfield (California) with my car, Swamp Rat 1, in 1959 for the U.S. Fuel and Gas championships, the first real big drag race in the world.

“The total price of my car and the trailer it was on cost less than $1,000 to make. Nitro was $1.50 per gallon and it used less than a gallon per run. That’s all the cost there was. I ran a whole year on the same engine, same clutch, same tires, same everything. It was very inexpensive.

“That’s why drag racing appealed back then to so many youngsters because it was something they could dream about and actually do. Now, they’ve made this maybe as expensive as NASCAR and other types of racing.

The Swamp Rat that started it all for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Swamp Rat 1. Photo: Museum of Drag Racing.

“The biggest cost was the engine. It came out of a wrecking yard and out of a ’57 Chrysler. It cost $450 bucks. The chassis was out of a ’31 Chevrolet and I just used the side rails, that was $35. And then the rear end out of an old Ford was $10, and the transmission and front wheels, everything was out of wrecking yards – and you made it yourself.”

Electric dragsters today are among the least expensive vehicles in motorsports, Garlits said.

“It’s probably $150,000 to get to the track with the car and truck, but that’s the last of the big costs,” Garlits said. “It costs about 7 or 8 cents a run after that.

“That’s compared to some of the Top Fuel dragster runs today, where it can cost up to $25,000 per run. Nobody can afford that.”

Garlits was forced to retire from racing in 1992 – at the age of 60 – due to a detached retina in his eye. He made two brief comebacks in 1998 and again in 2003, attaining a personal best of 323 mph in 4.7 seconds (on a quarter-mile, before NHRA scaled back Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to 1,000-foot lanes).

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

While Top Fuel dragsters are routinely hitting 330 mph and faster these days, Garlits demurs when asked if he’d like to pilot one of the current nitro dragsters.

“I wouldn’t jump into one of the 300-plus mph cars today, it’s too hard on your body,” he said. “You get hit with 8 Gs when you step on it and that’s instant, and that hurts you when you get up to my age.”

But, he adds with a caveat and another smile on his face, “Our bones and joints are not as good as they used to be – but I’d love it if I could.”

There are only a handful of electric dragsters in competition today, but Garlits is optimistic that current numbers will continue to grow. While electric drag racing is overseen by the National Electric Drag Racing Association, Garlits has had talks with the National Hot Rod Association about potential exhibition runs in the future.

But that’s just part of it.

Even though he’ll turn 87 in January, Garlits wants to get back to racing competitively in a structured series or league. It’s just a matter of having more cars out there.

“Oh yeah, I’d get right back in it,” he said emphatically. “That’s why I’m pioneering this, because I’m trying to get it going.

“Right now, there’s about four teams all fighting to reach 200 mph first, and there’s a couple of teams in Europe. We’re all taking different approaches and one of us is going to come up with the best idea, which is the most feasible, the least expensive and the one that gets the job done – and that’s the way the dragster will probably go.”

The biggest obstacle to electric dragsters continues to be consistency, particularly of the batteries that power them. Remember, these four-wheeled beasts do not run on conventional fuel, just the power produced by the batteries.

But Garlits is optimistic that further technical advances will soon come faster and more frequent, adding that “I’m in a totally different battery than what I started with. The technology in four years has leapfrogged.”

Another exmple of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits back during the most successful part of his lengthy drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

In addition to trying to get the NHRA onboard when it comes to promoting and exhibiting electric dragsters, Garlits has also had discussions with noted innovator/entrepreneur Elon Musk and Tesla.

“The most important technology that I’m paying attention to and I’m trying to get them involved with my team is Tesla, because they have some nice induction motors that make 450 horsepower, and they’re small,” Garlits said. “I could put four of them in my car and I might be better off than one motor in my car. That would not only give me 1,800 horses, but also maybe 230 mph. I’m really trying to convince (Tesla to get involved with him).”

When asked what has been the greatest accomplishment of his career, Garlits is quick to answer.

“Building the revolutionary championship-winning rear-engine dragster,” he said. “There had been rear-engine dragsters, but they didn’t do well. This put the driver out-front of the motor where they were safer.”

Ironically, it was an incident on March 8, 1970 at fabled Lions Dragway in Long Beach, California, one of the worst of Garlits’ career, when the transmission on Swamp Rat 13 exploded, ultimately costing Garlits part of his right foot, as well as saw a spectator also injured.

 

But a lot of good came out of the incident, as well. While recuperating in a nearby hospital, Garlits came up with the rear-engine dragster, which revolutionized the sport.

“They had killed, I think it was six people in about a two-to-three year people prior to my big accident in Long Beach,” he said. “And they haven’t killed six since in the last 47 years.

“I’m also very proud of the Drag Racing Museum, where I’ve captured the history of the sport all the way back to the 40s’ and have all these artifacts before they became collectibles.

“Everybody laughed at me when I started the Museum in 1976 because you could go to a guy’s garage and he’d give you all that stuff, they were just trying to get rid of it, and today it’s worth a fortune. We don’t sell anything and we’ve got it there for future generations as a non-profit, so my family isn’t going to be selling anything. It’s there for America.”

And right there smack dab in the middle of all of it is the man and the legend, Big Daddy.

When asked what his life is like these days, given everything that keeps him busy, he looks straight at the questioner, broadly smiles and says matter-of-factly, “I’m having more fun right now than I ever had in my entire life, if you can believe that.”

Yes, Don, we can believe it. And with you leading the charge, that 200 mph barrier will soon be broken.

Follow @JerryBonkowski