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

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

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

A deep dive into the new GR Cup as Toyota branches into single-make sports car racing

Toyota GR Cup
Swikar Patel/Toyota Racing Development

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Inside this former textile mill, a retro building built in 1892 with massive floor-to-ceiling windows and sturdy brick, Toyota has planted a future seed with the GR Cup.

Once a hub for making cotton dye, the first floor has been turned into a factory that churned out spec sports cars for the past year as Toyota Racing Development prepares to launch its first single-make series.

The inaugural season of the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the first of seven SRO-sanctioned events (each with two races) featuring a field of homologated GR86 production models that have been modified for racing with stock engines.

Under the banner of its Gazoo Racing (a high-performance brand relatively new to North America but synonymous with Dakar Rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah), Toyota will join Mazda, Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini as the latest automaker to run a single-make U.S. series (with Ford recently announcing plans for its own in the near future).

It’s grassroots-level amateur racing for manufacturers that are accustomed to racing at motorsports’ highest levels, but there are many benefits through competition, driver development and marketing despite the lower profile.

“It’s not the easiest thing or cheapest thing to do,” TRD executive commercial director Jack Irving told NBC Sports. “But there’s massive value to be a part of it and have our DNA in the cars. You get to race a bunch and get a bunch of data. You get to engage directly in feedback from the people beating those cars up.”

The GR86s being raced are very similar to the street versions that retail for about $35,000 at dealerships that annually sell several thousand.

“It’s a test of the car and your design,” Irving said. “We take an engineered vehicle designed to spec for the road and then apply our resources to make it race ready. Some of those things cross over.

The first floor of Toyota Racing Development’s Mooresville facility that finished the vehicles for the new GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

“Everyone approaches it differently. It’s a marketing piece for us. It’s a development piece for drivers. We’re supporting grass roots racing. This is a very long-term deal for us. This isn’t something we’re doing two years and done. It’s got a long-term vision. There’s big value in it, and there’s a lot of responsibility with that, too.

“You’re ultimately supporting it. You’re not just selling cars into a series and hoping it goes well. You have to be involved in a very material way to make sure it goes off well and has your fingerprints and represents the brand.”

Early indications have been solid. The GR Cup cars were rolled out on iRacing in January and immediately became one of the platform’s most popular vehicles (with 212-horsepower engines, the cars handle well and are difficult to spin).

TRD’s GR86 factory floor (Swikar Patel/TRD).

TRD has sold 33 cars for GR Cup with 31 racing in Sonoma, easily surpassing initial expectations.

“Our target was to sell 20 cars in the first year, and we could have sold 50 if not for supply chain issues with some vendors,” TRD president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “We basically came up with the idea of taking the GR86 and looking at what it would take to turn that into a little race car and do it affordably and competitively, and what’s come along with that is just a tremendous interest level. It seems like a market that perhaps has been underserved right now.”

Here’s a deeper look at the Toyota Gazoo Racing GR Cup and how the manufacturer built the new series:


The race cars start as production models that are shipped directly from the factory in Japan to a port in Charleston, South Carolina. After being trucked to the Mooresville facility, they are stripped and sent to Joe Gibbs Racing to be outfitted with a roll cage.

Upon return to TRD, the transmission and stock engine is added. The body remains virtually the same as the street version with a slightly altered hood, decklid and splitter for ride height and aerodynamics.

Jack Irving (Swikar Patel/TRD)

The cars mostly are customized to help manage the heat – the stock versions aren’t designed to handle the oil that sloshes around in the high-speed left- and right-hand turns on the road and street courses of the GR Cup schedule. TRD puts about two dozen parts on the cars, using Stratasys 3-D Printers to manufacture many on site (which allows flexibility for adjusting on the fly during R&D). In addition to help with cooling, many of the tweaks focus on allowing a limited number of setup changes.

“You don’t have a lot of ability to adjust these cars,” Irving said. “It was done on purpose. The intent was you have three spring sets, and you can adjust the shocks and do air pressure. That’s it. We seal the engine and components of it. We dyno everything. Everyone is within range to create as consistent a series as we can.

“Some of that is to mimic what Mazda did. They’ve done a really good job with their series. Porsche, Ferrari and other OEMs have done it very well. We had a learning that was easier to go through their book and see the Cliffs Notes version to get where we are.”

After taking delivery, GR Cup teams are responsible for transporting the cars to each track (and can buy up to three sets of Continental tires per event). Toyota brings two parts trucks to each track


After Sonoma, the GR Cup will visit Circuit of the Americas (May 5-7), Virginia International Raceway (June 16-18), the streets of Nashville (Aug. 4-6), Road America (Aug. 25-27), Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 22-24) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Oct. 6-8).

Though Nashville (IndyCar’s Music City Grand Prix) and Indy (SRO’s eight-hour Intercontinental Challenge) are part of weekends with bigger headliners, the GR Cup mostly will be the second-billed series (behind SRO’s Fanatech GT World Challenge) for events that will draw a few thousand. Sonoma had a crowd of about 4,000 last year, and SRO Motorsports America president Greg Gill said its events draw a maximum of about 13,000 over three days.

“There are some iconic venues, and the SRO it’s not IMSA,” Wilson said. “It’s got a different feel to it. It’s not the show. IMSA is kind of the show. I actually think it’s a good place for us to start, because it’s a little bit under the radar relatively speaking. It’s not a venue where you see the grandstands full of fans. It’s very much racers and their families. It’s got a neat vibe to it because it’s kind of small. So for our first effort as a single-make series, it’s the right place for us.”

Toyota GR Cup
The interior of the GR86 that will be raced in the GR Cup (Swikar Patel/TRD).

Though the attendance will be much smaller, Toyota still is bringing a large hospitality and marketing activation area with two 56-foot trucks that will provide a central gathering area for the series.

Teams’ entry fees will include meals there and provide a place to connect with Toyota engineers and other officials.

“I think we have a very different way of engaging with our group of drivers, and this series is similar to that,” Irving said. “Knowing that this isn’t going to get 100K people watching, but we want to have a direct connection with the drivers and understand their feelings about car, how do we make it better and empower them to be brand ambassadors for GR.”


Toyota has positioned the GR Cup as filling a price gap between the Mazda MX-5 Cup (a spec Miata Series known for high-quality racing at very low costs) and the Porsche Carrera Cup

“If you look at the ladder of MX5 to Porsche Cup, the difference in cost is massive,” TRD general manager Tyler Gibbs told NBC Sports. “We slot in closer to Miata than Porsche. We’ll slot another car in potentially in the future above that. It’s a good place for us from a price point perspective. Our road car is slightly more expensive than a Miata, so it makes sense our performance on the car is higher than Miata.”

A GR Cup car will cost $125,000. Full-season costs will vary depending on how much teams spend on equipment and transportation with estimates from $15-35K per event. So a competitive full season probably could be accomplished in the $250,000-$300,000 range.

Toyota GR Cup

“The goal was if you can ‘Six Pack’ it like Kenny Rogers and throw it in the back of a trailer, that would be amazing for us,” said Irving, referencing a movie about being an independent racer in NASCAR. “That would make it more of what we hoped it would turn into, just being as accessible as we possibly can make it.”

Toyota has tried to bridge the gap by posting a purse of $1 million for the season. Each race pays $12,000 to win (through $5,000 for eighth) with the season champion earning $50,000.

“Our hope was if you won, the prize money would cover the cost of that weekend,” Gibbs said. “We’re not all the way there. But almost there.”

Toyota also has posted an additional $5,000 (on top of prize money) to the highest-finishing woman in every race (which dovetails with SRO’s 50 percent female-led executive team structure).

GR86 Manufacturing at GRG before the first 3 cars are picked up.
—Swikar Patel/TRD

“If you’re a female driver who wins, you could get very close to sustainable” and cover a team’s race weekend costs, Irving said.

There are four women (Mia Lovell, Toni Breidinger, Cat Lauren and Isabella Robusto) slated for the full schedule.

The 31 cars will be fielded across more than a dozen teams including Smooge Racing (which fields GT4 Supras in SRO) and Copeland Motorsports (with Tyler Gonzalez, a four-time winner in MX-5 Cup). After a test last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, teams began taking delivery on Feb. 24.


Toyota fields Lexus in the GT categories of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship but elected to go with the SRO Motorsports Group (“SRO” stands for Stephane Ratel Organization; Ratel is the founder and CEO) as the sanctioning body for the GR Cup.

With a heavy focus on GT racing, SRO’s marquee events are 24-hour races at the Nurburgring in Germany and Spa in Belgium. In the United States, SRO primarily is focused on GT3 sprint racing, and Gill said it’s viewed as a “gateway to IMSA” and its endurance events.

In choosing SRO, Gibbs said “the schedule was a big part of it.” GR Cup races will be held almost exclusively on Saturday and Sunday mornings in a consistency that would have been difficult with IMSA (which runs a greater volume of bigger series).

“Our people can show up Friday, race Saturday and Sunday and be on the way home Sunday afternoon,” Gibbs said. “For our customer for this car, that was important. They still have jobs and particularly the younger drivers have to go to school. The SRO really fit us. They were very interested.”

Irving also was drawn to SRO’s flexibility with digital media right and free livestreams of races that Toyota can use on its platforms.

Toyota GR Cup
The SR86 in testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (TRD).

Said Irving: “It’s hard to get a schedule that made sense and having a break between races so an amateur can repair their cars and have a month to regroup was a big deal. The long-term vision of SRO was a big part of that. IMSA runs a lot of classes. How we fit in was difficult. Would they have done things to make it work, yeah. But they just didn’t work for the vision we were doing. This is its own thing for us.”

Gill said the SRO is focused on “customer racing” that balances individual interests against factory programs – while still putting an emphasis on the importance of manufacturers such as Toyota.

“We were very impressed with the development of sports car racing at Toyota and what they wanted to do for the brand and the very strategic way they looked at things,” Gill told NBC Sports. “We had enjoyed real success and had a lot of admiration for the programs that Honda and Mazda developed with sports car racing at the grass roots and entry level. We thought they’d done an excellent job. Toyota has taken it to another level and should be commended because it’s good for the entire industry.”


Irving said Toyota has set a goal of turning Gazoo Racing into the premier performance brand in the United States within a decade, and the GR Cup is part of that thrust.

Gazoo Racing is the baby of Toyota Motor Corp. president Akio Toyoda, who founded a separate company called “Garage Racing” while racing under a pseudonym for many years.

Toyoda, who eventually would race a Lexus LFA at Nurburgring, eventually transitioned the program into Gazoo Racing (Gazoo translates to photographs in Japanese; Toyoda often took pictures of vehicles he wanted to build and race) as he rose through the ranks of Toyota.

Toyota GR Cup

“The concept of the brand is we’re going to build cars that are fun to drive, not just for accountants,” Gibbs said.
Irving said the intent of GR is “the car is born on track and not the boardroom.” In order to be certified by Toyota for Gazoo Racing, the GR86 had to decrease its lap time by a certain percentage over its street model.

In the long-term, Irving said Toyota could work with another series to adapt the GR86 to endurance races. But in the short-term, there are plans to roll out a “dealer class,” possibly by its COTA round in May.

“That’s our version of a softball league with dealership principals who purchase cars and race against each other,” Wilson said with a laugh. “As competitive as dealers are, we’ll sell a lot of spare parts. It becomes a way to generate competition amongst our dealer body, and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

Toyota GR Cup
Toyota Racing Development’s fleet of GR86s shortly before GR Cup teams began taking delivery (Swikar Patel/TRD).