People, and Penske. Buzz for IMSA is growing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

DiZinno: IMSA’s platinum potential evident in Petit Le Mans finale

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The plaudits and hype coming like a tidal wave to IMSA and its marquee IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship of late is properly deserved, as for the first time in decades, it feels like North American sports car racing is truly on the verge of a “big thing.”

Both the American Le Mans Series and GRAND-AM Rolex Series had their selling points but neither was as good as they could be until they came together in 2012, debuting as a merged series in 2014. And even in a merged series, it’s still taken four years of putting the pieces together and IMSA crafting its own, distinct Prototype formula in the Daytona Prototype international (DPi) platform to truly put the series on the precipice of greatness.

Potential is justified only if it can be met; otherwise, it is the single scariest word in the English language. But right now, IMSA’s potential energy is such that if it can be properly converted into kinetic energy, the series is well-positioned to take off and not just hit a golden level of market penetration, but a platinum one (if you get the driver ratings joke here, congratulations: you’re a proper sports car junkie).

The first real sign of that evidence took place at last weekend’s Motul Petit Le Mans, the capper to the 2017 season but almost a race that was more a dress rehearsal for 2018. The fact the 2017 championships were largely determined going into the event meant the race itself and the quality of content on the grid, and number of announcements being made, took precedence.

IMSA makes no secret that it has a lot of “stakeholders,” and those could be anything from drivers and teams, to manufacturers (OEMs), major Fortune 500 companies and others within the digital space. A one-hour run of announcements that included key pieces of content revealed from Michelin, Motul and Forza Motorsport – as well as the confirmation that toy giant Hasbro is entering via the D3+Transformers Racing team – all served as intriguing subplots to the weekend. One could argue the fact all these were back-to-back didn’t allow any of them to shine properly; instead, they’ll need to be flushed out over the coming days.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

On-track, the return of Team Penske to the sports car paddock was the biggest talking point. When Penske arrives, it means that the entity it has selected is proper, serious business. Simply put, Penske does not enter things purely for fun; it does so if it makes good business sense and adds to the legacy of racing’s most prestigious brands.

A disclaimer first: nearly all the teams and manufacturers in IMSA present a very professional package… but there is still something special about the Penske presentation that stands out. It’s evident on IndyCar weekends, and it was particularly evident on this IMSA weekend. If the armada of full-time IMSA teams are going to compete with Penske from an optics standpoint, they will need to step their game up based on what was witnessed at Petit. They can remain status quo, but the disparity will be visible.

It’s the little things like having pit lane barriers separating its pit box from the walking path behind it, having the car looking spotless at all times, and creating specific one-off crew uniforms for all members that will all but certainly never be worn again that stood out. That presents a “one team” approach that comes from strong leadership from the top; Tim Cindric looked and sounded happy to be back in a sports car paddock and by every measure, this was a Penske operation drilled down to the last detail.

That the car was even there at all also spoke volumes of how serious Penske is taking IMSA, and how much value it placed on making this one-off entry. A heavy accident in testing by Helio Castroneves meant the car was shipped to France, returned to North Carolina by Tuesday and unloaded at the track on Wednesday.

“It would have been easy to not enter,” Cindric admitted. “The folks at Oreca worked all weekend to get us what we needed. We did the same thing with the guys that are here. Some of the guys are half tanks right now!”

Castroneves promptly rebounded from the accident by being the fastest driver of the trio along with Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud all weekend, scoring pole, and finishing on the podium. Ho hum.

But Penske’s, and for that matter Acura’s, arrivals into the series’ top class is not all that IMSA has to offer. Far from it.

Mazda Team Joest’s entry is also a fascinating thing to consider. Reinhold Joest and Ralf Juttner have taken Porsche and Audi to the top. To do so with Mazda, they’ll have to revise a culture that embraces loyalty and a never-say-die attitude, but has been perpetually hamstrung by a consistently unreliable engine… which is inarguably the worst thing you should be dealing with as a manufacturer. Mazda, like IMSA, has had the word “potential” attached to it for years. The Joest team now has the proper ability to unleash it.

While Penske (right) arrives, Patron ESM and Action Express won’t sit still. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The late-season form shown by Tequila Patron ESM with its two Nissan Onroak DPis keep them in the frame, and with more continuity there than at the other teams plus the positive momentum of the actual Petit Le Mans win puts them in good form for next year.

Ricky and Jordan Taylor are split in 2018. Photo courtesy of IMSA

And then of course, there’s the Taylors. Jordan and Ricky Taylor will be apart but they’ll both have a title to defend, albeit on different teams. With Ricky Taylor and Dane Cameron now at Penske, Action Express Racing, now will feature revised lineups to their two Cadillac DPi-V.Rs with a pair of flying Felipes – spelled differently between Felipe Nasr and Filipe Albuquerque.

The DPi platform has emerged as the way forward for top-level prototype racing at least in the short term over the next two to three years, as the Automobile Club de l’Ouest figures out its course of action with LMP1 in the wake of drawdowns from Audi and Porsche, and with the uncertainty about Toyota. With that as the flagship, and the content level of drivers throughout the field, IMSA has its headliner all set.

As for the others, there is tempered excitement – not because they don’t have headline quality, but because you don’t want to overlook the additional good there. As an example, what JDC/Miller Motorsports did as the top-performing LMP2-spec car, with the Oreca 07 Gibson, was perhaps the most under-appreciated story of the year.

Will the “JDC Banana Boat” be reduced to a supporting act if the Balance of Performance between DPis and LMP2s – JDC one of several quality teams in that category that also figures to include operations run by Troy Flis (VISIT FLORIDA, but potentially back to Spirit of Daytona name), Bobby Oergel (PR1/Mathiasen), Jon Bennett and Morgan Brady (CORE), and Brent O’Neill (Performance Tech Motorsports) among others – is unable to keep the privateer entries in the frame? Sports car racing’s biggest activators are its manufacturers; its biggest heart is spent by its privateers and gentlemen drivers.

Similarly, quite how the GT classes move forward is another question, and this is where we again look back to that glorious, yet dangerous “p-word,” potential, again.

GTLM field. Photo courtesy of IMSA

GT Le Mans seems finely poised between its five manufacturers: Chevrolet, Ford, Ferrari, Porsche and BMW. The latter brings a new car to the fight next year in the M8 GTE, up against a range of cars that will be anywhere from year two to year five in their cycles.

For a class where the cars, more than the drivers, are the stars, will the door-banging beasts that have kept both ALMS and IMSA intrigued for more than a decade get overshadowed by the allure and top draw of the DPi category? The leading GT class now is stronger than ALMS GT2 was in the last prototype heyday of 2006-2008 when GT2 was on the ascendancy and GT1 was on its way out. It must not get overlooked, and will be a critical class as Michelin’s lone class next year in the year before Michelin takes over everything in 2019.

How will GTD look in 2018? Photo courtesy of IMSA

The second GT class, GT Daytona, seems to have an even bigger dilemma going forward. The variety and parity in the class is excellent, from the nine manufacturers that populated the class this year. However with skyrocketing budgets – from $2.5 to $3 million annually for most teams – a couple team reductions from this year (Stevenson and CORE won’t be back as CORE moves up to Prototype; Acura and Lexus factory efforts are dropped) and an overall dwindling number of seats for hired guns in the wake of a theoretical pro/am format that sees some pros seek to be rated as ams (Silver) to keep their careers afloat, the class now falls to third on a stacked depth chart within the framework of the series.

There’s significant reason to be excited about what Michelin will bring to the table as IMSA’s official tire partner from 2019, with a year’s worth of testing and activation buildup planned before it takes over as the single supplier for all three classes (although GTLM remains open). However it would be remiss to forget or ignore what Continental has done, often sticking through sports car racing through its rough years as the merger took hold and being massive activators. That they’re unable to continue is an unfortunate business reality of this new era of top-level sports car racing.

This is before you get to all of IMSA’s other series, from its Challenge to its one-make championships, all of which feature a bevy of talented drivers, teams and characters that add to IMSA’s weekend presence. They’re worth exploring too if you take the time to do so.

So IMSA has three-plus months to build between on a year of incredible announcements and buzz over this offseason, with testing and more lineups to get sorted in the run up to next year’s Roar Before the Rolex 24, and then the Rolex 24 at Daytona itself.

The buzz is palpable; the atmosphere bordering on electric. The question – and the key – is whether IMSA can live up to the hype that has built up this year, and will build over the winter.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.