Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Pro-Am lineup of Braun, Bennett thriving with CORE

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The summer stretch of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has been particularly kind to Prototype teams who use LMP2-spec machinery.

JDC-Miller Motorsports won the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen with Chris Miller, Misha Goikhberg, and Stephen Simpson in the No. 99 Oreca 07 Gibson, while CORE autosport has back-to-back victories in the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix (at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) and last weekend’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase (from Road America).

CORE’s triumph is particularly noteworthy in that it features a genuine Pro-Am driver lineup. Jon Bennett, a businessman who founded the team in 2010, is the “Am” part – Bennett holds a bronze driver rating from the FIA – while the gold-rated Colin Braun is the team’s “Pro.”

Given the mighty lineups in other Prototype entries, particularly ones competing with DPi machinery, one might assume that they’re at a disadvantage. And with LMP2-spec cars winning only once prior to July since the current Prototype regulations came to be last year, they would even appear to be disadvantaged somewhat due to their machinery.

However, with IMSA’s BoP (Balance of Performance) dictating that the DPi cars be BoP’ed based on the top performing LMP2 car, any machinery disadvantage is minimized.

And while they are indeed a Pro-Am team behind the wheel, they’re no pushovers. Bennett has started the races at Watkins Glen, CTMP, and Road America, and while expectations for a bronze driver like him might be low, Bennett has demonstrated some genuine prowess behind the wheel.

The 53-year-old has driven solid, mistake-free stints in each event, keeping the No. 54 Oreca not only on the lead lap in the Prototype class, but within range of the leaders at all times.

And co-driver Colin Braun has been an ace of the highest regard in this summer stretch. He scored a pair of brilliant poles at Watkins Glen and CTMP, and helped convert them into a third-place effort at The Glen followed by the team’s first Prototype win at CTMP.

And Sunday’s outing at Road America again demonstrated their prowess, and the cunning of team strategist Jeff Braun, Colin’s father.

Colin Braun qualified a stout third, but the team elected to start Bennett, as it did at The Glen and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. And as in those events, Bennett drove a solid stint to keep the car in contention before yielding to Braun.

And when it became apparent that they may not have the pace to challenge for the win on merit, strategist Jeff Braun and Co. took advantage of cautions to go off strategy and gamble on fuel, keeping son Colin out in the final hour while the other contenders pitted for splashes of fuel.

And it all worked perfectly, with the young Braun conserving just enough fuel to make it to the checkered flag on top before the car ran out of fuel on the cool down lap.

Fuel strategy helped Colin Braun and Jon Bennett take CORE autosport’s second consecutive Prototype win. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Colin Braun was quick to emphasize how Sunday’s triumph was very much a “team win” in every sense.

“It’s a great result for all the CORE autosport guys. I’m super proud, it was quite a team effort,” he asserted. “Jon did a great job at the start of the stint. We have some amazing calls on the pit box as far as what our strategy was going to be. We had a great call that got me to second. I kind of faded toward the end with a bit of tire wear so we started to change our strategy to look at a fuel savings/fuel mileage race so we started down that path right away.”

Colin added, “Great call by the guys on the box to stick to that plan the whole rest of the way. They were giving me fuel numbers that I was trying to hit and sort of keep the pace. It was a fantastic day, I think at (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) we showed we had a lot of speed to win. And we showed here we had to save fuel and be smart and win in a different way.”

Bennett echoed Colin’s sentiments, further emphasizing how the team put them in position to take the win.

“It’s clearly a team sport,” he explained. “(Colin) did a great job and was magic in the car. He was fast as well as having to save fuel. We had an awesome run on our Continental tires. They performed well all weekend.”

Bennett finished, “At some times, you have to separate yourselves from the pack so we made a strategy call to come in the back door. It was interesting to watch it develop as the engineers were picking apart how much fuel left, how many laps left. It was incredible to watch. I didn’t even give myself a chance to think about it, but back to back wins with these incredible drivers in this series is amazing.”

CORE’s run of success this summer becomes all the more significant when you factor in IMSA’s recent announcement about the future of the Prototype class – DPi and LMP2 will be split into separate classes next year, with LMP2 designated as a Pro-Am class. And the BoP rules will be different as well, as the DPi cars will no longer be BoP’ed based on the best performing LMP2 car.

As such, there’s a chance that the success CORE has had this summer may not be replicated next year.

Regardless, their run of success, against powerhouses like Action Express, Acura Team Penske, and Wayne Taylor Racing, has highlighted what a Pro-Am lineup is capable of in the right circumstances, and they could easily add more wins before the 2018 season is over.

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IndyCar’s Vasser-Sullivan expand into IMSA for 2019

James Sullivan and Jimmy Vasser. Photo IndyCar
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Not even one year after returning to the IndyCar ranks, Vasser-Sullivan Racing is taking AIM at the IMSA world, you might say.

While team co-owners Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan will continue to partner with Dale Coyne Racing on the IndyCar side, they expanded their holdings Tuesday, announcing a partnership with AIM Autosport to campaign a new two-car Lexus-backed RC F GT3 effort in IMSA’s GT Daytona class.

The new team – named AIM Vasser-Sullivan – will replace 3GT Racing, which was part of Lexus’ sports car program launch in 2016. It will announce its two drivers in the coming weeks, the team said.

“Sulli and I are excited and looking forward to entering a new chapter in our racing careers,” Vasser said in a media release. “I have driven sports cars before, but my career was pretty much limited to the 24 Hours of Daytona, including a ‘class’ win in 1992 and second overall in 2008.

“The AIM Vasser Sullivan team, with the support of Lexus and our sponsors, has the tools to get the job done and we are looking forward to this new challenge.”

Lexus has made significant progress in its first two seasons in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition, having earned a combined two race wins, five poles and finished third in the 2018 GTD Manufacturer point standings.

Vasser and Sullivan were part of the ownership group of KVSH Racing in IndyCar from 2011 through 2016 before the organization folded.

They also owned Tony Kanaan’s 2013 Indianapolis 500-winning car.

After sitting out the 2017 season, Vasser, a former CART champion, and Sullivan rejoined forces this past February, just before the start of the 2018 IndyCar season, partnering with Coyne to form a satellite team led by driver Sebastien Bourdais, who previously drove for KVSH.

Bourdais kicked off the new team’s effort with a win in the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He finished seventh in the overall season standings.

AIM Vasser Sullivan will have two home bases for its IMSA program: AIM’s current facility in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, as well as a new U.S. shop in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Follow @JerryBonkowski