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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Hunter McElrea wins Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 Scholarship

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Hunter McElrea bested 18 competitors to win the third annual Road to Indy USF2000 $200,000 Scholarship Shootout on Sunday at Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, Ariz.

The two-day contest featured on-track competition in Formula Mazda cars as well as interview sessions and assessment from a panel of judges.

“I can’t believe it,” McElrea said at IndyCar.com. “This is definitely the most exciting opportunity that I have had in my racing career. I cannot thank Mazda and everyone enough for making this possible for me. The fact that I am going to be on the grid next year thanks to them is a dream come true.

“They have given me the opportunity to prove myself in such a high level that I never even thought I would be able to reach. I have to thank Andersen Promotions, Cooper tires, all of the judges, everyone from Mazda, the Bondurant Racing School and the other competitors, who literally pushed me to the limit.

“I am just so happy. It is still sinking in, but I just can’t wait to get next year started, and I’ll be representing Mazda in that nice Soul Red USF2000 car.”

MORE: Michael Carter wins Mazda Road to 24 shootout

The 19-year-old McElrea was born in California, but reared in Australia.

As a result of winning the award, McElrea will compete in the 2019 season of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.

McElrea won the Australian Formula Ford Championship this year on the strength of 13 victories in 21 races.

Early competition resulted in a final field of six drivers that included Jake Craig, Michael Eastwell, Braden Eves, Flinn Lazier and Ross Martin. They competed in a qualification session and 30-minute simulated race. McElrea won that race.

“Today was an incredible day,” said Tom Long, Mazda Motorsports factory driver and one of the judges. “There was so much talent here for the shootout. Hunter McElrea just rose to the top when it was time to shine, but our decision was very, very difficult.

“In the end, given all of the circumstances, we were able to make a pretty good decision and we are really, really proud of not only Hunter but our whole team here with Mazda to be able to grant this $200,000 scholarship for his opportunity in USF2000 next year.”