Colin Braun. All photos courtesy IMSA

IMSA: Road Atlanta Thursday Notebook

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IMSA Wire Service

BRASELTON, Ga. – Here’s a wrapup of what happened Thursday at Road Atlanta as part of the Motul Petit Le Mans weekend:

Braun Fastest Early Thursday In Practice at Motul Petit Le Mans

Hunting for their first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype class title, the No. 54 CORE autosport team’s efforts got off to a hot start on Thursday at Road Atlanta.

Colin Braun, who is co-driving in Saturday’s 10-hour Motul Petit Le Mans with team owner Jon Bennett and endurance driver Romain Dumas, posted the fastest lap overall across the two afternoon practice sessions with a time of one minute, 11.669 seconds (127.586 mph).

The No. 54 ORECA LMP2 is chasing the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R. of Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr – co-driving with Gabby Chaves this weekend – in the standings, four points down.

“We’re just doing our normal thing,” said Braun. “CORE autosport is just focused on running through our list of test items for the race and getting Romain some seat time. Obviously, he’s quick and right up to speed so he doesn’t need too much. But just working through our list of stuff to do.

“I’m happy to be quick, obviously that’s always a good thing. I think the (No.) 31 was second quick in the (first) practice, so obviously they have good pace as well. It’s good, just keep our heads down and do our thing. I’ve been saying all week, it’s not going to come down to the ultimate pace, it’s going to come down to surviving 10 hours and being smart, having a good car in traffic and things like that, so that’s what we’re focused on.”

Atop the GT Le Mans (GTLM) championship standings and the Thursday afternoon leaderboard was the No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R of Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Marcel Fassler. Magnussen, who set the quickest time of 1:18.300 (116.781 mph), and full-time co-driver Garcia currently lead their class standings by nine points, although they will be seeking their first win of the season on Saturday.

Hot on their trails is the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook. The duo – who are joined by 2018 IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon this weekend – sit second in the standings and were second after two practice sessions on Thursday.

In the GT Daytona (GTD) class, the fastest lap belonged to the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup leaders Ben Keating, Jeroen Bleekemolen and Luca Stolz in the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG GT3 for Riley Motorsports.

During the second practice of the day, championship contenders Katherine Legge in the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 and the duo of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 were neck-in-neck, finishing fourth and fifth on the charts, respectively. Legge is co-driving in the Motul Petit Le Mans with Alvaro Parente and Trent Hindman, while Corey Lewis rejoins the No. 48 team’s lineup after helping secure a win at March’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

A 90-minute night practice session remains for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on Thursday. Timing and scoring will be available on IMSA.com beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Paul Holton

Holton Takes Motul Pole Award to Lead McLaren Front Row for Continental Tire Challenge Finale

The two McLarens in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Grand Sport (GS) field will start 1-2 on Friday for the final race of the 2018 season for the second consecutive season.

Led by Motul Pole Award winner Paul Holton in the No. 76 McLaren GT4 for Compass Racing, the 39-car field will take the green flag of the two-hour Fox Factory 120 at 1:25 p.m. ET on IMSA.tv with IMSA Radio commentary.

Holton’s lap of one minute, 28.326 seconds (103.525 mph) was good for his third Motul Pole Award of the year and McLaren’s fourth consecutive.

“We were McLaren P1-P2 last year and now we’re McLaren P1-P2 this year,” said Holton. “The track is really good for us with the long straightaways, some high-speed corners, that’s what our car tends to like. It’s kind of the perfect storm for this car around here to be honest.”

Corey Fergus piloted the No. 69 Motorsports In Action McLaren GT4 to second on the charts, less than two-tenths behind Holton. It’s a hot streak in qualifying for the team, as the race prior at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Fergus’ co-driver Jesse Lazare earned the pole position.

Taking his fifth straight Motul Pole Award in the TCR class was Tom O’Gorman in the No. 12 eEuroparts.com Racing Audi RS3 LMS with a lap of 1:29.840 (101.780 mph). Stating that Road Atlanta is his favorite track in the United States, O’Gorman is appreciative of his team’s strength, especially as the car only joined the Continental Tire Challenge field midway through the season.

“That’s number five in a row, we’ve gotten the last five of the season, so it’s a thrill,” said O’Gorman, who co-drives with Kenton Koch. “This team, they’re performing at the top and it’s an honor to perform at the top of my game too to make sure they get these pole positions set us up for good races.”

It was a tough qualifying session for TCR championship contender Kuno Wittmer and Rodrigo Sales in the No. 74 Compass Racing Audi. Five points down in the standings to teammates Britt Casey, Jr. and Tom Long – who will start second on Friday in the No. 77 – the No. 74 was unable to complete a lap after the car stalled on track. The team will start at the back of the nine-car field.

The final Motul Pole Award in the Street Tuner (ST) class belonged to Nick Galante in the No. 81 BimmerWorld Racing BMW 328i. It’s Galante’s fifth consecutive pole, sixth this season, and the team’s ninth in 10 races, with Galante’s co-driver Devin Jones delivering the other three poles. Galante’s time on Thursday was 1:37.191 (94.082 mph).

Additionally, the duo lead the ST point standings by 16 points and are looking to secure BimmerWorld Racing’s first Continental Tire Challenge championship.

“I’ll tell you that was the toughest one all year,” said Galante. “I’ve usually gotten it done in the first two laps, but I was talking to the engineer on the radio and he’s like ‘You’re P2, and four-tenths down’ and I was like ‘I’ve got to dig deeper’ and I was already digging deep. Out here, there’s a couple turns that tighten your belts up and I dug deep and hung it out there. I didn’t want to risk the car, but I did it anyway and it turned out great. We’re looking pretty good here to start the race.”

Tristan Vautier

Vautier ‘Grateful’ For Opportunity With Action Express Racing

Action Express Racing will have a new face in its No. 5 Mustang Sampling Cadillac DPi-V.R. entry this weekend at Motul Petit Le Mans. Tristan Vautier is making his debut with the team, replacing Joao Barbosa who suffered a rib injury in an incident at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last month.

Barbosa will still be onsite at Road Atlanta, where he will cheer on Vautier, Christian Fittipaldi and full-time co-driver Filipe Albuquerque as the team enters the weekend six points out of the lead in the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup. Despite the late driver change, Vautier’s experience driving a Cadillac DPi-V.R. earlier this season with Spirit of Daytona Racing will help with the transition.

“I’m grateful to Action Express Racing and Mustang Sampling for having me in the car and to Spirit of Daytona for allowing me to do it,” said Vautier. “I got the call from [team manager] Gary (Nelson) Monday morning, and he was like ‘Where are you?’ I was in Mooresville [North Carolina] which is luckily very close to their shop and I was able to go there and do a seat fitting. It was last minute, but the track is close to where we are located, I know the track and I know the car, so it’s okay.

“It’s good to be back in the Prototype. This team is a strong operation and the teammates all get along. I felt quite comfortable and quite quick. Everything moves a bit faster in the first session when you haven’t been in the car for a while, but throughout the weekend it settles down.”

TJ Fischer

Fischer On IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda Pole In First Visit To Road Atlanta

It’s been a whirlwind weekend for TJ Fischer in the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The driver of the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30, in his first visit to Road Atlanta, had the disadvantage of having to learn the highspeed circuit under wet conditions on Wednesday as remnants of Hurricane Michael swept through the area.

But if one thing has been evident in Fischer’s debut season in the series, he’s proved to be a quick study as he captured the pole Thursday, his second of the season, in the same dry conditions expected for Friday’s one-hour, 45-minute season finale. His lap of one minute, 19.169 seconds (115.499 mph) was 0.047 seconds ahead of the LMP3 class points leader Kris Wright in the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3.

“It was a lot of learning,” said Fischer, who will once again co-drive with Austin McCusker. “I just kind of stuck with the program. The guys from Forty7 Motorsports have been awesome. We just worked together the whole way, looked at some data, some video, and then it was a pretty on the limit hanging it out there in Turn 5 on the curbing, but it worked out.”

Fischer missed the season opener at Daytona, but has co-driven with McCusker since, with the duo winning earlier this season at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Points leader Wright will start on the outside of the front row and will be joined this weekend by veteran Nic Jonsson as Wright enters the final event of the season with a 23-point lead over McCusker. Rodrigo Pflucker rounded out the top three in the No. 74 Alianza Motorsports Norma M30 run in partnership with Forty7 Motorsports he will co-drive Friday with Anthony Simone.

In the MPC class, Michal Chlumecky scored the pole with a lap of 1:23.041 (110.113 mph) in the No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02. It was a back and forth battle between Chlumecky and the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports entry of Dr. Robert Masson, who will again co-drive this weekend with son Kyle Masson. Both Chlumecky and the elder Masson spent time at the top of the leaderboard, but it was Chlumecky who was able to claim the top spot by 0.314 seconds.

“Getting out in the dry today makes it so much sweeter,” said Chlumecky. “The opportunity to go out and show the team what they’ve done for the car, and they’ve put a wonderful car together, is great. I just kept practicing and was able to knock a little off every lap because we didn’t get to practice in the dry.”

In the final race for the MPC class, the championship may come down to the final laps of Friday’s race. Coming into this weekend’s race, the No. 86 Mazda-powered Elan DP02 driven by Dave House leads seven cars within nine points of the championship lead, with four of those cars within five points.

Fans will be able to see if House and the One Motorsports team can hang on to the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship on Friday, Oct. 12 at 8 a.m. ET. The race can be streamed live on IMSA.tv

Magnussen Shakes Down GTR-1 In Preparation For Tribute To Late Dr. Don Panoz

Panoz, LLC returns to Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta this weekend, not to race, but to pay tribute to the late Dr. Don Panoz. The recently restored Panoz GTR-1, chassis No. 7 that raced at Le Mans in 1998 will run a pre-race lap alongside the “Stars and Stripes” DeltaWing Coupe DWC13-003 Saturday but turned some extra laps Thursday in preparation.

Corvette Racing driver Jan Magnussen shook down the GTR-1. He began his sports car career with Panoz Motorsports in 1999, and the GTR-1 coupe was the first sports car he hopped into after a lengthy open-wheel career. He drove it in the first two races of the 1999 American Le Mans Series before the team switched to the open-cockpit Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S.

“That was so much fun,” said Magnussen. “It was great to get back in the GTR-1. It was the first sports car I ever drove… 20 years ago! It really makes me feel young! But it was a fun shakedown and had some with it. It’s great honor to get to do this for Don. I hope everyone who was listening and watching was reminded how fantastic those monster cars were. It’s fantastic… just a monster just like it was back then!”

Action-Packed Friday To Be Streamed Live On IMSA.tv

Need an appetizer for Saturday’s Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta? Look no further than IMSA.tv’s Friday coverage.

IMSA.tv will bring both domestic and international sports car racing fans live streaming Friday of Motul Pole Award qualifying for the WeatherTech Championship at 3:55 p.m. ET, as well as championship-deciding races for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda (8 a.m. ET), Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama (10:10 a.m. ET), and IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (1:25 p.m. ET).

Live television coverage of Motul Petit Le Mans begins Saturday, Oct. 13 at 10:30 a.m. ET on FS1, with continuing coverage on FS2 from 12 p.m. ET through the checkered flag. Live IMSA Radio coverage also will be available on IMSA.com, RadioLeMans.com and SiriusXM Radio (Sirius 119/XM 202/App 972).

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500