IMSA president addresses series’ future with schedules, Acura, LMDh


John Doonan describes himself as the eternal optimist, a quality that certainly served him well during his first year as IMSA president — and likely will in the future.

After starting the season with a well-attended Rolex 24 at Daytona and the major announcement of a new bridge to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been a major disruption to the 2020 schedule and the business models of the automakers whose financial support drives the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“At the end of this we’re going to look back and the best benefit for me is I’ve gotten a full immersion on how everything works at the office from finance to accounting and HR,” said Doonan, who was named to his position last October after heading up Mazda’s U.S. racing program. “Jim France (chairman of NASCAR, which owns IMSA) has said, ‘You’ve really got a good briefing on how the place works.’

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“Just trying to hang in there and stay positive. No one could have predicted what we’ve been facing.”

IMSA future
IMSA president John Doonan (IMSA).

Amidst all the tumult, there have been some positives.

Despite having more than 200 competitors based outside of the United States (about 40 percent of its paddock workforce), IMSA was in constant communication with customs officials to help ensure there were no snags in crossing borders.

Upon arrival, drivers and teams also have seemed pleased by the truncated practice schedules since IMSA’s return July 4 at Daytona International Speedway and July 18 at Sebring International Raceway (Sunday’s noon ET race on NBC will mark IMSA’s third since restarting from a five-month layoff for the pandemic).

IMSA will have meetings next week to begin laying groundwork for the 2021 season and is looking at incorporating some of the new efficiencies in running events (as well as some sponsor enhancements from its foray into iRacing while away from the track). The series already has announced that its Roar Before the Rolex preseason test session has been moved a few weeks later, allowing teams to avoid making two trips to Daytona in January.

“I think we’ve found some real sweet spots in terms of what our schedule could look like certainly for the rest of 2020 but maybe into’ 21 as well,” Doonan said. “I think we found at Daytona and Sebring that everyone liked it with the costs savings and also just being smart with the amount of time people are on the road.”

During an interview this week with NBC Sports, Doonan addressed some of the big-picture issues facing the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship for the rest of the season and the future heading into 2021:

Penske and Acura split: The impending split of Team Penske and Acura will mean the departure of a first-class team from DPi next season, but Doonan is confident that Acura will continue its factory support in the division through other teams.

“They are looking at opportunities to have their Acura DPi in additional families in the future,” Doonan said. “I think there’s an opportunity for them to have multiple teams. That’s ultimately Acura’s news and any teams they partner with to share, but it’s my understanding they plan to be around DPi for many years to come.”

The brand already is part of a large footprint for Honda in IMSA’s sports car series. Three GTD teams (Meyer Shank Racing, Heinricher Racing w/MSR Curb-Agajanian and Gradient Racing) also are racing Acura NSX GT3s at Road America, and the Pilot Challenge Series offers multiple Honda entries in its TCR division.

It remains unseen how Acura will position itself in DPi, but teams seem to be lining up for a partner opportunity. Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told the Trackside radio program this week that the team would talk to Acura about racing in DPi. Ganassi, which fields Dallara-Hondas in IndyCar, was left without a sports car program this season for the first time in 17 years when Ford left GTLM.

“We really want to be in sports car racing again,” Hull said. “Going forward with the Acura program, if it continues as a factory program, and they want to have us work for them, we’d be happy to do that.”

Timeline for LMDh: When the Le Mans Daytona hybrid class was announced for the 2022 season in January, the rebranded top class for IMSA was viewed as a throwback to re-creating the “Ford vs. Ferrari” era of a half-century ago – allowing the same car to compete for overall wins in the Rolex 24 and 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Draft regulations were released in May and final specs are expected in September for LMDh, which is viewed as more cost effective than its predecessor. But there are doubts about whether the rebranding of IMSA’s top class can happen before 2023, which would delay easier crossovers between the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the FIA World Endurance Championship.

“We have a saying around the office really driven by Jim France, and that’s ‘the market will speak,’ ” Doonan said. “There’s no question that IMSA’s model is built around manufacturers participating in top-level sports car racing. Those manufacturers also have a core business, which is to promote their brand and sell road cars. And like many businesses, that’s been turned upside down right now.

“We hope that things turn around such that 2022 is possible. Essentially the manufacturers are going to tell us, and the pressures on the core business, that’s really going to dictate which way it goes.”

GTLM and car counts: The status of LMDh also could determine the future for Porsche, which announced its exit from GTLM after the 2020 season. Doonan said Porsche is one of 15 manufacturers that have shown interest in LMDh. “Certainly, my hope is that we can welcome them back,” Doonan said. “They plan to be part of GTD and support customer racing and also the Michelin Pilot Challenge with the GT4 car.”

But with Corvette and BMW remaining, the GTLM class currently has only two manufacturers (and four entries) committed for next season, increasing concerns about car counts after a record-low 38 entries raced at the Rolex 24. Doonan said IMSA could consider a plan for GT like the convergence that has helped shore up its fastest prototype division.

“There’s no question the whole COVID situation has everyone evaluating and re-evaluating their situation,” Doonan said. “It’s certainly our hope that as businesses reopen and the economy stabilizes, and we know that we can (race) safely, we’ll see car counts continue to grow. I’d imagine everyone is evaluating their programs. Right now based on the conversations we’re having, everyone continues to be committed to the programs they have in the short term. We’re going to have to just be open with our manufacturers and determine what’s feasible. It’s really going to come down to what protects the investment that the manufacturers have made.”

Scheduling uncertainty: IMSA already has adjusted its schedule multiple times, including the move of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring to a Nov. 14 slot as the season finale.

But there still could be more reshuffling ahead (perhaps as soon as next week) with upcoming races at Watkins Glen International (Sept. 6) and Lime Rock Park (Sept. 12) in states that have COVID-19 quarantine restrictions for out of state visitors (UPDATE: IMSA announced Saturday that the Watkins Glen and Lime Rock events had been moved to Road Atlanta and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval).

There also is a Nov. 1 race scheduled at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca, which just canceled two IndyCar races in September.

Doonan said IMSA was “looking at all options given the fluid and ever evolving state-to-state mandates.”

Colton Herta, Bobby Rahal team up with BMW in pursuit of Rolex 24 at Daytona overall win

Herta Rahal Rolex 24
IMSA, BMW Motorsport

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though they have opposed each other in the NTT IndyCar Series the past four seasons, the Rolex 24 at Daytona union of Bobby Rahal and Colton Herta seems natural.

Bryan Herta scored his first CART victory with Team Rahal during a 1996-99 run before Colton was even born, and the ties built then

“It’s very cool,” Colton Herta, 22, told NBC Sports. “Obviously Bobby is a legend in the sport that I normally compete in in IndyCar, a three-time champion and won the Indianapolis 500 (in 1986). It’s really cool, and I’ve known Bobby forever. My dad drove for him in the ‘90s in CART and so that transpired into me getting to know him growing up, so it’s really cool and an honor to say you drive for Team RLL.

“We’re not talking about our Indy cars and setups and stuff. We’re talking about how we can make our sports cars faster that we’re driving that weekend. So it’s a completely separate thing, and honestly, I see it as a completely different sport in that aspect. There is no hard feelings over anything in IndyCar and we can just go racing.”

Rahal’s team is known as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, but it’s branded as BMW M Team RLL for its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship entries – signifying its status as the operating arm for BMW, which essentially foots the bill and calls the shots on car development and driver selection.

But Rahal, whose Hall of Fame career was launched by his sports car successes, plays a vital role as team principal. So it’s a special throwback to have having Herta in both of the team’s new BMW M Hybrid V8 prototypes.

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“We, of course, compete against Colton almost every weekend in IndyCar racing, and I really wish he was with us in that series,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “But he’s certainly proved himself to be one of the fastest guys out there and of course, his father was my teammate for several years. We go back a long way. So it’s really fun for me to have Colton with us. For both personal and professional reasons.”

This won’t be the first time Herta has driven a sports car for BMW Team RLL. He made six starts in the BMW M8 GTE from 2019-20 and was part of the winning GTLM team at the 2019 Rolex 24 in his debut.

With seven victories and nine pole positions through four IndyCar seasons, the California native has proven adept at getting up to speed quickly in whatever he is driving. Last year, a Formula One test for McLaren Racing nearly led to an F1 ride in 2023.

“And it’s not just speed,” Rahal said of Herta. “I think he brings a lot of good judgment. When he won the 24 Hours (in 2019), it was a horrible rain, and as an 18-year-old, he didn’t put a foot wrong. And really helped put us in a position to win that race. So he’s smart. He’s obviously very capable. And so he’s a plus for us to have.

“Having said that I would say all our drivers bring attributes that are unique. I won’t say our drivers are better than anybody else’s. Only the race will tell that, but I feel very confident the drivers we do have are equal to anything that’s out there.”

Herta will be teamed with Philip Eng, Augusto Farfus, Marco Wittmann, Connor De Phillippi, Nick Yelloly and Sheldon van der Linde in this year’s Rolex 24.

It’s an unusually long list of co-drivers because Herta is in a unique situation – listed as the fourth driver for both BMW’s No. 24 and No. 25 in the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category.

The step up from GT racing to the new premier hybrid class will be major for BMW, which will race a prototype for the first time in two decades.

But there also is special meaning for Rahal, who put himself on the map with an overall victory in the 1981 Rolex 24 at Daytona (co-driving with Bob Garretson and Brian Redman).

“This was the biggest race I won at that point, and at a time in my career when it probably could have gone away more easily than continued,” said Rahal, who recently turned 70. “It was a nexus point at my career. We had a very trouble-free race. Great strategy. As a 28-year-old whose career was kind of iffy, winning this race was a huge turning point for me (and) very, very special and meaningful.

“I can’t think of anything better than if we start our GTP relationship with BMW on a winning note. For me, (GTP) is where we’ve wanted to be. We’ve always been a company that has raced for overall victories, particularly in IndyCar. We’ve had a long relationship with BMW mainly in the GT category, which has been a tremendous honor for us. We won a lot of races (in GT). Won Daytona a couple of times. Won Sebring a couple of times. So those are great victories and things we’re proud of, but for us now, we’re running for overall victories. We worked hard to get to this point and are thrilled to be partnering with BMW to be able to do that.”

Though the GT success provides a great foundation, the leap to prototype is a massive undertaking. BMW also was the last of the four manufacturers to commit to GTP, getting the green light in June 2021, five months after Porsche Penske Motorsport had been announced (Cadillac and Acura are holdovers from DPi, the previous premier prototype division).

Maurizio Leschiutta, the LMDh project leader for BMW M, has described the transition as “a GT is more of a bulldog, the LMDh car is a ballerina. So they require different approaches.”

Though it had the latest start among the four automakers, BMW has tested with furious intensity over the last several months, recently hitting Sebring and Circuit of the Americas.

Before getting 25 laps across both cars on the Daytona International Speedway road course in last week’s Roar before the Rolex 24 practice sessions, Herta had a handful of days testing at Daytona and Bowling Green, Ohio.

The new hybrid system will put a complicated menu of buttons and options on the steering wheel that Herta still was digesting. The car is a high-downforce, high-speed car that bears some similarities to an Indy Car, and Herta does have prototype experience as the LMP2 winner at last year’s Rolex 24 (on a team with Pato O’Ward).

“I’d say the deceleration feels a little different,” Herta said. “The way the brakes changes throughout the brake zone is different. And that’s all done because of the regeneration, and it might regen more at the beginning or more at the later end of the braking zone. But it changes the balance and the way the brake bias is set. There is a little bit of an adjustment period, and you do need to be on your toes with making adjustments inside the car as you drive it. So it’s a little bit more of a handful initially when you get in, but once you get a few laps under your belt and understand how all the systems work, it is a friendly car to drive.

“It’s close to being representative with IndyCar lap times. I don’t think it’s quite as fast, but definitely a huge chunk faster than the GT cars. And a little bit more of a different driving style with obviously a lot more downforce and power.”

Known for being smooth, Herta and the rest of the GTP field will be extra careful about being gentler on the equipment while managing a track clogged by 61 cars with reliability at a premium. Parts supplies are scarce for the GTP cars, and there also are major concerns about the durability of the hybrid engines in their 24-hour debut.

“It seems like it’s going to be a really big endurance race and not a sprint race how this race usually is,” Herta said. “Even the DPis were so reliable, and you could smash the curbs for 24 hours and hammer the throttle, and you wouldn’t have that much of a worry of breaking or blowing an engine or a gearbox.

“It seems with this new formula, everyone is still getting to grips, so maybe reliability will be more of a key and a little more of what we’d see in the ‘80s and early ‘90s of it being more of an endurance race. But it’s still too hard to say. For sure BMW has had great success not only in IMSA but all around in sports car racing as a whole. It shows they have a program that’s capable of winning endurance races and at a very high level.”

Though Herta is uncertain how much time he will have in each car, BMW M Team RLL already has settled his biggest concern of ensuring his seat insert fits well in each car. The main challenge then becomes adapting with each car featuring distinct seat positioning and setups based on the other three drivers.

It also will be a shot at history. Herta is trying to become the third driver to win the overall and score multiple podium finishes with the same team in the top category (a feat also accomplished in the 1968 and ’70 races).

“It’ll be a good opportunity for me to have two chances at winning,” Herta said. “Not a lot of people get that. It’s going to be a really cool dynamic of being able to drive both cars. For sure, it’s a little different, but it’s part of the job. You need to be able to adapt very quickly. I really feel like that’s something that can be taught. You hop around in all these different cars long enough, you learn some tricks to get up to speed a little bit quicker. Hopefully that plays into my advantage, but it is a very exciting opportunity that I think will be very interesting to see how it goes.

To be used in each car, Herta will need to make a minimum drive time of two hours. Rahal views Herta as “an insurance policy to a large degree” if a driver falls ill or gets injured.

“There’s no question he’s up to the challenge,” Rahal said. “Colton’s a race car driver, and race car drivers want to be in the car. So I’m sure naturally a guy like Colton or any other would want to be in a regular basis on the starting rotation, but the way this race is and the difficulty, and of course these cars are going to exact more energy from the drivers than the cars in the past, I think he’s going to get more than his share.”

He also will be running wheel to wheel against familiar teams – Indy 500 winners Team Penske (Porsche), Chip Ganassi Racing (Cadillac) and Meyer Shank Racing (Acura) all have GTP entries.

Herta laughs about even competing against his IndyCar car owner, Michael Andretti, who just became a partner in Wayne Taylor Racing’s championship-contending GTP team.

“It’s very cool,” he said. “Not only do you have these great manufacturers but these amazing IndyCar teams. So it’s pretty cool to see the crossover. I know these teams are very well respected in North America and the manufacturers they bring are respected all across the world. It’s a really cool championship and really cool era of sports car racing that’s dawned here.”