PRUETT: Why are GTD teams choosing Pirelli World Challenge?

PRUETT: Why are GTD teams choosing Pirelli World Challenge?

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Why are GTD teams choosing Pirelli World Challenge?

If you read the headlines last week, there’s every reason to believe the TUDOR Championship is in the early stages of a mass exodus with its GT Daytona class.

To quickly recap, the first big shot came from GTD champions Turner Motorsport who were crowned on Oct. 3, and by Oct. 20, announced they were packing their bags and ditching IMSA in favor of the Pirelli World Challenge series. NGT Motorsport followed Turner’s news, confirming their switch from GTD to PWC later the same day, and Flying Lizard Motorsport is close to joining them.

If all three are confirmed, four cars will be lost from the GTD grid, and provided their expanded PWC plans come to pass, those three teams could turn around and add between seven and eight cars to PWC’s GT class alone. NGT also has designs on entering PWC’s new Porsche Cup class with a few cars, bringing the potential PWC gain to 10 cars.

And they aren’t alone. There are other GTD owners who weren’t ready to speak publically, but have told me they are strongly considering some level of PWC participation in 2015. In fact, it took quite a few calls to find a few GTD owners who aren’t interested in PWC.

Based on a series of conversations I’ve had with GTD team owners over the last 10 days, everything from leaving IMSA altogether to race in PWC, to running a full-season of PWC interspersed with IMSA’s crown jewel events at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Petit Le Mans have been mentioned as possibilities.

With the GTD class accounting for almost 40 percent of IMSA’s TUDOR Championship entries, there’s a genuine reason for the series to be concerned about losing more cars and teams to PWC. And is the grass truly greener over in PWC? I started by asking members of the GTD paddock to list the main reasons PWC has become the go-to series for disenfranchised owners and drivers, and a few themes quickly emerged.

“I’m pretty sure the unanimous factor in teams looking at the Pirelli World Challenge is budget, pure and simple,” said Magnus Racing owner John Potter. “Sprint racing is cheaper. If you add up the combined run-time of all races on the 2015 PWC schedule, you won’t even match TUDOR’s season-opening Rolex 24… let alone the other nine races. Between that and lack of pit stops, you’re not spending anywhere close to the same on tires, consumables, car wear, and without pit stops you can get away with less crew and pit equipment.

“The budgets for GTD in 2014 went beyond everyone’s expectations, so it should be no surprise that the customer-driven teams would gravitate towards a series that can run similar cars for significantly less. One key thing to note on this, however, is the teams who have either announced or are seriously evaluating PWC participation, are primarily customer-driven teams.”

NGT Motorsport owner Ramez Wahab added a few budget numbers to the GTD-vs.-PWC equation.

“To do the full GTD season, to do it right, you’re talking $2 million,” he said, referring to a single-car program. “That’s a lot of money, and some guys out there spent more. We work with a lot of [Porsche] GT3 Cup drivers, and when they’re spending $350,000 for a season, it’s a big jump to $2 million. You have a hard time finding those guys who want to spend that kind of money overnight. How many clients can you convince to do that?

“These guys made themselves successful in business, and they are smart; they aren’t going to throw money away. Even if I quote them $1.7 million, or $1.5 million, it’s very hard to sell [GTD] to my customers now.”

Eric Ingraham runs the Flying Lizard team, and with a move to PWC looking like a probability, he’s spent a lot of time running the numbers to quantify the costs differences their customers would face.

“With World Challenge, I think you’re looking at a worst-case [budget reduction] of 30 to 50 percent for one car compared to GTD,” he said. “The good news with World Challenge is you get to go racing 19 times (with double-headers) for a fraction of the money. The good thing with TUDOR is with that budget, you’ll do more racing by the end of January than you will all year in World Challenge. Depending on which budget model fits your needs, you know what you’ll be getting in return.”

Combining the big ALMS and Grand-Am endurance races gave TUDOR Championship competitors an amazing schedule of events, but it also caused a significant budget increase. As the GTD-to-PWC migrations continue, IMSA’s dream calendar could end up being the root cause behind many of those moves.


Whether it’s a reduced number of regular two-hour and 45-minute races for GTD cars, or leaving one or more of the costly enduros off the calendar, a change of some sorts is needed to reduce the financial burden on the TUDOR Championship’s entry-level class.

TRG-AMR team owner Kevin Buckler is in the unique position of fielding full-time programs in GTD (ABOVE) and PWC, and with both options to offer his clients, he says the price differences make choosing GTD or PWC much easier than it was heading into 2014.

“There are several attractions to PWC, but as I have said all along, the number one thing is cost,” he noted. “This is what we should be preaching to both series – cost containment. It’s almost like GTD has just gotten too expensive to run an entire season, and for those still want to remain in racing, voilà, there’s PWC.”

Ben Keating had a successful year in GTD with his Riley Technologies-run Dodge Viper (LEFT), and as someone who funds his racing endeavors through selling Vipers, you could say he fits the ‘I’m willing to spend the extra money if I’m going to get something in return’ model. Based on his response below, I’m not sure he received the value he was looking for in GTD.

“I love endurance racing; however, if the politics of BoP make it unrealistic for a one-car team or a one-car manufacturer to be competitive, then I have to go where a GT3 car can run in full GT3 trim. I’m sure everyone is also speaking of budget. As the lone Viper entrant in all of TUDOR now, if I am not able to remain competitive against the political powers of Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, etc., then it becomes a waste of money,” he said.

“In order to win in endurance racing, everything has to go perfectly and it rarely does. However if it does go perfectly, I at least want to know that I have a chance of winning. If I am out there just for fun, then the shorter, cheaper sprint racing format becomes more appealing. I’ve heard good things about the PWC BoP process, and when SRT ran [PWC] in Toronto they had nothing but great things to say. My principal goal is to sell cars, and I’ll go wherever that makes the most sense.”

It’s an interesting viewpoint, and one that focuses on the bottom line. As Potter mentioned, GTD teams that rely on selling seats to funded drivers are the ones with the greatest interested in PWC. The inaugural TUDOR Championship season cost far more than most GTD teams expected, and it’s possible we’re now seeing a backlash of sorts by owners and drivers who want to race in a series where affordability isn’t a concern.

Many of the people I spoke with mentioned a desire to spend next season racing in PWC combined with dropping in for the TUDOR Championship’s marquee events. Racing for 10, 12 or 24 hours certainly isn’t cheap, but with their endurance racing roots, not to mention numerous GTD drivers moving to PWC with their respective teams, contesting some or all of IMSA’s Tequila Patron North American Endurance Championship could be a “best of both worlds” proposition.

“I think the long events will continue to be attractive, regardless of where you race on a full-time basis,” Ingraham added. “I think, in general, that the Sebrings and Daytonas and Petits will always be on your radar each year, and if you have a car you can run there, those are the kind of events that attract worldwide interest.”

With budgets ranking as the No. 1 problem/solution between GTD and PWC, driver Mike Hedlund, who races in both series, listed what I consider to be No. 2 and 3: Headliner TV status (and at standalone events), and single-driver competition.

“Being in GTD you’re by far the slowest class in terms of lap time. To the drivers in every other class you’re just a moving apex, and it doesn’t matter how fast you are relative to your class. The series doesn’t really care about you as you’re just seen as field filler. You’ll almost never have TV coverage. In PWC, you’re the top class. And possibly even more important, the series officials and marketing folks treat you like you’re the top class and give the impression they’re happy you showed up – it’s crazy, I know,” he remarked.

“And most of the gentleman drivers in TUDOR are really trying to get better. It’s very hard to do this during TUDOR race weekends or have it as their only focus. If they want to be a good GTD teammate and win, their job is to keep the car on the lead lap and not hit or get hit by anybody. Once you reach a certain speed level, all you do is cruise around. The only important part is the end of the race when the ‘pros’ are in the car. During a PWC weekend, the driver has to drive at 101 percent every time in every session. That’s a better recipe for improvement and 100 times more fun for the paying driver.”

Hedlund’s comments on PWC’s single-driver focus and the ability for GTD teams to move from IMSA’s lowest class to PWC’s top-tier category were shared by a handful of GTD owners, as well.

Put it all together, and those in GTD can race at a significant discount in PWC, but with the understanding they are trading the track time that comes with endurance racing for a season filled with 50-minute sprint events. There’s no car sharing involved, and with PWC GT as the featured class, they will be the headlining cars when the series isn’t part of IndyCar’s undercard, and will almost always be the focus of each television broadcast.

K-PAX Racing PWC team owner Jim Haughey, who could end up having Flying Lizard Motorsport run his fleet of new GT3-spec McLaren 650 S GTs (RIGHT), shared another aspect GTD owners might want to consider: Flexibility.

“When I was looking for a place to bring an all-wheel-drive Volvo with an inline turbo 5-cylinder engine, World Challenge was the only series that welcomed me,” he said. “It’s a lot easier if you have a GT3 car because it fits right into the [PWC GT] regulations, but if you want to try something different, they’ll work with you. Some people want to do their own thing, and you have options [in PWC] that you probably won’t find elsewhere.”

It might not be enough to make a GTD owner want to leave IMSA for PWC, but if they have a client that wants to build something different or show up with a something they bought that doesn’t have a logical home elsewhere, PWC has a long history of welcoming almost anything onto its grid.

Turning the conversation in the opposite direction, asking GTD owners and drivers why IMSA might be a better fit than PWC also returned some interesting responses.

Park Place Motorsports co-owner/driver Patrick Lindsey spent his formative years on the pro racing trail with PWC before moving into endurance racing with the Grand-Am Rolex Series. His two-car GTD outfit is also a customer-based program, and with a firm grasp of the pros and cons of both series, he raised a few red flags that were encountered during his time in PWC.

“The real issues I experienced over in World Challenge – and I’m a huge fan of the format and the people over there – is it’s not officiated in the manner you’d want as an owner in what you’d consider a true championship. Even with the struggles IMSA had with BoP and homologation of some cars like the [GTD] Viper, I still feel it’s a more professionally-run organization,” he said.

“World Challenge doesn’t have the same budget to attract the same officiating talent as IMSA has, and WC Vision, which is the group of [PWC team] owners who are also competitors, subcontract SCCA Pro Racing to run the series. Indirectly, owners pull the strings over the sanctioning body, so there’s a conflict of interest to consider.”

Lindsey also cited the depth of talent in GTD as one of the reasons he’s staying in IMSA.

“With Turner [Motorsport] headed over there, and maybe Flying Lizard, you’ll probably see some really good drivers added into the field. Right now, they’ve got Mike Skeen, who’s been the best guy over there, and a few other guys who are really good, but you also have a lot of pro-am type drivers by themselves in those cars,” he added.

“The talent’s sharp at the top, but widens out pretty quick after that. I think the talent is deeper in GTD because you have more pro drivers there, and if that changes, I’d have an interest in looking at World Challenge again; but I know that when I ran there, I was able to finish in the top-5 when I had a pretty good run, and I wasn’t a pro. I want to be wherever the deepest pool of talent is racing, and right now, that’s GTD.”


 

While many GTD owners listed specific reasons for considering PWC over GTD, the reasons to stay in GTD revealed a more diverse array of concerns about PWC.

“Pirelli World Challenge seems to have a great amount of momentum, and there are some great parts to the series, but for now it doesn’t interest me,” said Potter. “The majority of races run as a support series to IndyCar, where you’re an afterthought, or as a standalone race with no heritage that few fans attend. A lot of the vitriol you see on the internet towards TUDOR seems to benefit PWC, but I’ve yet to see any merit when it comes to argument based on pure spectacle and quality of ‘the show.’ Yellows seem to be proportionally just as long if not longer; there’s proportionally far fewer pro drivers, and despite all of the criticisms of TUDOR drivers… none of them hit a pace car this year, which PWC can’t say.

“The poor television package that World Challenge holds works to their benefit, because very few people actually get to watch the reality of this. We’re fortunate that we have the budget for TUDOR in 2015, and I can’t blame the teams leaving who can’t continue on like this, but I’d much rather be at events such as Daytona and Sebring where there’s real heritage, pit strategy, and against a tremendously talented pool of teams and drivers.”

PWC, which has been on NBCSN and is said to be headed to the CBS Sports Network for 2015, received a fair amount of criticism for its production quality. It’s unclear whether there will be any changes to its television production next season.

IMSA, which partners with FOX and its FOX Sports 1/ FOX Sports 2 cable outlets, took plenty of heat for the lack of readily accessible live broadcasts at some events, yet scored big with rebroadcasts from COTA and Petit that ran following Sunday NFL games.

“We put up a great show the last two races in IMSA; the rating was very big, even though GTD didn’t get enough coverage in my opinion, but this was very good and ended the season with very impressive figures. I don’t know if you will get these kinds of numbers elsewhere,” added Scuderia Corsa team owner Giacomo Mattioli who will add a two-car PWC GT effort to complement his lone GTD entry next season.

Leaving the TV packages behind, Hedlund threw a few more pro-GTD suggestions into the mix.

“For some guys, the complete team aspect of endurance racing is the biggest draw. I love that part of it too, but for some gentleman drivers that’s the biggest reason they race – not necessarily to get better or faster. Being able to work closely with a good Professional co-driver is also a big reason to stick it out in GTD,” he said.

GTD team owner Alex Job echoed Hedlund’s viewpoints.

“Some people prefer and want to stay with the endurance racing format, the multi-driver format, and know that it costs more but they prefer it over sprint racing. It’s cheaper to do sprint racing, but I don’t base where I race on where I can find the biggest bargain. It has to make sense, of course, because this is a business for me, but I’m an endurance racing guy; that’s what I love, and that’s where you’ll see me competing.” he said.

Drawing on his GTD and PWC experience, Buckler took issue with PWC’s standing starts, limited commercial opportunities and the general treatment he’s found in the lesser-known series.

“The standing starts in PWC are a big turnoff to any of the top professional teams… There is absolutely no reason, except for the benefit of PWC’s TV deal, to be subjecting 20 or 30 half-million-dollar cars to standing starts every weekend where inevitably something bad is going to happen. It can completely blow up somebody’s season budget and is irresponsible for the series to continue like this,” he said.

“And I still have a better ability to activate with my sponsors in the TUDOR paddock; particularly at the stand-alone races. And we do not like being put out in the weeds at the PWC races when we are racing with another series.”

Due to the shortcomings encountered by many GTD teams in 2014, PWC has seen its standing change from a small-time rival to a surprisingly popular destination for 2015. Most of GTD’s deficiencies, which were illustrated in concise terms by those I spoke with, need to be addressed immediately by IMSA.

I’ll close this piece with some wise words shared by Alex Job, who reckons PWC has been like a mirror reflecting and exposing the shortcomings in GTD.

“Going forward, they know they need to bring the costs down considerably so the class is more sustainable. It’s the entry-level class, which is customer-based and where owners like myself make our living. They need GTD to be a success because it speaks to business owners and drivers about whether the series is worth investing in. If GTD is healthy, IMSA is healthy. When your entry-level class is over $2 million, and that’s just the operating cost – that doesn’t include buying the car or the spare parts – it’s a lot of money to consider. It’s actually making some people consider racing elsewhere, which we’re seeing to some extent right now,” he said.

“In the second season, I think they’ll do a better job, and it’s important for them to do a better job or else they’ll lose more cars again. If they do a better job, I think the numbers will increase. As a competitor, if someone’s doing a better job than you, it’s your job to work harder to beat them. IMSA shouldn’t be worried about trying to crush the competition; they should be worried about doing a better job than they have been doing, and if they can do that, the problem will fix itself.”​

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