After the second year of the California 8 Hour round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, SRO chief Stephane Ratel reflected on the growth and potential of the event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. More entries and greater manufacturer participation were hallmarks of the second running last month, but both of those statistics and the spectator attendance indicate the event has far to go.
The California 8 Hours occupies a unique position among the other races in the Intercontinental GT Challenge: It has little history. The Total 24 Hours of Spa, the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hours and even, to an extent, the Suzuka 10 Hours have some legend behind them. There has effectively been no endurance racing on the West Coast of the U.S., and no real tradition of endurance GT racing outside of the GT classes in IMSA. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome.
“All the work I’ve done in my racing promotion career has taken time,” says Ratel. “I’ve learned that no success comes overnight, and you can definitely not, in a market as mature as the U.S. racing-wise, come and expect that it’s going to be huge the first year. Everything we do we need to build over time. Two years ago we didn’t even have enough entries and we had to cancel when we wanted to do it at COTA. The next year we did it with a relatively poor grid and this year we have a better grid.
“I have no doubt that the event itself fits in the context of a growing Intercontinental GT Challenge. We’re adding Kyalami [South Africa in 2019], an exciting race which has a lot of heritage, and we’re finally realizing the ambition of five races on five continents, which I believe is quite unique.”
The IGTC is customer racing, but manufacturer driven. The idea was that manufacturers would support teams on each continent to race on their behalf. But there are several teams that wish to race the whole series, such as Strakka Racing for AMG Mercedes, Audi Sport Team WRT and Team Land, Bentley Team M Sport and even American Tim Pappas’s Black Swan Racing. The California 8 Hours grid was a mix of those teams and locals such as SunEnergy1 for Mercedes AMG, Wright Motorsports for Porsche and K-PAX Racing for Bentley. Half the grid was comprised of American GT4 teams from Pirelli World Challenge (now known as Blancpain GT World Challenge), plus a couple of TCR Hyundais from Bryan Herta Autosport.
A respectable 32-car field – a long way from the 60-plus cars at Spa, but comparable to Suzuka and Bathurst. What the established races had that the California 8 Hours lacked was full manufacturer participation (McLaren, which had participated in previous rounds, had no representation) and a crowd of spectators.
“We had three manufacturers, now we have four and we hope next year we’re looking for six, seven, eight. I think that will make it one of the best global competitions that exists,” Ratel says. “So, on the success of the IGTC as a whole, I think this event has potential for growth. I think we can have more cars and what we definitely need is more activation and more spectators. That will take time. For the moment, people have no idea what the Intercontinental GT Challenge is.”
Next year the event moves from the fall – a very saturated time for events at Laguna Seca, and even more so next year with the addition of the IndyCar Series – to the end of March, where it becomes the second event on the IGTC calendar and moves much closer to two of the other big endurance events in the U.S., IMSA’s Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Whether that allows teams to play in more places in a single trip or not will be seen, but Ratel also explains that it allows teams to ship cars and equipment between most events by sea rather than by air.
The question remains, though: Does the California 8 Hours fit in with the other events, and can it gain the stature that they possess? The answer, according to several players, seems to be a qualified yes.