SRO America has transitioned the Blancpain GT World Challenge championship to an all-two-driver format.
Pirelli GT4 America has a Sprint X championship, and GT4 East and West are also SprintX races. But single-driver sprint racing is the root of World Challenge, and even as the series shifts its identity into three distinct categories, Pirelli GT4 America will retain a Sprint championship. If the entry list for this weekend’s Sprint season opener at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is any indication, it remains a popular option, with 19 cars signed up.
“Sprint is where the series started and I think we need to do everything we can to keep it alive,” says Michael Cooper, the 2015 GTS champion and newly-minted McLaren factory driver who will pilot one of Blackdog Speed Shop’s 57S GT4 cars this season.
“The grid is almost 20 cars going down to St. Petersburg. That could very well be one of the largest GT4 grids of the year that doesn’t have three championships. I love what they’ve done; they’re appeasing everyone by having SprintX and Sprint, and I like that you can choose.”
Cooper’s McLaren deal is brand new for this year and was just announced a few days ago. Team owner Tony Gaples had already announced his switch to McLaren after years of campaigning Camaros, both GT4 and pre-GT4,
“I had reached out to McLaren a couple of times, and got responses but hadn’t heard too much back,” says Cooper, who spent a couple of years racing and winning Cadillac’s GT3 ATS-V but had been without a full-time ride since that program ended. ‘I reached out again in the fall, and it so happened that they were looking to hire one or two more drivers based in North America because this is their largest road car market. I think they had a high comfort level with me having raced against the McLarens for a couple of years.”
Cooper has tested the Blackdog 570S GT4 and has been impressed so far, noting that starting with a supercar makes for a pretty good racecar. He says the team went through all the setups in a two-day test at COTA, and feels the team is well prepared for St. Petersburg.
Given that Cooper and Blackdog are both former champions in the GTS category, one has to assume that they have a good shot at it again, even as it transitions to a new platform. As a championship favorite,asked him to handicap the field.
“As far as full championship competitors go, you have Jade Buford and Ian James returning in the Mustang and Panoz, respectively, which were really strong. You also have Spencer Pumpelly in a Porsche that looked really strong at COTA. And I don’t think we can sleep on Jarett Andretti in a McLaren as well, coming in new for this year,” he says.
Buford had two wins and a bunch of podiums in the PF Racing Mustang last year and finished fourth in the championship. James has finished second and third in the points in two years competing in the Panoz Avezzano. Pumpelly will be coming into GT4 America for a full season in the Racers Group Porsche 718 Cayman Clubsport MR. The second generation of Porsche’s GT4 racer is already a winner, taking both SprintX races at COTA, and Pumpelly has a strong record as a driver. Any one of those drivers is capable of taking the Pro title, plus there’s Nicolai Elghanayan – a winner at Lime Rock last year – in the Marco Polo Motorsports KTM X-Bow; PF Racing’s James Pesek in another Mustang; and Gar Robinson in the Robinson Racing Chevrolet Camaro.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Robinson Racing grab some wins throughout the year. A team that was new to the series last year and didn’t win any races, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them have a breakout year,” notes Cooper.
On the Am side, there’s a host of drivers fighting for the title, including Gaples. Alan Brynjolfsson showed promise in the Park Place Motorsports Porsche at COTA. Shane Lewis is the Am component of Robinson Racing’s efforts, and is a proven winner in a variety of cars. Mark Klenin returns in his McLaren, Jason Bell will drive a GMG Audi R8, and Ian Lacy Racing’s Drew Stavely and Frank Gannett switch to Mustangs. But there’s one Am that Cooper will definitely be keeping an eye on.
“I think that the sleeper in the field is probably Michael Dinan, a rookie in the championship this year. I think you’ll see him and the whole Flying Lizard group come on strong by the end of the year,” Cooper says. Dinan, who is fairly fresh out of club racing, did one weekend at Utah with the team last year, and ran well with Robby Foley at COTA.
St. Petersburg will be one of only two weekends where only GT4 America Sprint will race (it will be joined at St. Pete by TCR and some invited TCA cars); the other is at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. GT4 America Sprint will join the rest of SRO America’s portfolio at VIR, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Road America and Las Vegas.