When the Pirelli GT4 America Sprint season began, it didn’t take much sleuthing to figure out which teams and drivers would be contenders for the Pro title in the end. Sure, there were some dark horses, but they quickly fell by the wayside, and as the series heads into its finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, the fight is down to the three drivers that seemed pretty obvious back in March at St. Petersburg.
Michael Cooper in the Blackdog Speed Shop McLaren 570S, Spencer Pumpelly in the TRG Porsche Cayman and Ian James in the Panoz Avezzano all come into Las Vegas with a solid shot at the title, with Cooper having a slight edge over the other two drivers’ virtual tie.
A case was easily made for each before the season began: Cooper and Blackdog’s long successful partnership that includes a GTS championship; James’s three-year stint in the Panoz in which he has been in the championship hunt from the beginning; and Pumpelly’s past success with TRG, much of it in Porsches. There were arguments against each, also: Blackdog had to learn a very different car from its Camaros in the McLaren; James had yet to find a title in GT4 despite being so close two times prior; and the latest Cayman GT4 CS MR that Pumpelly and TRG had was a bit of an unknown (and the previous version was not Porsche’s best effort).
James drew first blood, winning the opening round of the season at St. Pete, scoring two more victories and four other podium finishes. But as the season drew to a close, his luck has hit a rocky patch. Pumpelly, in a Cayman that has proved to be the equal of its competition, was next to victory lane, winning Round 3 at Long Beach. Another victory and five podiums have kept him in the title hunt despite a disastrous weekend at VIR, where tire trouble hit twice while he was running toward the front. Cooper, though, didn’t find victory lane until Round 8 at Sonoma, then doubled up at Road America to come on strong and take the championship lead late in the season.
Greg Creamer has watched this all unfold from the announcer’s booth, where he’s calling races for the livestream and CBS Sports Network broadcasts. It’s a unique vantage point that allows him to see things many others don’t, so we picked his brain a bit to find out what he thinks of the SprintX Pro championship fight as the final two races loom.
“On the one hand, had Spencer not had that issue at VIR where he ended up with nothing, he could have pretty well had this thing blown out,” says Creamer. “However, the other guys also had their issues at events. You knew these three were going to be in it, and it’s been an interesting dynamic. A lot of people are talking about the Panoz and that it just seems to be strong everywhere. There’s no question that the car gets out of corners well, but it lays down a bit on the straight. I think Ian has been driving incredibly well; his racecraft this year has been absolutely stunning, and I think that may be making the difference.”
As for Cooper, Creamer notes that the Andretti Autosport team and Jarett Andretti seemed to have a better handle on the McLaren early in the season, but Cooper’s talent overcame any issues with learning a new car.
“The thing that made the difference and kept Cooper in the championship is, you look at the first few races, when the car wasn’t absolutely right, his opening laps were absolutely stunning. When he’d have a bad qualifying, he’d be third by the end of the first lap because of an amazing start. To me, one of the things that really shows whether a driver has that gift is when they can find speed on cold tires, and Cooper’s magic in that arena,” says Creamer.
The three championship contenders, like all the other competitors, will be facing a track that they haven’t seen before, for which simulations don’t exist and nobody has raced on – at least most of it – in nearly two decades. “Whoever can best prepare for it, can adjust on the fly… in a way, it’s a great place to decide championships, something completely unfamiliar to anybody. No one has an advantage,” he says.
Cooper heads into Vegas with a slim 7.5-point lead over Pumpelly, and James is only one more point back. The first of two races happens at 5:35 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, followed by the final contest at 11:55 a.m. Eastern on Sunday.
In other GT4 America championships. Drew Stavely has already clinched the Sprint Am title. The SprintX Pro-Am championship is still up for grabs, with Gregory Liefooghe/Sean Quinlan only four points ahead of Jason Hart/Matt Travis. Preston Calvert and Matt Keegan have a pretty solid hold on the SprintX Am title for Panoz, 40 points ahead of John Allen and Kris Wilson, with 50 on the table at Las Vegas.