Welcome to an undeniably different opening to IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar championship season where change is the main story.
Teams and drivers have come into the series, others have left, new developments abound, some old questions remain, and in many cases, you’ll find the usual assortment of positives and negatives to process before the green flag waves today in Daytona, starting with:
NBC TrackPass: Having used NBC’s Gold live streaming service to watch a lot of IndyCar action last year, I’m pleased to see IMSA’s TV partner has added endurance racing to the dedicated streaming world with TrackPass. Like Gold, it isn’t free, but that’s no different than Netflix or any other streaming solution that I pay for. For the first time, I’ll watch the entire Rolex 24 At Daytona via streaming, and expect to do so at other IMSA races where I need to focus on the home front.
Click here for sign-up info.
Jan The Man: The Rolex 24 will take the green flag without Jan Magnussen for the first time since 2004. The mighty Dane, a Corvette Racing legend who parted ways with the team after October’s Petit Le Mans, will be missed by his many IMSA fans this season.
GRT/Magnus: Team Fun, aka Magnus Racing, has morphed into something rather different with owner/driver John Potter sending his car and equipment to Grasser Racing to run on his behalf. Potter’s girded by his familiar co-driver Andy Lally for the year, which is excellent, but the team’s primary instigator of fun, PR ace Sean Heckman, has stepped away from racing. Will they produce fewer laughs but more wins with the switch to Grasser?
New President: Scott Atherton steered the American Le Mans Series from its infancy, brought the ALMS together with Grand Am to recreate today’s IMSA, and presided over the series through the end of 2019. He’s remained an advisor to IMSA after handing the keys to new president John Doonan, who left Mazda to fill Atherton’s considerable void. Doonan pulled off the biggest move to date for IMSA with getting prototype convergence over the line and signed with the ACO, which could be hard to top.
A fun note about IMSA’s new boss: Volunteer corner workers reported that early Friday morning at the Roar Before The 24 test — which would have been Doonan’s first day on the ground as president — he showed up at their group meeting and privately thanked all of them for their contributions to IMSA. First day. At the crack of dawn. I think we’ll be in good hands going forward.
No Ford GTs: They might have sounded like they needed to drink a few gallons of Maalox, but there’s no doubt the absence of Ford’s bellowing GTs from the grid will make the year less fun. Ford’s four-year factory GT Le Mans program was a great addition to IMSA, and with convergence in the works, it might not be a long wait until the Blue Oval is back with a new hybrid prototype.
In The Middle: With Ford’s GTs on the way out, IMSA’s rich GTLM class has received an infusion of interest with Corvette’s brand-new mid-engine C8.R, which sounds like nothing we’ve ever heard from a V8-powered entry produced by Corvette Racing. Defending GTLM champions Porsche also have a new model, with its mid-rear-engine 911 RSR ‘2.0’ taking pole at Daytona. GTLM is down a couple of cars for the year, but the quality hasn’t been lost.
LMP2 Ups And Downs: With IMSA’s pro-am prototype class struggling to attract entries last season, the series took a knife to LMP2’s 2020 calendar, trimmed a number of races to help bring operating budgets down, and team owners have responded. Two full-time cars in 2019 should float between 5-6 throughout the year, and if the experiment ends up working as well as it should, the cost-cutting LMP2 blueprint could be worth considering in some of the other WeatherTech Championship classes where budgets are teetering on untenable.
Where’s Joey And Westy And Dirk? With the shuttering of Ford’s GT project, three of its factory drivers have struggled to penetrate an overflowing market and find work in IMSA. Joey Hand, Richard Westbrook, and Dirk Muller — a trio who will be future first-ballot inductees in domestic and international racing hall of fames — epitomize the crazy economy at play in the sport. With too few paying opportunities to fill, the Ford trio will be spectators this weekend. It makes zero sense.
Good Messaging: One of the mightiest little teams you’ve likely never heard of is found deep within the paddock as IMSA’s tiny communications team, led by Gregg Elkin, continues to punch well above its weight. With Elkin leading, veteran journalist and PR man Nate Siebens at his side, and the young and multi-talented Jennifer Klein looking after the series, IMSA’s comms department has become a powerful source of messaging and information in ways that humble rival series with bigger budgets and staffs. Outside of the few specialist racing outlets like RACER who report on the series, a significant amount of the compelling stories you read about IMSA on the web comes from Elkin’s group.
Will Mazda Survive The Witching Hour? It’s two poles in a row for Mazda Team Joest at the Rolex 24, and the lingering question of whether the Japanese brand can get to the finish line without significant interruption. Since Mazda arrived at Daytona in 2014 with its diesel-powered prototypes, and upgraded to the gas-fueled RT24-P DPis in 2017, some form of mechanical or electrical malady has ruined its plans to capture a major 10-, 12-, or 24-hour IMSA victory. Will 2020 be the year where the cartoon anvil misses its favorite target?
Heinricher Racing’s New Plan: Jackie Heinricher’s introduction to IMSA in 2019 came with an all-female driving squad and initiative to foster more participation by women in the sport. Her drivers moved laterally in the GT Daytona paddock to a different team, and with the change, Heinricher has returned to Meyer Shank Racing with a new sponsor and an all-male driving squad. Heinricher will embark on her second season as a co-entrant adjusting to those differences while continuing her efforts to inspire women to take a variety of roles in the series.
Risi As Marauders: Giuseppe Risi’s privateer Ferrari GTLM team continues to corner the market on upsetting the full-fledged factory programs, and it never gets old, and never fails to delight. Winners of the most recent endurance race at Petit Le Mans, the Houston-based giant killers are an instant favorite whenever the red No. 62 entry is on the grid.
No Juncos: Ricardo Juncos made waves during his debut as an IMSA team owner last year using a Cadillac DPi-V.R, but a lack of budget has kept the spirited Argentinian from returning.
GEAR/Grasser: Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen continue to work they started with Heinricher Racing with Austria’s Grasser group and, more importantly, as the full-time drivers and leaders of Mark Ruggieri’s GEAR project — Girl Empowerment Around Racing — in 2020. The amazing pop-art livery for their car will make it the most unmistakable entry at every round.
No. 5 Is Still Alive: It looks the same and sounds the same, but the No. 5 Cadillac DPi-V.R is no longer being run by the Action Express Racing team. In fact, the car number, primary sponsor, colors and liver, and one of AXR’s drivers have made one giant move to the burgeoning JDC-Miller Motorsports team. With AXR running out of funding to keep the No. 5 in motion, its champion driver Joao Barbosa, the passionate folks at Mustang Sampling, AXR sporting director Christian Fittipaldi and former AXR endurance driver Sebastien Bourdais — who lost his seat in IndyCar and has gone full-time in IMSA — are now at JDC, where they’ll look to make the team a regular contender for podiums.
Heart of Racing and Aston Martin: Gaming company founder and legend Gabe Newell, whose benevolence has generated millions of dollars in donations to help sick and afflicted children, partnered with a few colleagues to bring The Heart of Racing back to IMSA in GTD with former drivers Ian James, Alex Riberas, in a new partnership with Aston Martin Racing. They’ve also drafted in rising IMSA star Roman De Angelis, a Canadian teenager, to make an impact on and off the track. If you know me, you know I love those who try and use their platform to help others, and with THoR, it’s the central inspiration behind everything they’ll do in IMSA.
And there’s plenty more that’s changed to document, but it’s time to go endurance racing. Enjoy all that lies ahead.