Like many sports seasons, the racing season continually expands. Worldwide series that can race in the Southern Hemisphere may go from January to November. Likewise, in the U.S., while much of the country is dealing with harsh winter weather, other regions are ripe for racing. Thus the Rolex 24 At Daytona in Florida in January, or NASCAR ending its season at Homestead in November.
In the Southern California desert, where few people are eager to race in July, winter is the perfect time to enjoy racing, as evidenced by 75 degrees and sunny conditions at The Thermal Club for the finale of the inaugural SRO America Winter Invitational last weekend. It was the third of three rounds for bronze drivers in the new GT Sports Club (GT2 and GT3), GT4 America and Touring Car classes. The events at the private country club racetrack not far from Palm Springs provided a good opportunity for teams and drivers to familiarize themselves with new cars, make sure their equipment and processes are up to par before the regular season begins next month, and gives those who have yet to jump into the professional racing arena a small taste before doing so.
“Our desire was to reach out to the bronze drivers to give them an opportunity in GT Sports Club,” explained SRO America CEO and President Greg Gill. “We certainly wanted to reach out to our GT4 and TC classes, but the real emphasis was on our GT Sports Club. It’s been a variety of cars — this weekend Cup cars, GT3 cars and I believe five GT2 cars. The other aspects of what we wanted to do was to have a proof of concept; could we run these cars successfully at the same time given the speed differentials? That’s been proven as well. One of the ideas of the winter series that we’re really excited about is to give new staff members the opportunity to work with the series.
“We’ve seen the Winter Invitational, particularly this weekend, do exactly what we wanted to do, and that is bring new people to the series, give them an opportunity to consider GT Sports Club, which is focused on bronze drivers over 40. They’re a large class of racers in this country, but they have obviously been underserved by the traditional professional racing establishment,” Gill continued.
GT Sports Club is a new component of SRO weekends, scheduled to begin at VIR in June, although interest has been high enough that speculation has grown that it may become part of the weekend as early as the season opener at Circuit of The Americas next month. So while some of the competitors at the Winter Invitational races were series regulars — DXDT’s David Askew was there as a tune-up for the season, and CJ Moses got to sample his new Honda Civic Type R TCR ride — more were drivers destined for GT Sports Club in new GT2 machinery and older GT3 cars.
James Sofronas, principal of GMG Racing, raced an older GT3 Audi, but also had a variety of GT2, GT3 and GT4 cars for clients. The Southern California tuning shop and race prep shop has a base at Thermal, and Sofronas has been a supporter of the track since its beginning.
“I think the Thermal Winter Series with the SRO has been a huge success, mainly because it’s allowed newer, younger, up-and-coming racers to get their feet wet without a massive commitment,” Sofronas said. “When you add the Thermal Club and its amazing facility, its a perfect backdrop for someone to get into racing and enjoy it for the first time. But with SRO managing it, there are rules and guidelines and Balance of Performance and technical support to let people know this is serious, and this is how we’re going to play by the rules and require you to make sure your cars are properly prepared.
“It’s like a pre-season game, so it allows us to get the team and the crew and the cars ready before the first full season race at COTA a month away. So we are completely dialed in, I think we’re way ahead of the curve among our competitors, and it allows me to assess things and make any changes before the opening race at COTA.”
The Touring Car classes were less subscribed than the GT categories, but certainly successful in giving new racers a taste of the series.
“I saw the objective of the winter series as giving new drivers and hopefully new teams an opportunity to try us on,” says TC America Series Manager Jim Jordan. “It’s a chance to meet the team, see how we run a race, get used to our procedures, that sort of thing. We accomplished that with new drivers, because four of the drivers had either not been in the TC class or not done anything with SRO, and they’re now all full-season entries. That’s practically going to be 10 percent of my field that came out of these three weekends.”
SRO America hasn’t committed to doing another series next winter, or said that it would definitely return to Thermal if it does, but given that series officials and racers have deemed the inaugural Winter Invitational a success, it seems likely. The 2020 seasons of GT World Challenge America, Pirelli GT4 America and TC America begins March 6-8 at COTA.