When the SRO Motorsports America trio of series opened their seasons at Circuit of The Americas in March, among the GT World Challenge America, Pirelli GT4 America and TC America series, there was an impressive 93 entries. The grids were full of recognized stars of sports car racing and much of the competition was fantastic.
But there were some obvious issues boiling up, and those have only been magnified in the months of shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic. First, the entry for GT World Challenge America was 14 cars, down significantly from last year’s season-opener (23), but up from the 2019 closer at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (13) and equal to the SprintX season opener in 2018. Part of that drop from 2019 is due to the elimination of the all-Pro class, which accounted for six cars a year ago.
Now, after the recent months of uncertainty and economic turmoil, that number has dropped even further. As the series returns to racing this weekend at VIRginia International Raceway – sans spectators – there are a mere nine entries in GT World Challenge America. That’s a problem for a professional series.
Another issue is that, for the first time in decades, the series is without a title sponsor. Speedvision/SPEED Channel filled that role for many years until replaced by Pirelli. In 2019, unified under the SRO Motorsports GT World Challenge umbrella, Blancpain became the title sponsor. But the watch company ended its decade-long title sponsorship of SRO’s GT Championships at the end of 2019. However, Amazon Web Services and Crowdstrike have both increased their participation in the series, and SRO Motorsports America has new partnerships with Total and Rebellion.
In contrast to the car count in GTWCA, GT4 America SprintX has experienced good growth, perhaps simply speaking to the economic realities of GT racing. A GT4 car is not only roughly half as much as a GT3 car, it also costs less than half as much to run, especially considering the lack of refueling during a 60-minute GT4 races vs. the 90-minute format for GTWCA. And while the numbers have dipped a bit for VIR, they remain relatively strong.
Among the other bright spots are the continued success of the Touring Car and TCA classes – successful enough that SRO America is exporting the classes to Europe, beginning next year. Plus there’s the aforementioned star power, not just in GT3 but into GT4 as well. While Platinum-rated drivers such as defending champion Toni Vilander and past champion Patrick Long are barred from competition in GTWCA, there are still plenty of notable drivers, including Ryan Dalziel, Colin Braun, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Jeff Westphal, Kyle Marcelli and Trent Hindman. Star power in GT4 includes Bill Auberlen, Spencer Pumpelly, Michael Cooper, Jarett Andretti and a host of up-and-coming, future champions.
Clearly the series has some big positives, but also some negatives to consider. In March at COTA, RACER sat down with a few key players to see where the series are going and what it’s doing to shore up the GT side.
I’m happy with the overall grid,” said SRO Motorsports America President and CEO Greg Gill. “We really appreciate the growth, particularly in GT4, and I could not be more happy with that. I think the interesting thing when you look at what we’re not happy with, but not surprised by it either… when we eliminated the pro-pro category – and we did this reflexively, knowing that we were seeing K-PAX, two of the pro entries, going to Europe – we looked around and said, ’Is this a good way to distinguish GT3 in this country so they truly know what is a customer class?’
“Now we have 14 Pro-Am entries there, and I would have been much happier with about 16-18, that would have been a good number. Overall I’m pleased, and for the long haul, I believe Pro-Am is an excellent combination. It gives us an opportunity for people to still get the ability of a pro driver, but recognizing that GT3 racing was developed as customer racing. It has morphed, due to expenses and factory interest, into a pro racing class, and there’s a place for that, but now we will get back to our roots and pursue it as a customer racing class.”
Jim Haughey’s K-PAX Racing is taking its Bentleys to Europe to run in in the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup. Haughey, who has had a team competing in World Challenge for 14 years and holds a very small interest in the series, said he was already considering that move before the decision was reached to eliminate the Pro category and move to Pro-Am, Silver and Am categories in the U.S. But he is also maintaining a program in GTWCA for Patrick Byrne and Guy Cosmo, because he likes the series. He also says that while the entry numbers at COTA were disappointing, he believes that elevating the customer racing aspect was worth a shot.
“You’ve got to experiment,” he said. “I understand that some of the people in Pro-Am may get a little discouraged having the Pro drivers in front of them and always coming in the back. I think it’s fair to try something new; let’s try to let some of the Pro-Am teams see if they can come up front, have more fun, compete for podiums and first places overall. We’ll see where that goes, but I think it’s worth trying.”