Wondering where you’re going to put some 110 cars across IMSA’s two non-single-make classes, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Michelin Pilot Challenge, at Daytona International Speedway; how you’re going to make pit lane work for the 61 entries in the Rolex 24 At Daytona; where you’re going to put all the driver and team and partner RVs in the infield … these are good challenges to have. And the challenge is indicative of a word that IMSA President John Doonan admits he’s been overusing recently: momentum.
“Petit Le Mans, while it was our season finale, the championship for WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Michelin Pilot Challenge and every other event that was there… it didn’t feel, in retrospect, like a finale,” says Doonan (pictured above). “It actually felt like maybe the start of the next season. From a standpoint of car count, the level of driving and the overall competitiveness of all the championships, it felt like a lift. It felt like we were really gaining momentum in a lot of areas.
“I think that has continued in this short period of ‘off season,’ where new teams have decided to put together programs, either going from one of the single-make series into Michelin Pilot Challenge, or Prototype Challenge teams going into WeatherTech, so it feels like that momentum has continued. Given ultimately what we have realized in entry lists, that has proven true. To have 61 cars start the Rolex is really exciting, certainly for us, for all the stakeholders and, given what I’ve seen from the audience, they’re excited, too. And to have close to 50 cars in Michelin Pilot Challenge is really, really exciting.”
Coming off a thrilling 2021 season where the Daytona Prototype international championship came down to a last-lap-of-the-season Hail Mary pass attempt by Ricky Taylor on Felipe Nasr that failed and ultimately left Nasr, Pipo Derani and the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac team with the title, IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is certainly carrying some excitement forward into 2022, bolstered by the big entry list for the season opening Rolex 24 At Daytona next weekend, which is preceded by the testing and qualifying race weekend known as the Roar before the 24 that begins tomorrow. However, there are also some challenges to face in 2022, such as being down to only Cadillac and Acura as the two manufacturers in DPi after Mazda’s departure, and especially keeping the excitement level up in DPi’s final year before the LMDh era begins in 2023.
“We are building up to opening up a new chapter in our sport’s history,” notes Doonan. “We’ve talked internally about the fact that we have a tremendous opportunity as a community of endurance sports car racing to leverage, in a very positive use of that word, a historical moment in our sport, What we’re building up to, while DPi are in their final year of homologation – and what a run that platform has had – we have an increased interest in LMP2, and a new interest in LMP3 with a couple of teams joining us in WeatherTech, who were primarily IPC teams.
“You’ve got this sort of shift — this historical moment is coming back to prototype racing, the new platform is coming. I think it’s100 percent a momentum year … while we’re in between some homologation periods, look how the stakeholders have responded. I think that spells really good things for all of us, no matter what role we play in the industry.”
With many eyes on 2023 and LMDh, that leaves much of the 2022 focus on the GT field as it itself undergoes a big change with GTLM ceding in favor of GTD Pro. Of the 61 entries for the Rolex, 35 are GTD cars, with the GTD Pro for an all-pro driver line-up accounting for 13 of those. That’s a massive jump from 2021, where six GTLM cars and 13 GTD cars took the green. And while nearly every manufacturer represented in GTD, minus Acura and McLaren, is also represented in GTD Pro, there will be much attention on the Corvettes, adapted from GTLM, and the new BMW M4 GT3s fielded by BMW Team RLL. For a transition year, the manufacturers and teams have responded with gusto.
“To have 35 GT cars on the grid, 13 of which are in the Pro category, really excites not just me personally, but all of us at IMSA,” he says. “And in this particular case, the manufacturers that are there with customer support programs or a Pro-Pro factory-endorsed program. We took a step out in the industry to make the message that this is our GT strategy, or at least what we see in the medium to long term, and that it didn’t happen in a vacuum; the manufacturers felt like that was a solid move. And either they themselves or their customer teams have responded by coming to join us. It’s super satisfying to see it come together for the sport. That’s why we did it, because we felt like it was best thing for the sport, in terms of the cadence of where GTE, and GTLM in our case, where they were in their homologation cycle, we felt like it was the right time.”
Another challenge for IMSA in 2022 is making sure fans know where to find races on television and streaming. NBC Sports Network and the TrackPass on the NBC Sports Gold app no longer exist. Instead, in addition to the races on the NBC network, races will be broadcast on the USA Network and on the Peacock streaming service. For Doonan, this is an opportunity.
“To transition to flag-to-flag coverage on Peacock has the opportunity to put us in front of an audience that is new and may not be as familiar with us. But based on some research we have done, when people that aren’t familiar with us get the opportunity for a taste test, they’re really keen to learn more,” Doonan says. “My hope is that the Peacock platform opens a wider group of eyes to IMSA content. In a very similar manner, the transition from NBC Sports to USA Network puts us in roughly five million more households. So suddenly, you’re picking up not just a sports fan, but you’re picking up perhaps a wider, or broader, audience. For our sport, that suddenly gives us the opportunity to tell more people about what it is we do. It puts all of our brands that participate — all the OEMs, WeatherTech, Michelin — in front of a group of people that may not have ever seen or understand what endurance sports car racing is all about. It gives us a shot at growing the family.”
While both the season ahead and 2023 are years of big change, there was a pretty big alteration in 2021, and that was the introduction of the Rolex 24 qualifying race at the Roar, and the inclusion of points for qualifying within the broader scope of changing the points system. In retrospect, Doonan feels that was a worthy change, particularly noting its outcome on the DPi championship.
In 2021, the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac team won the qualifying race during the Roar. The 24 itself wasn’t good for them, but winning the pole may have made all the difference in their championship fight. Fast forward to the end of the season, and Nasr put the car on pole for Petit Le Mans, overcome with emotion with the magnitude of the accomplishment, and how it affected he and Derani’s title battle with the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura and Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque.
“The emotion that Felipe Nasr and his teammate Pipo Derani showed, not just because it was going to be their final race together, but they knew how important that piece was going to be in the championship … that’s a spotlight that I’d like to put on our weekends for our audience. It matters a lot. That’s 10 percent of winning a race if you’re on the pole. While our races are endurance races, there’s an importance to being able to see the talent that drives these amazing race cars put in a qualifying session, that on-the-edge, full-send qualifying lap that makes the hair stand up on the arms,” laughs Doonan, his inner race fan coming out.
Doonan says he expects 45 to 50 cars for the remainder of the Michelin Endurance Cup races, and 35 to 40 full-season entries. Some of those, such as Paul Miller Racing and its new BMWs, won’t be at the Rolex because of preparation time. He also points to the number of teams from outside the U.S. joining the series. noting that it speaks to the larger strategy of convergence between IMSA, Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship that is coming.
“More and more we’ve worked with our partners at the ACO and WEC on future regulations that are converged,” he says, noting that while the GT regulations aren’t currently matching, there’s much speculation that they may do so in future. “It feels like we have an opportunity here to see teams that maybe our fans aren’t that aware of come here, establish themselves with a mindset that hey, someday, this could be part of a globally converged class. It’s the kind of thing that if you had a crystal ball and you looked in there, we’re actually living out the strategy we see down the road.”