Last week, IMSA announced a new single-driver series that will combine LMP3 cars and GT4 cars in 45-minute sprint races called the VP Racing SportsCar Challenge.
Making its debut next season, it will replace the current LMP3 series, the Prototype Challenge, that features 90-minute races for one or two drivers, and add another option for GT4 racers in addition to the Michelin Pilot Challenge multi-driver endurance series.
One idea behind the new series is that it gives drivers a multi-class, prototype and GT series in which to get used to mixed-class racing for those who aspire to race in the IMPC or WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“Decisions we make, strategic ones, aren’t made in a vacuum in Daytona,” explains IMSA President John Doonan.‘We try to always have a pulse on our stakeholders throughout the paddock. And in talking with OEMs, and talking with teams on the GT4 side, or GS for us in Pilot Challenge, we got a read about some additional opportunities for their customers to get additional track time. In the same manner, IPC wanted to understand where those customers were with the current format and things like that. We’re giving participants a roadmap if, ultimately, WeatherTech Sportscar Championship is their goal or Michelin Pilot is their goal. It’s a perfect training ground for multi-class racing. That that is a foundational reason for the new direction.”
An exercise in mixed-class racing is surely a good thing for those who seek to perform, or at least race safely, in a higher-level multi-class series, and that option has been available elsewhere in a sprint format. But at the same time, though, a 45-minute sprint race removes the pit stop aspect for the LMP3 teams – a blessing in that it saves money, but a negative in that it denies teams a chance to practice stops, and drivers the opportunity to learn driver changes.
That is much of the feedback from the teams in a nutshell. Generally positive, there are some reservations from the LMP3 side because the pit stops aren’t going to be necessary. For those teams that want that experience, there is the LMP3 class in the WeatherTech Championship, but there has been no confirmation that LMP3 will continue to be a part of that series, especially as the WeatherTech Championship faces an increased car count in what will become the top class in the category, GTP, and probably in GTD PRO as well.
“I think you’re going to see it’s sort of split down the middle,” says Tony Ave, LMP3 driver and principal of Ave Motorsports with GRS, which runs two cars in IPC. “I think there are guys who want to be able to split the cars and do pitstops. And at the same time, though, we can save a fair amount of money by not by not having to do that. I raced P3 when it first came out, with a car that Bill Riley and I built, and we had a single-driver format then, but not the mixed classes. I think the mixed-class thing does help prepare guys in both cars for a WeatherTech move at some point. You’re just not getting the pitstop practice.
“To be honest, I don’t have a strong opinion in one way or another. I just hope that they keep it around. It’s the best way for a team like ours to come and do IMSA weekends right now.”
Bill Glavin, owner of JR III Racing that fields LMP3 entries in both IPC and the WeatherTech Championship, sees both sides of the coin as well, although he also says if he had his way, an LMP3 series would go to around two hours to match the Le Mans Cup in Europe and introduce more strategy into the racing.
“I think it will be great for guys that want to drive the LMP3 as a standalone deal, like that’s as far as they want to get, that’s all they want to do,” Glavin said.
“This is a great opportunity for them, because they get 45 minutes, they don’t have to have a pitstop, they don’t have to do a driver change, they don’t have to hire a pro, etc. So there are a lot of benefits there. The downside I see to it is it’s going to eliminate or drastically reduce the training ground I feel IPC should be for getting teams, engineers, crews, drivers, everybody, ready for WeatherTech, because you take all the stuff that makes WeatherTech difficult, or even more difficult than IPC – the driver change, the pit stops, the strategy – you take that out by going to just a single sprint race, and I feel like the ramp going from IPC to WeatherTech is going to become even harder.”
That said, while IMSA announced that the new series will be sprint races, the sanctioning body seems to be open to the idea of mixing that up.
“I’d say the ultimate final format of how the new VP SportsCar Challenge will run is going to come out in the final sporting regulations,” says Doonan. “We always want to have a pulse on what is best for the community, what’s going to put the best show on for the fans, so there’s more to come on that. We’re trying to find ways to have cost-effective options for our teams, and also continue to put on great race weekends for the fans. So that’s that’s ultimately still to be decided in terms of the final sporting regs of the series.”
With the new series supplementing the Michelin Pilot Challenge instead of replacing it, the only reservation among the GT4 teams – GS in IMPC parlance and called GSX in the VP Racing SportsCar Challenge – is concern that it will draw cars away from IMPC. More likely, if experience in other series with multiple opportunities to race the same cars is any indication, is that the gentleman drivers in IMPC will use the new series for more track time, or drivers looking to enter IMPC will use it as a launch point.
“I think there’s a good potential for that series as a single-driver series,” says James Pesek, a GS driver who runs PF Racing with his father JR, which has a fleet of Ford Mustang GT4s for potential customers. “You know, there’s good opportunities – it’s strong in SRO [GT America], there’s a good field there. I think there’s good potential for it to be strong here as well. Potentially, something that we could look at for the future, for us in particular, or as a customer program. I think it’ll be a good, strong series.”
Kenny Murillo is in a similar position to Pesek – he drives and handles much of the Murillo Racing operation with his father, Ken Murillo. While current customers haven’t expressed a strong interest in the series, he sees it as an overall positive.
“It’s always great when IMSA does new things and they always do a good job at it,” Murillo says. “I’m really curious to see the structure of it. There might be some teething pains, but I think it’ll be good – IMSA doesn’t go into anything experimental.”
Just like the final format of the VP Racing SportsCar Challenge may not be etched in stone, IMSA is working on what the calendar is going to look like. But Doonan says the current thinking is something similar to what IPC has now to keep the budgets in the same ballpark, so five weekends of two races each for the same amount of track time. The 2022 Prototype Challenge season started with the Roar Before the 24 weekend, but there’s no word yet when the new series will kick off its inaugural season. Look for more information during the Road America IMSA event the first weekend in August.