INSIGHT: IMSA GT classes prove they are capable headliners

INSIGHT: IMSA GT classes prove they are capable headliners

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: IMSA GT classes prove they are capable headliners

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The prototype classes, especially the top-level Daytona Prototype International (DPi) category, are naturally the main point of focus at most IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race meetings. But a couple of the racetracks on the schedule are just a little too marginal in terms of safety for the biggest, fastest cars, obliging the prototype field to take a week off and allow the GT classes (GT Daytona and GTD PRO) to take center stage.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the GT cars almost always put on a compelling show, whether as the “race within a race” during a full-field event, or on their own as headliners — like at Lime Rock Park last weekend, and again at Virginia International Raceway in late August.

The Lime Rock field was comprised of only 15 cars, probably a good thing given the tight confines of the classic road course. But it was a remarkably clean race, with just one full-course caution, and a competitive finish in GTD PRO with the Mathieu Jaminet/Matt Campbell Porsche leading home a top three covered by a little more than four seconds.

GTD was considerably more frantic, as Russell Ward’s Mercedes-AMG snatched the lead from Aaron Telitz’s Lexus in a door-banging match on the race’s lone restart with nine minutes remaining, only to suffer a fuel pump failure on the last lap. Bryan Sellers emerged through the confusion at the final corner to claim the win for BMW.

If DPi represents IMSA’s haute cuisine, the GT classes are the WeatherTech Championship’s meat and potatoes. The competing GT3 cars from Porsche, Corvette, BMW, Lexus, AMG-Mercedes, Acura, Aston Martin, and Lamborghini look a lot like the cars you can buy and drive on the street because they are directly based on those production cars.

The strength of any racing series can be measured in the number of participating manufacturers, and in that regard, IMSA is stacked — especially when you factor in the Michelin Pilot Challenge support series, which features a high-profile factory effort from Hyundai, along with GT4- and TCR-homologated entries from ten other carmakers.

Manufacturer car corrals at the races serve to tap into and build brand loyalty among current and prospective road car customers. Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Especially among the GT competitors, customer loyalty is fierce. The well-heeled individuals who buy exotic street cars show support for their favorite marque by bringing them out to club meetings and car corrals at IMSA races.

Manufacturers and fans alike love the direct linkage between the race cars on the track and the road cars they produced and drove to get there — especially brands like Lexus and Hyundai that are keen to establish performance car credentials.

“You can have success in prototypes or open-wheel racing like Formula 1 or IndyCar, but that doesn’t always necessarily translate to the showroom,” says Jeff Bal, North American motorsports manager for Lexus. “Here we have something that looks every bit as close to a car in the showroom as can be.

“Our research shows that the consideration of Lexus as a performance brand among consumers who intend purchasing, those numbers are exponentially growing from when we first started racing five years ago to where we are now.”

That view is backed by Ross Rosenberg, manager of N Brand and marketing for Hyundai, which launched N as a premium sub-brand focused on performance driving.

“N is a young brand, but it has progressed very, very rapidly,” Rosenberg says. “One of the biggest challenges is changing perceptions and adding spark to the Hyundai brand. Really, it kind of helps evolve Hyundai’s journey in the U.S. and establishing ourselves as a performance car as well.

“It’s a challenge because we’re going up against other competitors who have been doing this for decades. Coming in, we know it takes time and it takes persistence to make people aware of N, and ultimately realize how great a product it really is. The racing program is clearly contributing.”

Strong brand identity makes GT racing an ideal marketing platform for manufacturers like Lexus. Michael Levitt / Motorsport Images

For drivers, racing in the IMSA GT classes give them an opportunity to compete on classic American circuits like Lime Rock and VIR that they would not be able to experience in a prototype or an Indy car.

“I really like racing in America — there are no track limits,” observes Jules Gounon, who made his first WeatherTech Championship start of the ’22 season at Lime Rock, sharing the No. 79 GTD class Mercedes-AMG with Cooper MacNeil. “In Europe, let’s say the fun of racing has been compromised at many tracks, and for me, that’s really bad what they have done with so much runoff area. The only track limit here is when the car is in the wall. This is what racing is about.”

Finally, GT cars are the obvious final training ground for young drivers determined to make a career in sports cars who have racing prototypes as their ultimate goal. Porsche is showing the way here, as its driver development pyramid graduated Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy to a Porsche prototype ride that netted each man victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Campbell and Jaminet, who are dominating the GTD PRO class with four wins in seven starts, are slated to join Porsche Penske Motorsport to drive the new 963 hybrid. Sports car rides don’t get any better. But thanks to the Porsche Pyramid, both 27-year-olds feel they are prepared.

“Obviously, there is big pressure,” says Jaminet. “Porsche and Penske are always there to win. There is no second option. We are quite prepared so far and it might seem we have an advantage on paper over the others, at least in the first year. This puts pressure on the drivers and everybody in the team. But so far, it’s a good pressure.”

Whether you are an enthusiast for a particular marque or just enjoy hard, competitive racing, it pays to pay attention to IMSA’s GT classes.

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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