As the IMSA season finale culminates at the Motul Petit Le Mans this weekend, we take a look back to IMSA 30 years ago at Lime Rock Park.
The era was considered by many fans to be the glory years of IMSA – when the legendary Camel GTP Prototypes ruled the circuits of North America. Lime Rock Park gave fans an unforgettable opportunity to see these spectacular cars in action, watching the sleek machines racing by at less than 50 seconds a lap.
In 1992 and 1993, it truly was a matter of trying to keep up with the Joneses, as a pair of unrelated drivers named Jones took turns shattering the circuit mark: Davy Jones in a Jaguar and then P.J. Jones in a AAR Toyota won a pair of record-setting poles – although neither driver went on to win, as a driver named Fangio captured both events.
But first, a little background.
Pre-GTP, Jacques Villeneuve held the track standard of 45.731s in 1983, set in a second-generation Can-Am car (basically a rebodied Formula 5000 machine), breaking the existing mark by more than three seconds. The uncle of the F1 world champion and Indianapolis 500 winner with the same name, Villeneuve starred on both snow and pavement, while racing in the shadow of his brother Gilles.
Then came John Bishop’s new GT Prototype class, which dominated IMSA for nearly a decade. From 1984 through 1987 the sleek cars turned best laps in the 46 and 47-second range, staging thrilling battles for the pole.
In 1988, the speeds came tumbling down. Geoff Brabham set an unofficial track mark of 45.7s in Tuesday’s testing in a Nissan GTP. Then Castrol Jaguar driver Martin Brundle officially broke the mark by winning the pole at 44.865s.
But Lime Rock Park’s history — and track layout — would be forever changed after Nissan GTP driver John Morton went airborne at the top of the hill during the race. Fortunately, he emerged unhurt from the incredible incident, but the time had come to try to clip the wings of these earth-bound fighter jets.
In a bid to slow the cars, Lime Rock added a chicane (unofficially named after Morton) at the top of the hill. Drake Olson won the pole on the new layout with a lap of 47.078s in 1990 in a Toyota as the chicane did its job slowing the cars – if only for two years.
While the course was slower, the GTP cars kept getting faster – particularly the Jaguar XJR-14 and Toyota Eagle MKIII – both driven by drivers named Jones.
Davy Jones – a native of nearby Cortland, N.Y. – broke Lime Rock’s outright record in qualifying for the 1992 race, running 43.985s; 126.043 miles per hour. On lap 14, he broke the track’s best race lap mark, running 45.857s. Unfortunately, Jones crashed in the Downhill on the following lap, and Juan Manuel Fangio II went on to win in a Toyota Eagle.
For 1993, All American Racers team founder Dan Gurney was the last man standing in the GTP ranks, with his two Toyota Eagles winning every race they contested. The Jaguars and Nissans both withdrew after losing factory support, leaving Gurney to battle a handful of independents – and the stopwatch.
P.J. Jones – son of California legend and 1970 Lime Rock Trans-Am winner Parnelli Jones – stole the headlines in the final year of GTP glory. At Lime Rock, Jones ran a sizzling lap of 43.112s to capture the pole. Fangio also was under the track record mark, running a close 43.286s. Racing legend Derek Bell qualified third, three seconds behind the fast Eagles.
P.J. Jones’ record has stood secure in the Lime Rock annals for the past 29 years, with no challengers on the horizon. Ironically, he did not even win that race. Fangio came from the outside front row to lap his teammate and capture the event – turning the fastest race lap in the process, 45.105s. That milestone also stands secure in the LRP record book.
IMSA returns to Lime Rock Park in 2023 for the FCP Euro Northeast Grand Prix on its new date July 21-22. IMSA will bring its new class, VP Racing Fuels SportsCar Challenge, expanding the racing schedule to three races over the two-day event.