Take a bow, IMSA chairman Jim France, CEO Ed Bennett, president John Doonan, competition boss Simon Hodgson, technical gurus Matt Kurdock and Bill Pearson, and all within the series who played a part in creating the unforgettable launch of the new hybrid GTP formula.
Immense credit also goes to Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Porsche, and their exhausted partner teams for pushing to bring this captivating class from concept to reality in two short years. If the 2023 edition of the Rolex 24 At Daytona reminded us of anything, it was how auto manufacturers and racing fans alike will turn up in a big way when they’re presented with something new and interesting.
If you were one of the many on the inside of Daytona International Speedway on Saturday morning, you know how it was nearly impossible to move at times, all thanks to the incredible wave of humanity that refused to miss what IMSA was offering. DIS president Frank Kelleher confirmed what we were seeing when he revealed the legendary endurance race set an all-time attendance record last weekend. And that was for one reason alone.
The Rolex 24 produces amazing around-the-clock racing every year; its GT cars never fail to deliver an epic fight, and whether it was the old Daytona Prototypes or the more recent DPis, a memorable scrap for the overall win was all but guaranteed. Yet despite the assured awesomeness, fans didn’t pack the infield or fill out entire sections of the banking to watch those races. Not like we just witnessed with GTP. It was IMSA’s cool new hybrid prototype cars that pushed attendance to record-breaking territory.
The same was true for the NBC broadcast on Saturday, which had 766,000 viewers — up a whopping 25 percent over last year’s Saturday viewing average of 611,000. On Sunday, it was up to an average of 986,000 viewers, which was slightly better than 2022’s 964,000 average, and peaked at 1,200,000 viewers, according to NBC. Those are the kind of numbers that make sponsors and car companies happy, and GTP was the cause.
On the racing side, not a single GTP manufacturer spoke with confidence leading into the Rolex 24 as constant reliability issues marred pre-season testing, but most of those fears proved to be unnecessary as six of the nine GTP entries earned the top six positions in the race. Even better, of the three that suffered major componentry problems, two of those — one BMW and one Porsche — were slowed by spec items that weren’t of their making.
Count me among those who expected GTP’s hybrid launch to be a smoky, oily mess, and I couldn’t be happier to have watched as Acura, Cadillac, and Porsche gave each other the business for 24 hours’ worth of entertainment. I hope IMSA’s rivals were paying attention because something meaningful is brewing within the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Ignore it at your peril.
It was also a delight to see some of IMSA’s finest drivers reaffirm their special place on the domestic and international pecking order. On the way to overall victory, Meyer Shank Racing’s Colin Braun, who’s been making a living in some of the series lower-tier categories, came out swinging in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 he shares with MSR’s 2022 DPi champion Tom Blomqvist. As I’ve written a few times over the years, Braun’s got the goods to be in IndyCar, and maybe team owners there will give him a test run to confirm what we’ve suspected.
One reporter embarrassed themselves by suggesting to Shank in the post-race press conference that Blomqvist seemingly “came out of nowhere.” This is the same former factory BMW driver who anchored last year’s Rolex 24 win for Shank, put in dominant drives to seal the win at Petit Le Mans, and was directly responsible for steering the team to its first prototype championship. Makes you wonder what a guy needs to do to earn respect.
When Shank called in 2021 to ask for feedback on the son of Swedish rallying legend Stig Blomqvist, I told him it was a no-brainer; hire him straight away. Shank saw Blomqvist’s obvious and well-proven talent as the difference maker to turn his occasionally competitive prototype team into a front-running program, and that’s exactly what he’s done. And now he has Braun — freed from lesser machinery — as a hunting partner to go for two titles in a row. As for Blomqvist’s future, I’ll be shocked if the champ isn’t destined for some race appearances in a MSR IndyCar, either part- or full-time, when 2024 arrives.
After the Acuras, we had the largely bulletproof Cadillacs chasing hard, but as those offseason private group tests suggested, the ARX-06s were rockets. It would have been silly to expect IMSA to nail the Balance of Performance tables for GTP on the formula’s debut, but if they could go back in time by about a week, I suspect the Acuras would have been made less uncatchable.
Not only did we see GTP teams push their cars harder than expected during the race, but we also got to see the mechanics shine as they dealt with adversity.
Action Express Racing made swift suspension repairs to its Cadillac V-LMDh after contact to the rear was suffered. BMW M Team RLL performed a motor generator unit change with speed and accuracy, and maybe the most impressive feat belonged to Porsche Penske Motorsport which lost just 35 minutes while conducting a complete energy storage system (battery) swap, and if we’re looking at the time for the ESS change alone, it was a scant 24 minutes as the crew members showed us the byproduct of drilling for emergency ESS swaps back at their shop.
Of the other items that stood out, Penske IndyCar star Scott McLaughlin did things with an LMP2 car that defied logic and physics; down 11 laps due to an early ECU problem, he and Bus Bro Josef Newgarden and the rest of the drivers attacked for the rest of the race as they brought the deficit down to five laps at the checkered flags. If McLaughlin’s Tower Motorsports team wants to give sports car fans a gift, they need to post his sideways in-car footage from the race.
We almost had a cool father-and-son victory in the top two prototype classes as Colin Braun’s father Jeff served as the strategist on the No. 04 Crowdstrike Racing by Algarve Pro Racing ORECA 07-Gibson. But the No. 55 Proton Competition ORECA 07-Gibson team had other plans, drafting by at the finish line to take a crazy 0.016s victory.
LMP3 was a weird affair; I thought the class would be a dumpster fire on its debut in 2022, but it wasn’t…that was saved for this year where eight of the nine entries had serious problems. The winning AWA team from Canada toppled the Ligier armada with its Duquesne D08 chassis; second in LMP3 was 12 laps adrift…
And GTD and GTD Pro gave us all kinds of feel-good stories as the brilliance of driver/team principal Ian James and the Heart of Racing Aston Martin program was on display yet again as they scored the British marque’s first Rolex 24 win, and did so as the first GT3 car home; the leading GTD Pro car was 2.3 seconds arrears at the checkered flag.
The Winward Racing team put forth a valiant effort as the crew prepared a replacement Mercedes-AMG GT3 after Lucas Auer’s bone-breaking crash in practice, started 59th out of 61 cars, and charged to the front in GTD before a late retirement ended their fairytale recovery. Canada’s Daniel Morad, who got the call to deputize for Auer, had zero laps of in the car before the race, strapped in, and went forward with authority. As I mentioned on Twitter during the race, I have no answer as to why he isn’t a full-time driver for someone in IMSA.
If there’s was an award for meritorious effort in the face of adversity, it belongs to Pfaff Motorsports and their No. 9 Porsche 911 GT3 R which proved, without question, that its BoP was off. And yet, they soldiered home to fifth in GTD Pro. The top Porsche’s best lap time in the race was a 1m48.1s which, when compared to 1m45.5s best set by the class-winning WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3, explains why placing anything other than last deserves an award.
We had a big and energetic crowd to cheer on IMSA’s new hybrid GTPs like we haven’t seen in decades. We had a promising rise in network TV ratings. We were immersed in stories aplenty throughout all five WeatherTech Championship classes. And six weeks from now, we’ll reconvene in Florida to welcome the FIA WEC and its stellar Hypercars where Ferrari will debut its 499P in the 1000 Miles of Sebring before IMSA goes for 12 hours on Saturday in front of another packed house.
I haven’t been this excited for American sports car racing since the American Le Mans Series was drawing huge audiences with its LMP1 vs LMP2 battles and the unforgettable years where Corvette and Aston Martin slugged it out in GT1. These are special times for IMSA and it feels like it’s only going to get better with each race.