RACING

INSIGHT: IMSA GT Classes Prove They’re Capable Headliners

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Prototype classes, especially the top-level Daytona Prototype International (DPi) class, are naturally the focus of most IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race meetings. But a few of the circuits on the schedule are just a bit too marginal in terms of safety for the biggest and fastest cars, forcing the prototype field to take a week off and allow GT classes (GT Daytona and GTD PRO) to take center organize.

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

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The Lime Rock field only had 15 cars, probably a good thing considering the tight confines of the classic road course. But it was a remarkably clean race, with just one warning all the way and a competitive GTD PRO finish with the Mathieu Jaminet/Matt Campbell Porsche leading home a top three covered by just over four seconds.

GTD was considerably more frantic, as Russell Ward’s Mercedes-AMG snatched the lead from Aaron Telitz’s Lexus in a smash match on the only restart of the race with nine minutes remaining, only to suffer fuel pump failure in the last lap. Bryan Sellers came out of the final turn confusion to take the win for BMW.

If DPi represents the haute cuisine of IMSA, the GT classes are the meat and potatoes of the WeatherTech championship. 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 as they are directly based on these production cars.

The strength of any racing series can be measured by the number of participating manufacturers, and in that respect IMSA stacks up – especially when you factor in the Michelin Pilot Challenge support series, which includes a factory effort high-level cars from Hyundai, as well as GT4 and TCR homologated cars from ten other automakers.

Manufacturers’ car corrals at races serve to exploit and retain current and potential road car customers. Richard Dole / Motorsport Pictures

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

Manufacturers and fans alike love the direct connection between race cars on the track and the road cars they’ve produced and driven to get there – especially brands like Lexus and Hyundai who want to set performance car benchmarks .

“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, Northeast Motorsports Director. American for Lexus. “Here we have something as close to a car as possible in the showroom.

“Our research shows that consideration of Lexus as a performance brand among consumers who intend to buy, these numbers are increasing exponentially from the time we started racing five years ago to where we are now.”

This view is backed by Ross Rosenberg, Head of N Brand and Marketing for Hyundai, who launched N as a performance-focused premium sub-brand.

“N is a young brand, but it has grown very, very quickly,” says Rosenberg. “One of the biggest challenges is changing perceptions and adding some shine to the Hyundai brand. Really, that kind of helps evolve Hyundai’s journey in the United States and also establish us as a performance car.

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

The strong brand identity makes GT Racing an ideal marketing platform for manufacturers like Lexus. Michael Levitt / Motorsport Pictures

For drivers, racing in the IMSA GT classes gives them the opportunity to compete on classic American circuits like Lime Rock and VIR that they couldn’t experience in a prototype or Indy car.

“I really love 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 #79 Mercedes-AMG GTD with Cooper MacNeil. “In Europe, let’s say the fun of racing has been compromised on a lot of circuits, and to me it’s really bad what they’ve done with so many runoff areas. The only track limit here is when the car is in the wall. That’s racing.”

Finally, GT cars are the last obvious training ground for young drivers determined to pursue a career in sports cars who have racing prototypes as their ultimate goal. Porsche leads the way here, as its driver development pyramid has graduated Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy to a Porsche prototype that took every man victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Campbell and Jaminet, who lead the GTD PRO class with four wins from seven starts, are set to join Porsche Penske Motorsport to race the new 963 hybrid. Sports car rides don’t get better. But thanks to the Porsche Pyramid, the two 27-year-olds feel prepared.

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

Whether you’re a fan of a particular brand or just love tough, competitive racing, it’s worth paying attention to IMSA’s GT classes.

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