With a low-key but successful return to racing after a five-month hiatus, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series heads to Sebring International Raceway this Saturday for the Cadillac Grand Prix at Sebring.
With two rounds on the books – the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Daytona 240 on July 4 – IMSA has plenty of ground to catch up.
It would be nice to say things are better now – please be kind to say that the coronavirus pandemic which halted IMSA’s plans is no longer a factor – but they are. At Daytona, IMSA used the NASCAR pandemic playbook, which is not surprising since NASCAR owns the sports car series, which allowed NASCAR to resume racing on May 17. The track is transformed into “bubbles” – there is a bubble where the media have to stay, a bubble where the officials are, a paddock bubble, a garage bubble, and it takes a bit of power to pass from one bubble to another without bothering.
Truth be told, though, security at Daytona was, in a word, laid back. Sebring can be different. And less satisfying for those covering the race in person – we were in the tower press box at Daytona, watching the track, one of the best views in all of motorsport. In Sebring we will be at the Seven Sebring Hotel (formerly Chateau Elan) in a conference room, where if we stand at the window we can see Sebring turn seven. Otherwise we watch it on TV. All interviews are done on Zoom. We can’t go to the garage or the paddock.
The new normal. But if that’s what it takes to get back to racing, great.
And compared to these competitors in the paddock bubble, we don’t have much to complain about.
Kyle Masson, 22, has already won his class at the Rolex 24 and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring (this is a good place to note that this is NOT the replacement for the postponed Twelve Hours. It will be the end of the season .) This weekend he shares the #38 Performance Tech Oreca/Gibson LMP2 car with Cameron Cassels.
Masson’s father, Dr. Robert Masson, is a highly regarded surgeon and gentleman racer. What does he think of the return to the track? “He’s all for it,” Kyle Masson said. “He thinks it’s good to support the teams, the sponsors and the sport. From his perspective, as long as we get him back in the safest way possible, he’s on board.”
Of course, Masson said wearing masks — mandatory as soon as you enter the track — and copious hand-washing will be important, but Performance Tech went a step further. “The team hired a sanitization company, DB Envirocare, to come to the track and sterilize and sanitize our entire carrier, hospitality area, everything. And I think some of the other teams in the paddock will do the same.”
As many problems as COVID-19 causes on the track, the most formidable threat the pandemic presents is economic. Two classes in the IMSA WeatherTech Series are essentially Pro-Am – teams usually have a professional rider paired with an amateur who provides the financial support. One is GT Daytona, and the other is LMP2, where Masson is racing, as well as former Rolex 24 winner Ryan Dalziel, who is paired with John Farano in the No. 8 Tower Motorsports by Starworks Oreca/Gibson .
Just a week ago, the Starworks team wasn’t sure whether to race. But Farano called and said he was there, and the Florida-based team kicked into high gear to do Sebring. LMP2 has become particularly attractive to amateur drivers as IMSA now requires the team to have at least one “bronze” driver. Racers are rated by the FIA and IMSA in four categories: Platinum is the highest professional grade, with 10 of the 12 drivers in the GT Le Mans class, which is factory backed and rated platinum. Then there’s gold, then silver, then bronze, which is the rating most amateurs have. Dalziel is golden.
“In Pro-Am racing, you usually look to the Am rider to bring in the budget. It’s considered accessible funds, bonus money, fun money,” Dalziel said. “If you look back when the same thing happened to racing in 2009,” when the United States was in the throes of a recession, “the first thing was to spend on luxury items.” And for a driver Am , running is a luxury.
But Dalziel is encouraged by the number of Am riders who are hanging on. “The Am riders are going to be on the track, in IMSA, in SRO, in Trans Am; it is commendable that these guys – as much money as they lost in their personal and professional lives
…they still commit to having 15 guys on the payroll. For them, it’s a passion, not a job.
“If you look at my guy, John Farano – he has Power Events, an organizer and grandstand provider for all kinds of events including all IndyCar street courses, the Montreal Grand Prix, all Circuit of the Americas events – when you think of a guy like him, and how much business he’s lost this year, it’s perfectly understandable that he’s been slow to get into this race.
In IMSA, the DPi class, the GT Le Mans class and even the GT Daytona class may depend on funding from manufacturers and outside sponsors – in GT Daytona perhaps a manufacturer provides and pays for an affiliate driver.
But in LMP2, the funding has to come from an Am driver, who can often put his company name on the car and have his accountant list it as an advertisement. Chassis builder, Oreca, and engine maker, Gibson, have very little to sell to the public, so they’re not going to write checks to race teams. It’s almost always down to an Am driver.
“The big manufacturers, they get feedback on that,” Dalziel said. “But guys like John Farano, Cameron Cassels, [DragonSpeed Racing Am driver] Henrick Hedman—they don’t get back. It’s purely a passion, and we have to nurture that passion and make sure we’re giving them a good time, because ultimately that’s what they’re here for.
Of course, even the big manufacturers are expected to cut back on motorsport programs which for them are often seen as luxury items. Car sales in June were down 39.3% from June 2019, torpedoed by fleet sales, which absolutely fell off a cliff. According to NADA, in April, sales of new light vehicles fell 47.6%, the lowest in nearly 30 years.
How are manufacturers going to ease the pain? You can bet a lot of clenched-fisted people in corporate offices are whispering, “motorsports.” Or maybe not even whispering. Already, Porsche is blaming its cancellation of the Porsche program for two IMSA GT Le Mans cars after 2020 on the coronavirus. Like the rest of the industry, Porsche took a hit – April sales fell nearly 46%.
But, as Dalziel says, passion is what drives Am drivers, there’s a lot of passion among the executives on the boards of automakers around the world. Hope this helps compensate for the parsimonious guys sitting across from them.
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