Find a photo of a first-generation Daytona prototype, circa 2003-07, of what was then called the Grand Am Rolex sports car series. Now place it next to a photo of a current IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Daytona Prototype International (DPi) competitor – or better yet, one of next year’s LMDh prototypes being tested for what promises to be a landmark 2023 season for sports car racing around the world.

The briefest glimpse of these side-by-side images quickly illustrates how high-level sports car racing in America has come in the past 20 years. It’s a stunning transformation, one that has not only produced exciting, attractive and modern racing cars, but also a sea change in philosophy as to where IMSA fits in the global sports car hierarchy.

Jan Magnussen’s Pontiac Riley in front of Memo Rojas’ Lexus Riley from 2007 illustrates the first generation Daytona prototypes. Denis Tanney / Motorsports Images

Those early DPs were shocking—a rudimentary, technically simplistic tube-frame chassis with pushrod V8 engines that sounded more NASCAR than a sports car. With a comically large greenhouse (safety first, it was said), early DPs looked like a child-scribbled Porsche 956.

The Grand Am mindset was also shocking, particularly because American sports car racing was in the midst of a “split” between Grand Am and the American Le Mans Series that had the potential to be everything. as damaging as the schism in IndyCar racing between CART/Champ Car and the Indy Racing League. It was easy to draw parallels between Grand Am and IRL, both of which tried to cut costs by imposing low-tech, budget-conscious cars that were an insult to the sophisticated, graceful machines that came before them.

But this mindset has gradually changed over the years. Daytona prototypes became slightly more attractive, with new generations rolled out in 2008 and 2012. Grand Am absorbed ALMS at the end of the 2013 season, reuniting under the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship banner; and after three years with third generation DPs serving as the top class, the DPi formula that debuted in 2017 has not only restored a much higher level of technology to American sports car racing, but it has significantly strengthened the credibility of IMSA with the FIA ​​and the World Endurance Championship. .

The importance of DPi to the growth and future momentum of IMSA cannot be overstated. By pairing homologated LMP2 chassis with unique OEM-affiliated engines and bodywork, IMSA has created a formula that produces cars that are safe, attractive and (relatively) profitable.

DPi offered great diversity, with four-, six- and eight-cylinder competitors, and the on-track product was close and competitive, thanks to the effective use of the Balance of Performance philosophy that is now commonplace in sports and racing cars. other major forms. motorsport – including NASCAR.

Certainly, many people lamented the “NASCAR-ification” of sports car racing when the Grand Am entered the scene. After all, Jim France is credited as the founder of the series and operates under the NASCAR umbrella.

Turns out that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Following the American sports car merger, NASCAR ownership provided financial and organizational stability to the combined WeatherTech championship, and the creation of the DPi formula appeased fans and manufacturers who longed for the more advanced prototypes taken on board. charge by ALMS era factory.

DPi’s six-year run has resulted in three championships each for Cadillac and Acura, as well as race-winning programs from Nissan and Mazda. It also coincided with a concentrated effort between IMSA, FIA and ACO to work together more harmoniously to unify and strengthen sports car racing globally.

The DPi era brought a variety of more graceful, factory-supported sports machine prototypes back to North America. Michael Levitt / Motorsport Pictures

With this in mind, when IMSA began planning the next generation of its high-end prototype to replace DPi, it was done with the intention of finding a way for its manufacturers and teams to take these cars to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other FIA World Endurance Championship Races and competition for overall victory. Just as importantly, this crossover would work both ways, leveling cars built to the FIA’s “Hypercar” specification to compete with new IMSA cars through a jointly developed common gearbox and hybrid system.

That’s what sports car fans will have to look forward to in the future: IMSA’s new GTP category makes its local LMDh prototypes of Cadillac, Porsche, Acura, BMW and (in 2024) Lamborghini eligible, as well as the WEC hypercars of Toyota, Peugeot. , and Ferrari. The first major convergence will take place at Le Mans, where the 100th anniversary of the first 24 Hours will be celebrated.

Going back to where we started, put a picture of a 2023 IMSA LMDh next to a picture of a WEC Hypercar, and they both look sleek, modern and exciting, full of today’s cutting-edge technology. , relevant and hidden under the skin. The visual comparison with a square prototype of the 2003 Grand Am Daytona is mind-boggling.

Cadillac’s V-LMDh is part of IMSA’s next generation that builds on the framework created by DPi cars. Photo courtesy of Cadillac Racing.

It’s another way of visually demonstrating how far IMSA has come – not just in terms of how much more it embraces a world view in terms of the relationship between technology and sports car racing, but also in how American sports car racing commands far more respect internationally than it ever had in the past.

The DPi will race once more next weekend during the 25th edition of the Motul Petit Le Mans at the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. They will undoubtedly put on a great show, but for IMSA – and for sports car racing fans everywhere – the best is yet to come.

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