IMSA is struggling to attract and keep American drivers in the top flight

  • IMSA President John Doonan says GTP manufacturers tell him they want to hire American drivers, but where are those drivers supposed to come from?
  • Being ousted by drivers training in Europe is a problem for those currently trying to work their way up through IMSA.
  • However, an American series would do well to have more American drivers if it wants to use the new GTP era to grow its fan base, a fact Doonan has recognised.

    Sometimes it’s good to have a deep bench.

    Just when it looked like IMSA would usher in its long-awaited new GTP era with just two American drivers at the wheel for the entire season at this weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24, Meyer Shank Racing w/Curb Agajanian dove into the LMP3 of the Sanctions Agency entered a category to hire Texas native Colin Braun as a passenger Acura ARX-06.

    Veteran Braun will partner last year’s DPi Champion and British-born Tom Blomqvist at the WeatherTech Championship.

    Colin Braun is one of only three full-time American drivers in the GTP field for 2023.

    Brian ClearyGetty Images

    Braun joins prototype rookie and California native Connor De Phillippi in driving one bmw M Hybrid V-8 at RLL Racing and Floridian Ricky Taylor, the longest-serving IMSA prototype driver, as one of three Americans at the helm. Taylor will be driving his father Wayne Taylor’s Acura ARX-06 entry.

    Braun, De Phillippi and Taylor are the only three American full-season drivers out of 18 regular drivers GTP class.

    The field is admittedly getting a little deeper with American flair for the Rolex 24, American-born driver Dane Cameron (Porsche Penske Motorsport) and Colton Herta (BMW M Team RLL) are on board as part-time drivers to support their teams in the 24-hour endurance test.

    So why a shortage of full-time American staff in IMSA’s top GTP prototype class?

    In the global meritocracy of sports car racing, drivers from Europe, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand are considered the best candidates to win races. Cadillac, the only American manufacturer to compete in GTP, has no American among its nine drivers for three Rolex 24 entries, including a V-LMDh who will spend the season in the World Endurance Championship.

    3 corvette races, corvette c8r gtd, gtd per jordan taylor

    Ricky Taylor, 33, is the longest-serving driver in the ranks of IMSA’s prototypes.

    IMSA photo

    IMSA fans have long enjoyed the international driver mix, which not only brings flair but also significantly enhances the talent pool. And IMSA is happy to promote the Internationale, which can be found in its full name.

    However, an American series would do well to have more American drivers if it wants to use the new GTP era to grow its fan base, a fact recognized by IMSA President John Doonan.

    “I can tell you we will be doing more of this over the coming weeks and months to ensure young talent, even in the karting ranks and in grassroots club racing, understand what’s available up front,” said Doonan. “You can look at the list of drivers who have turned sports car racing into sustainable careers and it’s possible for those drivers. It is up to us to make that clear.”

    Doonan said GTP manufacturers tell him they want to hire American drivers, but where are those drivers supposed to come from?

    The two currently best candidates are committed elsewhere. Taylor’s younger brother Jordan, a platinum certified driver, is signed to Corvette Racing GTD Pro category. The most talked about young American in sportscar racing, teenager Josh Pierson is already preparing to transition from a sportscar path to Indy Cars with team owner Ed Carpenter after competing in the LMP2 ranks in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship impressed.

    25 bmw m team rll, bmw m hybrid v8, gtp connor de phillippi

    Californian Connor De Phillippi drives a BMW M Hybrid V-8 for RLL Racing.

    IMSA photo

    Another promising teenager, North Carolina native Connor Zilisch, 2022 MX-5 Cup Rookie of the Year, is planning a part-season in the TA2 category of the Trans-Am Series to try his hand at higher horsepower. Will that lead him to IndyCar as well?

    This is a double-edged sword for IMSA when it comes to American drivers in its premier class. Young Americans are always drawn to the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500. Drivers training for Formula 1 in Europe and not making it that far often find their way into IMSA with better preparation to race at the front.

    It’s an old saw, but having matured through several seasons in Europe sometimes results in the best road racing results. There are three Brazilians who will pilot GTPs during the 2023 WeatherTech season – Filipe Nasr (Porsche), Pipo Derani (Cadillac) and Augusto Farfus (BMW). Both spent formative years in Europe. Australian Matt Campbell, who will drive a Porsche 963, has moved to Europe after driving Porsches in Australia. As a works driver he moved up to GTP from a championship season in GTD Pro last season with Pfaff Motorsports.

    De Fillippi followed a similar course. After giving up his single-seater career to pursue GT cars, he received training on the European approach by competing in Porsches in Germany before coming home to IMSA and signing with BMW to become their GT entrant to go. His RLL Racing teammate, John Edwards, rose through the IMSA ranks but failed to get the prototype job in the new M Hybrid V8 despite a platinum rating. For his part, Taylor “studyed” under the always aggressive Italian Max “The Axe” Angelelli on his father’s IMSA team en route to a highly successful prototype career.

    imsa president john doonan

    IMSA President John Doonan makes no bones about the fact that the series could benefit from more American drivers.

    IMSA photo

    Braun has benefited from the aggressive driving required at the top of Jack Roush’s three seasons of NASCAR participation, where he achieved a Truck Series win. His 20 wins and three championships since returning to road racing as a professional driver with Core Autosport with gentleman co-driver Jon Bennett are a testament to the close quarters training at 200mph among drivers trying to make it into the Cup Series create. His wins at CORE came in PC, LMP2 and LMP3.

    Braun’s first Daytona prototype wins, now 34 years old, came at age 17. Testing the Acura ARX-06, Braun quickly delivered lap times that exceeded expectations aboard Acura’s new hybrid.

    “It was kind of like the pressure of the situations I was used to in my career, given the different opportunities that were available,” said Braun. He first worked with Michael Shank at the age of 25 on a one off ride. His oval experience at NASCAR and his prototype background made him the perfect candidate to set a record 222.971 mph lap at Daytona aboard Shanks Ford-Riley in 2013.

    It’s not just speed that counts, but aggression. If American drivers are counting on a route to the top by competing in IMSA, that may not be enough.

    Being ousted by drivers training in Europe is a problem for those currently trying to work their way up through IMSA. Riley Dickinson, 20, is a Texan enrolled in the Porsche Cars North America junior program. He scored his maiden Porsche Carrera Cup North America win at Indy last summer and is keenly aware of the opportunities GTP offers where Porsche will be a mainstay with factory entries and customer cars.

    But will he manage to climb the ladder?

    Dickinson was invited to a Porsche Supercup race at Silverstone last year as part of his training in the junior program. “It was the first time I could see this driving style up close,” he said. “I had an idea of ​​what to expect in terms of the level of aggression. When you got into the fight, it was way beyond what I was used to.”

    “It’s a real phenomenon,” he continued. “You see there are so many European drivers coming into the American market and there really aren’t that many American drivers outside of NASCAR.”

    With 61 career wins in prototype and GT cars, Bill Auberlen is IMSA’s most successful driver. He believes preference for European drivers is often a matter of perception, citing current Porsche Penske Motorsport driver Dane Cameron, who will drive a Porsche 963 in the World Endurance Championship this year, and IndyCar driver Colton Herta , who is being touted as America’s top Formula 1 prospect. As the third driver for the 24 Hours, they will be the only other Americans behind the wheel of a GTP at Daytona. Cameron will drive the #7 Porsche 963. Herta should drive both BMWs.

    “Dane Cameron and Colton Herta can take on any European.”

    “Dane Cameron and Colton Herta can compete with any European,” said Auberlen, who will drive for Turner Motorsport GTD. “But there aren’t as many Americans in sports car racing as I’d like to see.”

    It’s also about numbers, said Auberlen. “Sports car races are so accepted in Europe and the entire maintenance process and the number of training sessions and participants are at a very high level. There are a lot of people competing in Europe. Also think about the cars that are here – BMW, Porsche, Lamborghini, Mercedes, these are all European companies based there. The entire foundation is based in Europe. So there is a preference for Europeans.”


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