Rolex 24 marks the rebirth of sports car racing in the United States


At their peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the International Motor Sports Association’s Grand Touring Prototype machines gave IndyCar absolute fits. The Andrettis were there, Mario and Michael, as were AJ Foyt and Bobby Rahal and Martin Brundle – and the fans flocked.

IMSA is poised to scare Indy again, starting with this weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona sportscar race with a fresh and electrified take on some of the fastest and most imaginative racing cars this country has seen.

Four decades ago, the automakers of GTP, rich in car companies investing tens of millions of dollars a year in fierce track wars, brought some of the wildest machines to America’s city streets and classic street courses for our vehicular entertainment. Like alien spaceships that have fallen to earth, GTP cars looked and sounded unlike anything else racing had to offer.

Yes, IndyCar has attracted more attention with its world famous Indianapolis 500, and NASCAR‘s Daytona 500 was an undeniable powerhouse, but if you were looking to party and loved wickedly combative sports cars, GTP had you covered. And the fans responded duly, making IMSA a sporting event almost as popular as IndyCar – the country’s longtime favorite – and a far cry from NASCAR, then a regional delicacy not quite ready for prime time.

At its peak, GTP gave us Chevrolet vs Porsche vs Nissan vs Mazda vs Toyota vs Jaguar in a 200-mile sports car cage match. Races were held live on ESPN and to packed grandstands, while the IMSA GTP Tour spanned from California to Connecticut each season. And then, as amazing things often do, GTP couldn’t carry the weight of its success and came to a crashing end.

For the larger GTP manufacturers, the increasing costs to remain competitive became prohibitive. Before its closure, the Nissan GTP factory team on the outskirts of Los Angeles employed more people on its IMSA program than Ferrari, McLaren and Williams formula One teams combined. In its era, IMSA was a monster, but coupled with the increasing budgets needed to stay competitive, it was toppled by a financial recession hitting at the same time. At the end of 1993 the lights went out at GTP.

Thankfully, the story has an interesting way of reinventing itself.

Thirty years after the original GTP cars fell silent, IMSA is poised to revisit its iconic class with a twist that offers modern relevance to its interested auto industry members. In 2021 it was announced that GTP would return with hybrid powered machines combining the latest EV battery technologies with purebred internal combustion engines.

All the key styling cues inherited from the GTP manufacturers’ road cars have been carried over to the nose and flanks of the 670hp hybrid prototypes. Given the numerous opportunities to incorporate their showroom ideologies into the hearts and looks of the GTP cars, the response has been phenomenal.

The new GTP formula strikes the perfect tone with automakers and is packed with automotive heavyweights set to start the fight anew as Honda with its Acura line, BMW, General Motors with its Cadillac brand and Porsche poised Saturday and Sunday looking to race his win and the publicity rights that come with winning the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Then it’s on to 10 more stops on the domestic tour, which runs through October, with Cadillac and Porsche making a detour to France in June for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Their respective GTP models will be joined by Lamborghini next year, and in 2025 McLaren Automotive is expected to bring IMSA’s number of GTP manufacturers to half a dozen. Look over to IndyCar, which has stuck with two manufacturers for a decade, and NASCAR, with the same three brands it’s had for 10 years, and GTP’s tech-friendly rulebook clearly has American, German, Japanese, Italian and English attention Brands attracted .

A start this weekend at the famous Daytona International Speedway Roval with the legendary and grueling 24 hour race of survival is where the revival of the new era is taking place and so far it has the look and feel of GTP’s before Even.

“It’s like the beginning of the GTP era, but we’re at the dawn of another golden era for sports car racing,” NASCAR and IMSA Chairman Jim France, whose father Bill France founded both series, told ESPN. “The team and driver competition that we are going to have is just fantastic. We’ve had great races, but it’s been a long time since so many big teams, cars and manufacturers have competed against each other at the same time. And if everyone we think will be here shows up in the next two years, it will be even bigger.”

For France, the names involved in today’s hybrid GTP cars read like an all-star list of North America’s biggest contenders. Half of full-time IndyCar team owners share their time with GTP, including IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske with the Porsche Penske Motorsport organization.

Michael Andretti – who continues to do it trace a path into F1 with Cadillac — brought his team Andretti Autosport together with Wayne Taylor Racing. Mike Shank and Jim Meyer, winner of the 2021 Indianapolis 500 and the last champion in GTP’s predecessor, IMSA’s DPi class, are taking part. So did Chip Ganassi Racing, winners of the Indy 500 last May. And three-time IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal and team co-owners David Letterman and Mike Lanigan.

With the revival of GTP, a more meaningful connection was also made with France and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s greatest motor race. Long before the PGA and LIV Golf were heated rivals, IMSA and the creators behind the major endurance event were acting like a long-married couple in the throes of a divorce. Le Mans had banned IMSA’s DPi cars from participating, but both sides finally managed to agree on a common set of rules that would allow GTPs to race at the Circuit de la Sarthe and the FIA’s equivalent – World Endurance Championship – their hypercar prototypes – – green light for IMSA races.

Coupled with IMSA’s familiar North American calendar, the newly opened doors to the battle for overall victory at Le Mans made a world of difference for GTP competitors and manufacturers.

“(Cadillac are) interested in all races, but when you add Le Mans into the equation, they mentioned that in the first two or three sentences of the meeting, I can tell you that,” Ganassi said. “While the eye is also on that prize, there are plenty of races before that including (Daytona) that we want to win.”

Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves, a four-time Indy 500 winner, is a veteran of top-flight prototype racing, having competed for Team Penske and Porsche in the 2000s and more recently for Penske, where he won the 2019 DPi Championship in a Acura and won again last season with Meyer Shank in DPi. Count Castroneves among the many cheering on the hybrid GTP cars to conjure up some of the old GTP magic.

“They still have an internal combustion engine, but the cars integrate all the new technology, so people are curious,” said Castroneves, whose Acura ARX-06 will start from pole at Daytona. “And the design of the cars… come on. They are sexy machines. You look amazing. And they’re fast, and that’s why I love it. We can race the hypercars if we go there and they can come to us and race here. I’m telling you, you’re saying this is going to be a golden era, a platinum era, or something great like that, and I really believe it will be. These are amazing times at IMSA.”

There is a gold rush to compete in GTP with major manufacturers, and in the years to come, GTP’s original heyday may become indistinguishable from its hybrid descendants. Toppling NASCAR on the popularity front isn’t realistic, but with all the energy and manufacturer buy-in surrounding IMSA, IndyCar has real cause for concern.

“The real icing on the cake was the new rules and all the excitement that comes with what they’re doing with them,” Andretti said. “The future of this series looks so bright.”





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