RPW Column: IMSA Set For Back-To-Back Watkins Glen International Events

Column By: MARTY CZEKALA / RPW – WATKINS GLEN, NY – For the first time since COVID hit the US, IMSA is set to return to Watkins Glen International for not just one, but two races.

This Sunday the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship runs the historic Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen, the third race of the Michelin North American Endurance Cup, followed up with another date next Friday at The Glen for the WeatherTech 240. The latter, was moved to Watkins Glen as the original venue, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, couldn’t run due to the border shutdown.

For the first time since 2001, the Six Hour race will run with five classes, as an LMP3 class has joined the premier North American Sportscar championship. Last time that happened, it was Grand-Am that was sanctioning both Watkins Glen events at the time.

40 teams will take the green on Sunday, let’s take a look at what to watch for these next few weeks.

DPi: Mazda vs Acura, Ally Cadillac an underdog?

The last time IMSA was in Watkins Glen, Mazda had a day they will never forget.

As a two-car team back then, their #55 driven by Jonathan Bomarito, Harry Tincknell, and Olivier Pla went to victory lane for the first time in IMSA DPi competition. Not only was it their first win, it was a 1-2 finish as the sister #77 car driven by Oliver Jarvis, Tristan Nunez, and Timo Bernhard finished 2nd.

This season, Mazda has moved to a one-car team as the #55 with Jarvis and Tincknell driving full time, and Bomarito driving in the endurance races. They haven’t won yet in IMSA competition, but they’ve been duking at it with the Wayne Taylor Racing team in the endurance races this season.

Switching over from Cadillac last year, the WTR Konica Minolta #10 Acura has been on a roll this season with two wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and a sprint race at Mid-Ohio. In the Rolex 24, the WTR Acura and Mazda had a great battle for the lead in most of the 24 hours along with the #01 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac. In the end, the Acura got it done and beat Mazda by two positions. At the 12 Hours of Sebring this season, Mazda finished 2nd while the Konica Minolta team placed 4th.

“Wayne Taylor, you’ve got to give him credit. They do a phenomenal job, even when they don’t have the fastest car, they pull results out,” Jarvis said to RPW. “I think they’re going to be hard to beat at every track we go to. But we also know we’ve got the capabilities. We’ve got a fantastic team behind us, great car. It’s just going to be about maximizing results and maximizing potential you have every given weekend. One thing for sure you can’t afford to make many mistakes in this championship. The competition is so high. You need to be on or around the podium at every race we go to.”

Preparation for this race has varied a lot. Prior the race weekend, some of the DPi teams took part in a test session at Watkins Glen. The WTR Acura and the Meyer Shank Racing Acura were the notable names that took part. Mazda wasn’t. However, there has been a lot of simulator work this week to get ready for the weekend.

“We put a lot of sim work in,” Jarvis said. Correlate, and keep developing before the race weekend. I think the difference now is the sim work is going to be more important because you don’t have that real life data or experience to fall back on. In IMSA, we’re limited on the number of test days. Also, we have to decide where to put our resources. You can’t test at every track. We decided not to do this one”

“We still have a lot of work to do in a very limited amount of time,” Bomarito explained to RPW. “There’s only two one-hour practice sessions before qualifying and with three drivers, its actually very little practice…We need to stay focused and continue on making the car better every step of the way.”

Another story to watch out for is the all-star Ally Cadillac Racing #48 team of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, and 2x FIA World Endurance Champion Kamui Kobayashi. The team only races in the endurance events and have put up impressive results this SEASON. At Daytona, the team finished 2nd in class, while at Sebring, they crossed the finished line in 3rd, but due to going over a drive time restrictions, they were relegated to 7th.

LMP2: PR1 Mathiasen have the race circled on the calendar, fight vs Era in standings

In one of the smaller classes of the championship, the #52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca team has got some big motivation entering the Glen weekend. Not only is the team coming off a win at Sebring, but they are also the last in LMP2 to win at The Glen. The roster has been reshuffled since 2019 when Matt McMurray, Gabriel Aubry, and Eric Lux raced. This season, they’re led by sportscar veteran and car dealership owner Ben Keating, and new comers to Watkins Glen Mikkel Jensen and Scott Huffaker.

The latter young two have been prepping a lot through iRacing, racing together in the same car to prep for the weekend.

“Over the years, I’ve done many laps here [on iRacing]. It’s not that the track is unfamiliar, but when you get there in person, the sightings are different. You notice elevation much more,” Huffaker said

“I’ve done some sim and also heard some stuff from Scott. The bus stop in the sim looks like the Daytona bus stop, but the kurbs are way higher and are harder to manage. It’s definitely a challenge I look forward to. With all the high speed, it’s a high-risk track, but you have to manage yourself to not take any risks,” Jensen said.

Huffaker last week, took an LMP3 car to test at Watkins Glen and Keating was thrilled to hear that.

“As a group of drivers and team, I have a ton of confidence. We have a great group of drivers, the team is a great team. They know the car at this track. As an organization, we’ll come to the track with all the right tools to do well,” Keating exclaimed. But the fact is that we have two one-hour practice sessions and none of us have driven this car at this track. You’ve got three drivers having to get comfortable. To me, that seems like a tall order. I know that there are other LMP2 that have been there, practicing on the track, or the team has a lot of experience. That makes it a little more risky.”

Keating has never won at Watkins Glen, but has won at Daytona and Sebring. What would a Glen win mean?

“It would be awesome. I’ve had lots of crazy experiences at Watkins Glen. It’s a track that I love. It’s a great track. I love the city of Watkins Glen. It’s up there at the top, and for me I love endurance racing. The longer the race, the better,” said Keating.

Their main opponents will be the Era Motorsport #18 Oreca driven by Ryan Dalziel, Dwight Merriman, and Kyle Tilley. They’re off to a great start in the endurance races, coming off a win at the Rolex 24 and a runner-up in Sebring, as Dalziel but battling Jensen in the final minutes at Sebring. The gap in the Michelin Endurance Cup standings is only a single marker, but they are in second and third, and the #8 Tower Motorsport team leads the way with 26 points. Era is two back.

LMP3: Riley and CORE the soul of the class

In a new class for 2021, the LMP3 class is similar to the Prototype Challenge class used in recent years. Eight teams are in the running for this event and the #74 Riley Motorsports Ligier have been kicking rear end this season.

Drivers Gar Robinson, Scott Andrews, Spencer Pigot, and Felipe Fraga have competed in multiple races for Bob Riley’s team this year and have been going on the ride of their lives. Winning the Rolex 24 in class, and coming off a win at Mid-Ohio with Fraga and Robinson behind the wheel, expect them to be favorites in this race. The team also leads the Endurance Cup standings, being out front for most of the milestone hours on the clock.

But be careful of the CORE Autosport Ligier team. Jon Bennett, Colin Braun, and George Kurtz battled to a win in the 12 Hours of Sebring. As the Rolex 24 event was non-points, they caught a break finishing 5th. Winning Sebring helped out, but they finished 4th at Mid-Ohio while Riley won to put them 25 points behind Riley early in the year.

GTLM: With no factory Porsche team, Corvette Racing could take the class over

While the dwindling of teams in GTLM such as factory Ford and Porsche teams leaving in recent years, the racing hasn’t stopped getting less intense.

And you could easily see it at Sebring in the final minutes. Between WeatherTech Racing Porsche and BMW Team Rahal Lanigan Letterman.

However, the main team to watch out for is the Corvette Racing team, but they have been half and half in endurance races this season. While the team had a 1-2 in class at the Rolex 24, it wasn’t as good in Sebring taking 4-5 which has definitely slowed them down.

However, they will be a team to watch out for. Starting off with the #4 Corvette of Nick Tandy/Tommy Milner. Not only did they win a non-points race a couple of weeks ago at Belle Isle, Nick Tandy is a defending winner of this event, driving for the factory Porsche in 2019. Now moving to Corvette this season, the Tandy and Milner combination has worked well, picking up a win in the Rolex 24 qualifying event.

“My confidence level is growing all the time with each day I spend with the team and each race I do in the car,” Tandy said on a Zoom call with IMSA media this week. “As for Watkins Glen…I remember the last time we were there. It basically came down to a fight with my car and this other chap (Antonio Garcia, also in the call) that is next to me in the video in a yellow Corvette! I’m king of hoping it will come down to that again in the next race, but this time it is the two Corvettes out front fighting it out for the last couple of hours.”

Garcia and his teammate Jordan Taylor had a great start down in Daytona, starting on the GT front row and then winning the Rolex 24. Antonio has won historic endurance races from Daytona to Sebring, even the Super Bowl of endurance racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. On what a Six-Hour race win would mean to him? Here’s what Garcia said.

“The Glen is one of my favorite events since I discovered it back in 2006…The whole atmosphere with all the race fans around the area is really, really good. So hopefully we have a really good crowd over there. And it is going to be nice during the races this year just to have more and more crowds and get more involvement between us drivers and the fans. I think we are going in the right direction so looking forward to this weekend for sure.”

GTD: Battle intense for points lead include BMW, Aston Martin, and two Porsches

In the final minutes of the Six Hours in 2019, veteran Bill Auberlen in the Turner Motorsport BMW came oh so close to winning, but fell to the Meyer Shank Racing Acura GTD.

Auberlen, who has the most wins in IMSA history, enters Watkins Glen weekend with Turner as the team points leader by just seven over the Heart of Racing team Aston Martin, but it has been the endurance races they would like to forget, with a 6th and 8th at Daytona and Sebring respectively.

Leading the Endurance Cup standings in GTD is the Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 team. They have a win at Sebring this season, but a 12th place finish at Daytona.

But could the Wright Motorsports team be the ones to watch out for?

Of the GTD teams competing full time on the tour, Wright Motorsports’ #16 Porsche 911 team has the best average finish of the endurance races this year, with a 4th at the Rolex 24 and 2nd at Sebring. As they come into Watkins Glen this weekend, the team enters Patrick Long, Jan Heylen, and Trent Hindman.

Hindman may be the one to keep eyes on closely as he won with the MSR Acura team last year at The Glen and this is a home race for him, being from West Long Branch, New Jersey.

“I remember how strong we had to be on the day in terms of pace. Six hour races are long enough to where you can get unique and tricky with your strategy, but it’s also short enough to where if you get too far outside the box, it’s going to penalize you and penalize you quick,” Hindman told RPW. “I think that’s where the Wright Motorsports squad looks pretty good. The Porsche generally, at least competing against it two years ago back when I was in the NSX, it was a hard car to beat. I’m looking forward to driving it this time, and always seems to be a contender around Watkins Glen.”

Sprint racing returning to the Glen next week

A sprint race on the IMSA schedule returns to Watkins Glen International for the first time since 2012. Last time when Grand-Am sanctioned this event, before the merging of Grand-Am and American Le Mans Series, Ryan Dalziel and Lucas Luhr won for Starworks Motorsport in the DP category while Bill Auberlen, Paul Dalla Lana, and Billy Johnson won in GT. The race will take in the sunset hours of the race like it has in the previous two hour races Grand-Am on, this time increased to two hours and 40 minutes.

The Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen gets the green flag on Sunday morning at 10:40am ET. Live TV coverage can be found on NBC Sports Gold Trackpass.

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