While much of the focus on IMSA’s overall future has fixated on the new-for-2017 Prototype regulations, and to a lesser extent the new-for-2016 adaptation of FIA GT3-spec cars, what might be overlooked on the surface is the health and overall future of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
Regarded by many as one of the top sports car series in North America, the Continental Tire Challenge still features a quality racing product. But the quantity in its top class is dropping quickly, at a relatively alarming rate.
What were consistently fields of 25 to 35 cars in the GS class three to four years ago have slipped in rather drastic fashion to 11 or 12 now present in recent rounds this season.
The introduction of the new Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R ahead of 2014 appears to be the biggest tipping point, with general paddock consensus that the car opened the floodgates for a major OEM presence within both GS, and the series itself.
Furthermore, the new Ford Shelby GT350R-C that has premiered at Watkins Glen only adds to the potential arms race, as the two U.S. manufacturers have firmly established themselves as the single cars to beat in the class.
The intentions were good in both cases, and certainly the interest not just from manufacturers, but fans, has been evident.
But it has undoubtedly come with unintended consequences that pose a risk to the longer-term future of GS as it stands.
It presents a pickle for privateer team owners, long the lifeblood of the category, who either aren’t directly manufacturer-affiliated or enjoy a healthy amount of support.
Quality operations like Turner Motorsport, Compass360 Racing and Phoenix American Motorsports are but a handful of examples of teams that were present in GS just a year ago but now aren’t competing.
That’s in addition to plenty of other lesser known, but not lesser capable, privateer outfits who have sought greener pastures.
“The Continental GS class needs a very thorough looking at,” Will Turner told Sportscar365. “It’s not like it was a few years ago. Four or five years ago, car counts were big, the competition was awesome every weekend, and you were drawing teams.
“Right now, you’re not really drawing teams in, and we couldn’t build an (BMW) M4 for a reasonable amount of money without huge manufacturer help to be able to compete with new hardware.”
“In my opinion, the manufacturers have no business in GS,” added Compass360 team principal Karl Thomson. “Ideally, it should be the way Multimatic used to be, where they’d sell the cars to the customers, then move on to the next project.
“I think GS has a problem with the manufacturer pro teams. I love Scotty (Maxwell) and Billy (Johnson), but at most, lineups should have one of those guys. You scare people off with the amount of money it costs.”
Ironically, the manufacturer-supported teams might soon find themselves in a tough spot too if IMSA were to adjust anything.
Both Stevenson and Multimatic are in the series to develop these top-level cars and continue to showcase their product, with all-pro lineups.
But what they’ve been building towards could be threatened if the sanctioning body makes a move to limit the amount of speed they could produce, development they can do, or money they can spend.
By contrast, another concern within the category is the noticeable lack of pro-am lineups, with Mantella Autosport the only full-time team to commit to two pro-am entries this year.
The lack of privateer teams with pro-am lineups has the knock-on effect of limiting the opportunities for quality pros who might not otherwise have a drive this year.
To its credit, IMSA has acted to address paddock concerns before, and has already done so within the series since adding the Continental Tire Challenge to its portfolio.
An issue had arisen last year within ST, with paddock consensus that the new Porsche Cayman was undoubtedly the fastest car in class. But IMSA showcased the ability to course correct; a restrictor was placed on the car earlier this year and reined in what had been the single dominant car.
The Caymans still exist in strength in numbers, but as a part of a still healthy 25-to-30-car field.
Smaller issues in ST – which at the moment appear to be the pace of the Mazda MX-5 and the lack of front-wheel drive cars beyond the Honda Civic Si – still persist, but are not at the level of concern as is GS.
While paddock rumors have hinted of the possibility of adding a third class into the championship, or some drivers and teams hinted the series could make a more radical move to adopt the LMP3 platform into the series, IMSA confirmed to Sportscar365 at Lime Rock that neither decision will be taken.
It seems LMP3 is destined to race somewhere within the IMSA series framework, although at this stage it is unclear exactly where.
While IMSA has established GT3 as the baseline for the TUDOR Championship’s GTD category going forward from 2016, it could likely afford to establish one for GS for 2017 as well, if it’s not feasible at such a late stage for 2016.
The GT4 baseline is an accepted category around the world and as there have been some GT4-spec cars present within the Continental Tire Challenge’s GS class in the past, it would represent a logical path forward for the sanctioning body.
Consider how many classes have eroded over the years in sports car racing, where escalating costs (both operating and running) have driven teams and manufacturers out of racing.
GS isn’t to that point yet, but there’s certainly enough of an alarm bell sounding within the paddock that a course correction is needed before things could get worse.
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