The acceptance of GT4-homologated machinery has sparked a renaissance in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge GS class, to the delight of team owners and drivers.
A season removed from seeing car counts drop into the single digits in the once massively popular class, new GT4-based cars from Porsche, Ford, McLaren and soon the Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R, have poured into the championship, with 17 cars entered for this weekend’s round at Sebring and full-season entries expected to be in the teens.
While still a far cry from car counts that soared into the 30s in the halcyon days of the series in the late-2000’s, the strong year-on-year resurgence in GS seems to point toward a bright future.
The prevailing feeling in the paddock is that the growth can be largely attributed to IMSA’s decision to embrace the SRO’s GT4 platform.
Karl Thomson’s C360R team has been a part of the series as an entrant for over a decade and is fielding a pair of McLaren 570S GT4 cars this weekend at Sebring.
“This is our 14th straight year in the series, and we traditionally built our own cars,” Thomson told Sportscar365. “The guys usually spend the offseason building cars and then we’d go testing.
“And the factory couldn’t tell us how to defeat all of the things that we needed to defeat, we had to figure out how to do it ourselves. Which is fine, but it takes time and it takes money.
“[With GT4] the factory can turn around and say: We can do all of this, and we’ll sell you a car. The reality is, we were able to purchase McLarens to run in GS for pretty much what I have in the ST cars.
“This is where GT4 is interesting, because the factory basically builds the car, sells it to you, and provides support. So it’s a completely different relationship with the factory [than it used to be].
“They are actually bringing people to the track, helping teams out, providing technical support, where traditionally in this kind of racing you didn’t have that.”
According to Ford Performance global director Dave Pericak, the desire from potential customers for manufacturer support is what led the American manufacturer to pursue a GT4 Mustang.
“We had a lot of customers contact us when we were running the GT350 R-C just saying, ‘I want one, I want one, I want one!’” Pericak told Sportscar365.
“It was obviously a great car, it won the championship and all of that, but we wanted to take it to the next level. We had so many customers asking us, so we knew the demand was out there.
“It was great for the brand, not just Mustang obviously but the Ford brand, to have a global presence like that. So we said: ‘Let’s do it.’ Why wouldn’t we when we had so many people asking us?”
While the new-for-2017 Mustang is still awaiting final SRO GT4 homologation, which is expected next month, the two cars that competed at Daytona were “very, very close” to the final homologation, according to Pericak.
With rising costs and questions over driver ratings causing some gentlemen drivers to look beyond the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT Daytona class, TRG team owner Kevin Buckler said he’s seen a trickle down effect that could benefit the series.
Buckler has entered an Aston Martin Vantage GT4, which previously ran in the class in a different configuration, under GS homologation.
“What we have been seeing is Continental Challenge is becoming the Grand-Am GT of old,” said Buckler, who entered cars in both categories at Daytona. “The racing is great, the pit stops, it’s solid.
“There’s multiple manufacturers. We have been out of the class for a couple of years, we’re going to jump back in now and run a solid program.
“For the gentleman driver who has budget and is a good, solid driver, it’s a good place to be without breaking the bank.”
C360R’s Thomson also sees the driver base, particularly gentlemen drivers, evolving due to rising costs and increased factory involvement in the top series.
“Everything in the sport is more expensive, but if I look over in the GTD paddock, I see more and more factory involvement, factory supported teams. That means less gentlemen drivers,” he said.
“It used to be all gentlemen. So the great thing for us, I say, is where are the gentlemen going to go? They’re going to come here. It used to be, most of the cars in the paddock weren’t all that sexy.
“Now, we have a McLaren. And all of the guys who were going to go and run GTD and now are saying, ‘There isn’t a place for me,’ are going to come here, so it’s a great opportunity.”
James Sofronas and his GMG team contested the opening round at Daytona, and while his team has no further announced plans in the series, the longtime owner/driver was effusive with his praise of the GT4 concept and the decision to include it in Continental Tire Challenge.
“I love the GT4 platform,” he said. “I can tell you right now, it’s the future of sports car racing.
“This field will double by 2018. We have six [Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport] MR’s in the shop, another one coming, so we believe in the GT4 platform for many reasons, mainly the economical standpoint.
“The price of entry is reasonable compared to GT3 and where it’s gone, but it’s a great stepping stone for these guys who want to get into GT3 racing.”