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Michelin IMSA Insider: Back in Belle Isle

How a meeting at Detroit was the impetus for Michelin becoming the Official Tire of IMSA…

Photo: Mike Levitt/IMSA

At just 100 minutes, the temporary race circuit on Belle Isle is one the two shortest duration events (Long Beach) on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule.

Since neither event was held in 2020, this will be the first IMSA street race since Detroit on June 1, 2019, more than 24 months ago.

The Chevrolet Sports Car Classic on Belle Isle will be just the second Detroit race for Michelin as the official tire of IMSA, but the event marks a quiet and, until now, unknown milestone.

Michelin had been an early and strong supporter of the American Le Mans Series, but beginning in 2014 was shutout of all but the open tire GTLM class following the merger of the ALMS and Grand-Am series and NASCAR’s acquisition of IMSA.

The GTLM class, the only IMSA class in which Michelin was then permitted, was not on the Detroit race schedule as the traditional early June official test day at Le Mans conflicted with the Detroit date.

As a result, there were no Michelin cars in the field when IMSA raced on Belle Isle, but in 2016, away from the track, the first seeds of a future change were being sown.

It was five years ago, during the 2016 Detroit race week, that a key Michelin executive hosted a private dinner at the Rattlesnake Club along the Detroit Riverfront and opened discussions about the possibly of a higher profile role for Michelin in IMSA.

“It was rather strange to be at a race in Detroit, within sight of the General Motors headquarters, and not have a single Michelin fitted car in the field,” said the recently retired Michelin executive.

There were no formal presentations or discussions that evening — simply relationship building — and candid conversations about the sport, the series, and the increasing number of car makers and brands preparing to enter IMSA competition which was raising technical expectations.

Through the years, Michelin had developed LMP1 tires that often triple, and quadruple stinted at Le Mans, with double and even triple stints in the GTE-Pro class.

The company had developed tall tires, ultra-wide tires, “street soft” tires, and even tires for the radical DeltaWing.

IMSA execs were well aware of Michelin’s success in open-tire competition at Le Mans and the stunning overall race win in wet conditions by a Michelin fitted Porsche GTLM entry at the 2015 Petit Le Mans was still fresh.

Porsche, Toyota, and Audi had all chosen Michelin for their factory Le Mans Prototype teams. BMW, Chevrolet Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari, and the exciting new Ford GT entries were all Michelin runners in the factory dominated GTLM competition.

Several months later, IMSA began the process of inviting proposals for its next tire contract which would begin in January 2019.

That January, Michelin debuted as the official tire of IMSA. Since then, there have been 146 new IMSA qualifying or race laps records.

And when the WeatherTech Championship field rolls out to start this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, with General Motors headquarters clearly visible in the background, all cars will be wearing Michelin Pilot tires as will the Corvette C8 pace car and the Cadillac Blackwing staged nearby.

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