With a noticeable decrease in entries and changes to the driver rating regulations, a number of standout drivers from the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship are facing the possibility of being on the sidelines in 2015.
In fact, no fewer than a dozen drivers that finished within the top-10 in their respective championships in 2014 are still searching for rides next year, in what’s arguably been one of the most challenging off seasons for some.
The dominos began to fall immediately after the season-ending Petit Le Mans, when Chrysler axed its factory Dodge Viper GTS-R program, Dempsey Racing closed its doors and others such as OAK Racing and Turner Motorsport taking their programs elsewhere.
With the fate of other top-level operations such as Flying Lizard Motorsports and AIM Autosport still yet to decided, and a reduced number of gentlemen drivers in the Pro-Am classes, it’s left far fewer opportunities for professional or even semi-pro drivers in the series.
“Most of the drivers I know are still searching for rides and we are all battling with one another for the few that are left,” said Dion von Moltke. “This offseason, I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever before because if you are not putting in that effort you are not even close to getting a ride this coming season.”
Von Moltke, a former Daytona and Sebring class winner who has spent the last two years with Flying Lizard Motorsports, said he’s found far less opportunities, largely down to the lack of sponsorship and/or driver funding in the Pro-Am classes.
“Most teams are looking for funding,” he said. “There is a shortage of the gentleman drivers in our sport, mostly because the costs of running these cars have skyrocketed in the last year.
“Gentlemen drivers just don’t want to spend that type of money for what they are getting in return, and we as a sport have to figure this out.”
A number of teams, primarily in the GT Daytona class, having faced up to a 50 percent increase in operating costs compared to previous years.
It’s led to a significant reduction in full-season entries for next year, with only eight GTD cars confirmed so far, out of the 24 entries from the start of the 2014 season.
“I think GTD is particularly challenging right now, probably because it has seen the most dramatic decrease in entries from just one year ago,” said Jeff Segal. “But with a bit of stability in the regulations moving forward, the class can and will flourish again.”
Segal, a three-time GRAND-AM champion and class winner of this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, spent the majority of the season on the sidelines due to his Gold rating by IMSA and could face the same situation again.
“The frustrating part is that there are also plenty of teams who already have the necessary funding in place, but under the current driver rating regulations, they are prevented from hiring their preferred driver,” he said.
“I think a drivers’ resume is becoming a lot less important than the rating that they are dealt… and unfortunately the rating can sometimes seem a bit arbitrary and often isn’t representative of a drivers’ past accomplishments.”
In addition to Segal, IMSA rising star Sean Rayhall has been upgraded to Gold by the FIA for 2015, a move that could potentially cost both drivers opportunities in the Pro-Am enforced categories.
For 19-year-old Rayhall, who enjoyed a breakout TUDOR Championship rookie season with 8Star Motorsports, the 2013 IMSA Prototype Lites champion said he lost out on a test with a FIA WEC team due to bumped up to Gold rating.
“From all the comments I have heard, I think it’d be best to do away with [the ratings system],” Rayhall said. “I would hate to be the board making the driver ratings because they literally have our careers in their hands.
“If I’m a Gold and out of a job, I’m no longer a pro race car driver, I’m an employee for my father as a contractor ripping out sheet rock on jobs. With that being said am I a Silver now?”
While IMSA has adopted the new globally recognized FIA ratings system for 2015, it’s arguably created some further inconsistencies with a handful of Gold-rated professional drivers having been downgraded to Silver rating.
Segal agrees that the entire driver ratings system could use a re-think.
“I’ve been privileged to be in a position to win three major sports car racing championships so far, and in each of these instances, we won these titles as a pro-am lineup competing against numerous pro-pro lineups,” he said.
“I never felt that we were unfairly disadvantaged, and I struggle to identify any way that the driver ratings regulations have definitively improved the competition or encouraged participation by gentleman drivers since their introduction.”
While Segal and Rayhall are also currently on the job hunt, Silver-rated von Moltke faces the same challenges as well, but feels a bigger push should be taken to help grow the sport and retain the loyal teams and gentlemen drivers.
“I believe we have to find a way to entice teams and drivers to stay and one way to do this would be to find a way to increase the prize money,” von Moltke said.
“I know this is much easier said than done, but if the series could invest in itself and put up real prize money that would make a difference in running budgets for teams if they won then you would all of a sudden see teams flooding back into the paddock, and then gentlemen drivers wanting to race where the best are.”