Last weekend’s European Le Mans Series season-opener at Silverstone saw a notable influx of American competitors join the series, in what appears to be a growing trend for a significant contingent of drivers.
No fewer than ten American or U.S.-based drivers and two teams are set for full-season campaigns in the European championship, as well as a U.S.-built LMP3 car that’s set to debut next month.
Former American Le Mans Series Prototype Challenge champion Mike Guasch has been among the converts, with the longtime Silver-rated IMSA driver joining the Anglo-American United Autosports squad for 2016.
“I prefer to race in the States but this PC maybe-sorta… P2, don’t know what it’s going to be [in the future]. There’s just far too many iffy scenarios to just play in that arena right now,” Guasch told Sportscar365.
Guasch, who came close to running a HPD ARX-04b in this year’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, decided to jump ship to the LMP3 ranks with the new Ligier JS P3.
“In a last minute ditch, I was like, ‘What am I going to do?'” Guasch said. “I’ve been to Europe before, I raced with this team, United Autosports, before, so I was very familiar with them.
“They decided to get involved in LMP3 so I thought I’d go back to Europe and race.
“One of the other big reasons was that it’s a shorter season for me. I’m really busy at work. This is six races with great venues. Strategically, it made more sense for me from a time perspective.”
Fellow PC driver John Falb has also made the switch to ELMS LMP3, taking rising American star Sean Rayhall and former IMSA team owner/driver Enzo Potolocchio with him to the Graff Racing outfit.
Like Guasch, Falb feels the compact schedule of the ELMS better suits gentlemen drivers, who are often juggling full-time jobs.
“ELMS offers four-hour races, six events across the season, plus the Prologue and the opportunity to do the Road to Le Mans race,” Falb told Sportscar365.
“All of those are very exciting, on F1-grade tracks with the highest level of safety.
“I’d like to be doing PC for the season but from a time commitment, it’s too much. Eleven events plus the Roar is just too much time away.
“I’ve got a full-time job, three kids and it’s hard enough to go racing. Even if Europe is farther and I end up spending effectively two days traveling, it’s much more efficient.”
While Krohn Racing returns for a second season of ELMS, they’ve been joined by fellow American outfit DragonSpeed, which has shifted its focus to the ACO-run championship.
The Elton Julian-owned team made its LMP2 debut in last month’s Twelve Hours of Sebring, it’s only planned outing in America this year.
“We need a stable, reliable championship that has a growth pattern that fits with our goals,” Julian told Sportscar365.
“We want to be in a place where we’re not rubbing against the grain and Pro-Am teams and drivers are welcome and their entire outlook is geared around that. That’s why we’re here.
“I was here when it died [in ILMC]. The ELMS went on to die when they went onto do WEC and these guys had no championship.
“Now they’ve restructured it. The formula is stable. I know what to expect for next year. I know where to buy my car. The fact that the top class is Pro-Am makes it doable.”
Others new to ELMS this year include four-time GRAND-AM champion Memo Rojas, who has joined Greaves Motorsport in LMP2, Mike Hedlund in a Proton Competition Porsche 911 RSR, as well as fellow Americans Tony Ave and Doug Peterson, who plan to debut the new U.S.-built Ave-Riley AR2 LMP3 car in the second round of the season in Imola
Rayhall, who is undertaking a dual-season WeatherTech Championship/ELMS program this year, feels there’s currently more opportunities in Europe due to escalating costs of racing in the U.S.
It’s understood a full-season 2017 ELMS LMP2 budget is somewhere close to 1/3rd the price to run a DPi entry in the WeatherTech Championship, with multiple sources quoting as little as $1.2 million for an ELMS LMP2 effort.
“You hope that the DPi is a huge hit but when you look at the funds to do that, it’s pretty tough,” Rayhall told Sportscar365.
“So even sponsorship-wise, the budget [in ELMS] is less and yes, there is less racing but the budget is economical when you’re talking about doing b-to-b deals with businesses as a pro and bringing some support to the team.
“Or when you’re talking about doing Pro-Am racing in general, it’s more budget-effective [in Europe], it’s new tracks which are definitely interesting.”
While the future of IMSA’s PC class has been secured through the 2017 season, and teams have recently invested in electronics and engine upgrades, the class has not seen any further growth beyond its seven full-season entries.
IMSA has yet to decide PC’s future beyond 2017, with the series currently focusing on developing its new DPi platform first, which debuts next year.
“I think where prototype racing in the States is going is a big question right now,” Rayhall said.
“I’m not saying that it won’t work out and won’t be awesome right now but there’s a big question mark behind it in everyone’s heads.
“From a driver point of view, the rides are getting fewer and fewer over there and there’s 35 prototypes that started the [ELMS] race last weekend.”
For Julian, who is planning to take delivery of a second Oreca LMP2 car next year, his plan is to remain in Europe, despite the logistical and financial challenges it could present.
“While we run P cars, I would imagine that we’re predominately here,” he said. “But I don’t want to say that we’re not trying to be in America.
“I have a 6,000 sq. ft. shop there and tractor and trailers parked collecting dust that’s costing me a fortune. We’ve had to retool and rebuild again by being here.
“We’ll be here next year. Because if you want to go to Le Mans, you have to be here.”