There will be a new element to the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship next year with the creation of an award to recognize the top-performing Pro-Am drivers in Prototype and GT Le Mans that also includes a ticket to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Announced last month at Circuit of The Americas, IMSA has revived the Trueman and Akin awards, last seen in GRAND-AM, which went to the top-performing gentleman drivers in the DP and GT classes, respectively.
The change for 2015 is that each award now comes with an automatic entry to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an incentive that IMSA President and COO Scott Atherton believes will add new life to what’s been predominately a Pro grid in the P and GTLM classes in the TUDOR Championship.
“This is a long-term commitment we’re making,” Atherton told Sportscar365. “I’d like us to see us get back to where we were, both on the GRAND-AM side and ALMS, where you had a very active GT category and Prototypes, where you had a mix of top-level amateur drivers mixing it up with the factories.
“The way that our GTLM category has evolved, it’s Pro-Pro across the board. There’s some aspects of that are very attractive. We enjoy having that level of GT competition in our paddock and on our grid. The downside is that you lose that Pro-Am component and you can lose some interesting entries.”
With IMSA having two annual auto-invites to Le Mans, which it has awarded “at large” for the last years, Atherton said it made the most sense to use utilize those for the Trueman/Akin winners, in a bid to boost the car count of North American-based teams in the French endurance classic.
“We want to see more American content at Le Mans and the ACO wants to see that too,” he said. “They were very supportive. We approached them with our idea and plan… and they completely embraced it and totally support it, in what it means to hopefully bring some first-time competitors to Le Mans that otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to go.”
There’s already been an encouraging amount of early interest in both classes, including Prototype Challenge driver Chris Cumming, who is evaluating a move to the top prototype class thanks to the new Pro-Am recognition.
“That’s something that’s got me real interested in doing the P class,” Cumming said. “You need gentlemen drivers to put cars on the grid. If you don’t have gentlemen drivers, the grid wouldn’t nearly be as big. You’ve got to make it attractive for us to come and fund these things.”
Cumming, who claimed class victory in this year’s Brickyard Grand Prix with RSR Racing, said he could move up to the P class with the Paul Gentilozzi-owned squad but is also talking with another team for his potential 2015 program.
A new HPD ARX-04b entry from Starworks Motorsport featuring Alex Popow, is also a possibility, while Krohn Racing is set to enter its new Ligier JS P2 Judd in the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup races, which is the minimum participation requirement for the award.
On the GTLM side, AIM Autosport and driver Bill Sweedler are close to confirming a program with his Ferrari F458 Italia, while Paul Dalla Lana is looking to take his Aston Martin Vantage GTE stateside for the four-round Patron Endurance Cup as well.
An additional Aston Martin Racing entry with a Pro-Am driver is also a possibility, while Sweedler believes there could be further interest from drivers already in the series looking to make the step up.
“I think if you go around the paddock and look at the guys who have run GTE programs but guys who just come in for the endurance championship, I think there’s six or eight cars that could potentially be fielded,” he said.
Atherton said the regulations for the new awards are still being finalized, with prospective drivers and teams likely to get more details following a meeting later this month.
He’s targeting a minimum of three participants in each class for the initial year, although they may not all be full-season entries.
“It’s early days but it’s been a topic of conversation with several [parties] asking questions,” Atherton said. “I hope and believe there will be a good response to this.
“The commitment and the budget associated for signing up for something like this is obviously not insignificant. But based on the feedback that we’ve had initially, I think there will be a good response.”
Despite the driver winning the invite, ACO Sporting Director Vincent Beaumesnil confirmed that the Le Mans entry will be awarded to the teams that IMSA nominates via the driver.
The P class invite will only be eligible for an ACO-homologated LMP2 entry, and the GTLM winner will be required to compete in the GTE-Am class at Le Mans.