Find a photo of a first-generation Daytona, circa 2003-2007, of what was then called the Rolex Series sports car from Grand Am. Now put it alongside a photo of current Daytona Prototype International (DPi) competitor IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar – or even better, one of next year’s LMDh models testing out what promises to be the 2023 season for sports car racing around the world.
A brief glimpse of those side-by-side photos quickly shows how far top-level sports car racing has progressed in America in the past 20 years. It’s an astonishing transformation, which has not only resulted in exciting, attractive and modern racing cars, but has also led to a radical shift in philosophy about IMSA’s place in the world’s sports car hierarchy.
These early DPs were jarring—a crude, streamlined tubular frame chassis with V8 propulsion engines that looked more NASCAR than a sports car. With a comically large greenhouse (safety first, it was said), the early DP looked like a kid’s scratchy version of a Porsche 956.
The Grand Am’s mentality was also jarring, particularly because US sports car racing was in the midst of a “split” between the Grand Am and the US Le Mans series that was just as devastating as the split in IndyCar racing between CART/Champ and the Indy Racing League . It was easy to draw parallels between Grand Am and IRL, both of whom tried to cut costs by commissioning low-tech, budget cars that were an affront to the sophisticated and impressive machines that preceded them.
But this mindset has gradually changed over the years. Daytona prototypes became marginally more attractive, with new generations emerging in 2008 and 12. Grand Am absorbed the handouts at the end of the 2013 season, coming together under the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship banner; And after three years using a third-generation DP as number one, the DPi formula that debuted in 2017 has not only brought back a much higher level of technology for American sports car racing, but significantly boosted IMSA’s credibility with the FIA and the World Endurance Championship.
The importance of DPi to IMSA’s growth and future momentum cannot be overstated. By pairing the identical LMP2 chassis with the engines and a unique OEM chassis chassis, IMSA created a formula that produced vehicles that were safe, attractive, and (relatively) cost-effective.
DPi offered great versatility, with four, six and eight-cylinder competitors, and the product was on the track close and competitive, thanks to the effective use of the performance balance philosophy now common in sports cars and other major forms of motorsport – most notably NASCAR.
Sure, a lot of people bemoaned the “NASCAR-ification” of sports car racing when the Grand Am came onto the scene. After all, Jim France is credited as the founder of the series, working under the NASCAR umbrella.
Turns out that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Following the merger of American sports cars, NASCAR ownership provided financial and organizational stability for the Compact WeatherTech Championship, and the creation of the DPi formula satisfied fans and manufacturers who looked forward to the most advanced factory-supported prototypes from the ALMS era.
DPi’s six-year career has resulted in three championships for both Cadillac and Acura, along with race-winning programs from Nissan and Mazda. It also coincided with an intense effort between IMSA, FIA and ACO to work together in a more coordinated way to standardize and strengthen sports car racing on a global basis.
With this in mind, when IMSA began planning for the next generation of Class A prototype to replace the DPi, it was done with the goal of finding a way for its manufacturers and teams to take these cars to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other FIA World Endurance Championship races and compete for overall victory. Equally important, this crossover will work in both directions, equalizing FIA “Hypercar” specification cars to compete with new IMSA cars with a jointly developed joint gearbox and hybrid system.
Here’s what future sports car enthusiasts will be looking forward to: IMSA’s revived GTP class makes eligible domestic LMDh prototypes from Cadillac, Porsche, Acura, BMW and (joining in 2024) Lamborghini, along with WEC Hypercars from Toyota, Peugeot, and Ferrari. The first major convergence will come at Le Mans, where the centenary of the first 24 hours will be celebrated.
Back to where we started, place a photo of a 2023 IMSA LMh next to a photo of a WEC Hypercar, both looking sleek, modern, exciting and packed with the latest in relevant hidden tech under the skin. The visual comparison to the 2003 Grand Am Daytona’s boxy prototype is mind-boggling.
It’s another way of visually showing just how far IMSA has come – not only in terms of how it embraces a much more global view in terms of the relationship between technology and sports car racing, but also in the way it commands American sports car racing with far more respect internationally than it does. It was at any time in the past.
DPis will race again next weekend in the 25th Annual Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. They will undoubtedly make a great show, but for IMSA – and for sports car racing fans around the world – the best is yet to come.
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