DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For many casual fans of sports car racing, it’s all about the Prototypes – sleek, built-from-the-ground-up racers that are, consequently, the fastest cars on the track.
There will be plenty of Prototypes in Saturday’s 65th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, but veteran fans know that the closest racing often comes in the GT classes, which are cars that look very much like the cars some may drive to the races – assuming your daily driver is, perhaps, a Lamborghini Huracán, a Chevrolet Corvette or a Ferrari 488.
While the more sophisticated GT Le Mans (GTLM) cars are faster, this year it’s the GT Daytona (GTD) class, the largest in the four-class field, that is getting considerable attention. That’s because last year, IMSA, the sanctioning body for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, adopted the global GT3 specifications for the GTD field.
Worldwide, there are dozens of series that use the GT3 specifications, and numbers as large as those have encouraged many manufacturers to build GT3 versions of their street cars. It makes excellent financial sense – companies can design and manufacture race cars that can be sold in multiple markets, bolstered by a readily available supply of parts. For the 2016 season, it helped bring about a significant increase in the GTD field, and for 2017, it drew three additional manufacturers to the WeatherTech Championship.
Those three are Mercedes-AMG, Lexus and Acura. While the sinister-looking Mercedes-AMG GT3 has raced elsewhere, it’s new this year to IMSA. There are three in the Sebring field sporting the familiar three-pointed star logo on the grille: The No. 75 SunEnergy Racing entry, the No. 50 Riley Motorsports/WeatherTech entry, and the No. 33 Riley Motorsports/Team AMG entry.
The No. 75 is brand new to the series. The No. 50 team competed last year in an Alex Job Racing Porsche, and the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG replaces the Dodge Viper that driver and team principal Ben Keating has raced since the inaugural WeatherTech Championship season.
Keating, owner of the world’s largest Viper dealership, had little choice but to make the change – his beloved Viper has ceased production. But after a promising debut at the season-opening 2017 Rolex 24 At Daytona, Keating is pleased with the choice he made.
“We learned a lot about the car at Daytona, and we’re still learning,” said Keating, who will share the No. 33 with regular co-driver Jeroen Bleekemolen, and guest driver Mario Farnbacher. “But there’s a ton of potential in the Mercedes.”
Michael Shank Racing has a solid reputation as a Prototype team, but for 2017, Ohio-based Shank, a former overall winner of the Rolex 24, jumped at the chance to help develop a GT3 racing version of the brand-new Acura NSX.
He has two cars entered in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours – the No. 86, driven by Jeff Segal, Oswaldo Negri Jr. and Tom Dyer, and the No. 93 driven by Andy Lally, Katherine Legge and Mark Wilkins. Negri is a longtime Shank driver in the Prototype class; Lally is a former IMSA champion and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year, and Legge has driven IndyCars, and spent the last couple of season driving the DeltaWing Prototype.