On Friday, Jan. 24, the sportscar world will change forever, as the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) enters a new era as the preeminent sanctioning body in the United States with the running of the first round of the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge at Daytona International Speedway. The race, which is scheduled to take the green flag at at 1:45 p.m. ET, features a field of 64 cars piloted by some of the greatest professional and gentleman drivers in the sport.
The battle isn't only between the drivers, but also several different manufacturers who hope to be the first to hold the IMSA trophy high in victory lane. One of the favorites has to be Automatic Racing, which is poised for the 2014 season opener with Rob Ecklin and Charles Espenlaub co-driving the No. 99 Invisible Glass Aston Martin Vantage GT4. The team, which is entering their thirteenth season of competition, has high hopes for not only Daytona, but the rest of the year.
Although Daytona marks the first time that Ecklin and Espenlaub have driven together, both of them are already right at home at Automatic Racing. Ecklin has been competing with Automatic Racing since his series debut in 2011, and this marks a return for Espenlaub, who drove with the team from 2008 to 2009.
“I’m excited that this came together. This is a great opportunity, and of course I really enjoy Automatic Racing. We are looking to be running faster lap times this year. I’ve already been consistently faster in testing, and I’m looking for better results as we move forward in the season,” Ecklin stated.
During his tenure with Automatic Racing, Espenlaub earned ten top-ten finishes in the GS class. He is also a GS champion, having won the title in 2010.
“I enjoyed my time with Automatic Racing, and I’ve worked with David Russell a lot over the years, so coming back for Daytona was an easy choice,” says Espenlaub. “I’m looking forward to the chance to drive the Aston Martin, especially since it’s become such a well-developed car.”
In addition to the No. 99 Invisible Glass Aston Martin, Automatic Racing is still planning to enter their second Aston Martin this season, and they hope it will debut in round two at Sebring International Raceway.
Of course, when you're talking sportscar racing, you would be remiss if you didn't mention Porsche. Making up nearly 20% of the field, the nameplate is synonymous with speed and victory at the world center of racing. One of the favorites in the GS-class is Bodymotion Racing, in partnership with the Ray Catena Auto Group, which will make its IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge (CTSCC) return in 2014. The race in Daytona marks the first time that the Mike Bavaro-owned operation has run in the CTSCC since 2007.
The No. 12 Ray Catena Auto Group Porsche 911 is scheduled to campaign the full GS-class season with Rolex 24 At Daytona-winner Shane Lewis (Jupiter, Fla.) and series rookie Andrew Baxter (Rumson, N.J.) behind the wheel. Since taking a leave of absence from the intensely competitive street car-based series at the top of its game six years ago, Bodymotion has remained involved in major road racing series. The Ocean Township, N.J.-based team, which has maintained the core of its championship caliber operation over the years, has been focused on Intercontinental Trophy Cup (ITC)-sanctioned events with an in-house developed Porsche Cayman. In that time, the operation has won multiple championships while simultaneously developing the mid-engine Cayman for competition.
"We have been very successful in ITC, winning several championships," said Bavaro. "ITC was conceived as a developmental series to promote the growth of young drivers from club racing to the professional ranks. Tim Fox won the 2011 championship with us and moved to GRAND-AM with Aston Martin in 2012. Andrew Baxter graduates to IMSA with us this year. We are humbled to re-enter the Continental SportsCar Challenge amongst the fiercest competitors in professional racing."
Lewis, who has six CTSCC victories throughout the various iterations of the series' development, is internationally recognized as one of the sports top development and endurance race drivers. He won the GTX class of the 2013 Rolex 24 driving a Cayman to add to 24-hour race victories at Nürburgring and Dubai. In addition to his season-long duties with Bodymotion, Lewis will drive the No. 22 Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT America in this year's Rolex 24.
"Mike and I have had great success together in the past, including a pole position in the Continental SportsCar Challenge, although it was called GRAND-AM Cup at the time," reflected Lewis. "To have the opportunity to come to Daytona with a Porsche 911 built just for this series by Bodymotion has me really upbeat. This is some of the best competition on the planet. The field is so deep with such great cars but I believe in Bodymotion and I know they have the expertise to do it right. To have the chance to race this championship with a young gun like Andrew and in a Porsche carrying the legendary Ray Catena name is just the best of both worlds. I'm psyched to get out there and go racing!"
Baxter, who has been brought up the motorsports ladder by Bodymotion, will be making his first professional series start on the 3.56-mile road course at Daytona. However, he had a successful season in 2013 finishing second in ITC P2 class points driving for Bodymotion.
"This being my first year, I want to focus on building a sustainable team and a good foundation for a long term program," offered Baxter. "To do that, I want to leverage the advantages of an awesome driving partner, Shane Lewis, and an incredible race team, Bodymotion. I'd be lying if I didn't mention my desire to stand on the podium. The view is much better up there."
Qualifying for the race, the first CTSCC race under International Motorsport Association (IMSA) sanction, will take place on Thursday, January 23 at 2:30 p.m. The race will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1 at 6 p.m. ET, Friday, January 24.
Stay tuned to this column for continuing coverage of the run-up to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, as well as in-depth analysis and live reporting from the speedway this weekend. Be sure to subscribe to the West Palm Beach Motorsports Examiner, and keep track of your favorite racers. If you're a motorsports fan, and know of an event, team, or person you'd like to see profiled, please let me know. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter, and read my articles about local getaways,HOAs,elections, and restaurants.