Lagger Vs. Legend: Horizon Motorsports Pontiac GTO vs Pontiac GTO.R

Telling the stories of the iconic and not-so-iconic heroes of racing.

The Pontiac GTO was reintroduced to the American market in 2004 as an attempt by General Motors to give the somewhat struggling Pontiac brand a halo car to boost the company's image. However, the nature of the care being a rebadged Australian Holden Monaro, mixed with the relatively high price starting at $34,000, and the somewhat conservative styling worked against the GTO, with the car bowing out of production after the 2006 model year. The car's short run would not stop it from making it's way to the racetrack, with multiple teams attempting to turn them into racers. The stories today revolve around the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, and two vastly different outfits who attempted to propel the car to motorsports glory.

Lagger: Horizon Motorsports Pontiac GTO

Grand-Am was undergoing a very strange period in the early 2000's. In 2003 the top flight Sports Racing Prototype (SRP) class was replaced by the considerably less expensive Daytona Prototype (DP) class. This lead to a season with little entries in the class over the course of the season, plus with infighting between the fastest GT class, GTS, and a general lack of entries all around which led the organizers to raid the lower division Grand-Am Cup to fill up grid spaces on select occasions.

Low grid entries led the mostly street-stock Grand Am Cup cars to fill up the grid next to top class Prototypes and GTs

Low grid entries led the mostly street-stock Grand Am Cup cars to fill up the grid next to top class Prototypes and GTs

In this state of confusion, a small outfit named Horizon Motorsports would make their Grand-Am debut with a race-prepared Mustang GT in the lower GT class. The team would make two starts in 2003, at the 2nd Watkins Glen race and Mont-Tremblant. Both races would see the car fail to set qualifying times, languish at the back of the field with the Grand Am Cup cars, and ultimately fail to finish, with a suspension failure and accident respectively.

2004 would be a huge rebound for Grand Am

2004 would be a huge rebound for Grand Am

As 2004 rolled around, things were looking up for the Grand-Am series. The series had ditched the GTS class at the end of the 2003 season, and instead elevated the Grand-Am Cup Super Grand Sport (SGS) class to the top series. This, along with some renewed interest int he GT class, led to decent grid sizes for the entire season, a major improvement from the year before.

The GT class in 2004 accommodated for a unique mix of cars

The GT class in 2004 accommodated for a unique mix of cars

Even with the success of 2004, the series would still find itself in a transitional period, mostly in its now top-level GT class. The rules in the class led to a strange mix of cars all competing on a theoretically level playing field. Over the course of the season the class would see contemporary GT/N-GT cars like the Porsche 996 GT3 RS and Ferrari 360 Modena from other series such as the American Le Mans Series and FIA GT compete along side hastily modified single make cup cars such a the Maserati Trofeo and Porsche GT3 Cup, all while allowing tube-frame silhouette racers to compete too. This led to an unbalanced class that was mostly dominated by the more contemporary cars throughout the season.

The tube-frame GTO looks hilariously simple next to the average 996 GT3 RS

The tube-frame GTO looks hilariously simple next to the average 996 GT3 RS

One team that would take advantage of this madness would be no other than Horizon Motorsports. After missing a good chunk of the season, they would debut a brand new GTO at the Daytona 250 Paul Revere night race, held the same week as the Pepsi 400. The car fell snugly into the tube-frame category of GT, with a simple sleek body and lack of headlights putting it more in common with a stock car than any GT car. Piloted by Charles Espenlaub (USA) and Dale Quarterly (USA) the car would qualify right in the middle of the SGS field with a time of 2:01.980, just under 6 seconds off of the pace of the class pole sitting The Racers Group #67 Porsche 996 GT3 RS, and only beating the #30 Risi Competizione Ferrari 360 Modena GT, which had suffered engine problems throughout the week. The car would last for 44 laps before transmission issues would sideline the car, making it the 2nd GT retirement of the night, after the HART Acura NSX.

The team would miss the next round at Mid-Ohio and return to the Watkins Glen 200 Miles, another race that was shared with NASCAR. The car showcased some major gains in speed, because despite another qualifying attempt that left it sandwiched in the SGS field, the car's race pace was only 2 seconds off of the pace setting ex-ALMS M3s of Prototype Technology Group. However this wouldn't amount to anything, as the car would be the first to retire with timing chain issues 22 laps into the race. The car would again miss the following round at Homestead-Miami, and return at the 400 kilometer race at Virginia International Raceway. The car would finally manage to escape the SGS field in qualifying, placing itself 6th on the grid, two seconds behind the PTG M3s, but would once again be the first to retire, this time after only 3 laps with overheating issues.

The car would appear at the next round, the Barber 250 Miles, and and slide backwards slightly in qualifying, managing 8th in GT 4 seconds behind the M3s, but would finally manage to to finish a race, taking 6th in GT, albeit 3 laps behind the winning M3. This would be followed up with a 7th in class at the series finale Fontana 400 KM, although this time the car would lose out to a SGS class Porsche 996 GT3 Cup. Grand Am would restructure the GT class for 2005, effectively making SGS the only GT class in the series while still allowing tube-frame specials to race. This would be the formula Grand-Am would hold on to until the series merged with the ALMS to become the IMSA Tudor United SportsCar Series.

The car bare naked at the Daytona Tests in 2005

The car bare naked at the Daytona Tests in 2005

Horizon would enter 2005 with a brand new chassis, but the rule change led to a massive explosion in participation for the GT class, and the team couldn't keep up their promising results from the year before. The team would struggle in the mid pack for the entire season, even when bringing in a second car for the Daytona 250. The team's best finish would be an 8th at the Watkins Glen 250 for the #23 while the secondary #32 car would only muster an 11th place at the Mid-Ohio 400 Kilometers. After the season the team would leave the series and sell both cars to Team Sahlen, who used them as test cars throughout 2006.

Team Sahlen would interestingly enough enter one of the cars into the 2nd round of the 2007 season in Mexico City. However, this was just a way to give Joe Sahlen extra drive time, and the car was retired as he switched into his main Corvette during the driver swap. The cars would continue to be used for practice and tests before one was sold off to Competition Marketing Motorsports. The car was used for the Mid Ohio and Utah rounds of 2007 and the age of the car was starting to show, with the car qualifying towards the back of the gird and failing to finish both events, bringing the story of the car to a close.

Legend: Pontiac GTO.R

With the boom in popularity Grand-Am had in 2004, multiple manufacturers were looking to represent themselves in the series. One such manufacturer would be non-other than General Motors. With the Pontiac brand suffering from a lack of identity in the early 2000's, GM figured that using the GTO to represent the brand in Grand Am would help to boost it's image. The car was built buy GM's semi-official racing arm, Pratt & Miller, and was to be ran by The Racer's Group, known for their overall win in the 2003 Rolex 24. This was a direct contrast to Horizon's independent effort. The car was also a full tube-frame design, much like Horizon's, and featured the 6.0 liter GEN II LS2, putting out around 410 HP with 406 ft-lbs of torque.

Two cars would debut at the Daytona 250, with the #64 being handled by Jan Magnussen (DK) and Paul Edwards (USA), and the #65 by Marc Bunting (USA) and Andy Lally (USA). The cars would have a quiet week, with the #64 qualifying 7th and the #65 in 11th. However the #64 would fail to start with driveline issues, while the #65 wrecked on lap 54. The next race at Barber would see the cars qualify 8th and 9th and finish 4th and 5th, showing the cars were steadily improving.

Steady improvement became rapid improvement when after qualifying 5th and 6th in the next round at Watkins Glen, the #64 of Edwards and Magnussen took the car's maiden win, with the #65 close behind in 4th. The cars would continue to take wins throughout the remainder of the 2005 season, with the #64 taking two more wins at Phoenix and Mexico City, while the #65 managed a win in the third Watkins Glen race that season. Bunting and Lally finished of the season 2nd in the points standings after competing in the first part of the season in a 996 GT3 Cup, proving the Pontiac was serious competitor.

2006 would see the two car team compete it's first full season, with Kelly Collins (USA) partnering with Edwards in the #64 this time, and Richard Valentine (USA) joining Lally and Bunting in the #65. The team had a very strong season, winning 8 of the 13 races the GT class competed in, and giving Lally and Bunting the championship with Edwards and Collins coming home 3rd. Also midway through the season the first privateer GTO.R was entered by Pacific Coast Motorsports, who had a best finish of 3rd at Phoenix, completing a 1-2-3 finish in the race for Pontiac. The car was given to the Signalsport BMW team (Yes, a Pontiac being run by a BMW team) who used it in the Barber finale to finish 8th. After the season's successes, the end of production for the GTO meant that Pontiac would replace it with the G6 based GXP.R for 2007

The G6 based GXP.R would prove to be the last racing Pontiac ever produced

The G6 based GXP.R would prove to be the last racing Pontiac ever produced

One of the ex-TRG cars was bought by Matt Connolly Motorsports, who ran the car full-time from 2007-2009 with lackluster results. A few more select events in 2010 would see the car finish it's last event at Miller Motorsports Park 15th, and last.

The GTO.R on it's last journey in Utah

The GTO.R on it's last journey in Utah

So there tells the story of two completely different cars, united by model. One, a small independent effort in the crossroads of a ever-more professional racing environment, the other a high dollar factory backed car that did exactly what it was made to do, dominate.

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Comments (3)

  • Grand-Am fascinates me a bit. Where would the participating cars be today on the grid? What would they be compared to? Early GT4? TC1/BTCC/TCR?

      6 months ago
    • Around Porsche cup speed

        6 months ago
    • Eh? That's remarkable. That makes them tricky to classify though, as they're not totally "GT" as we know it, but considering the speed difference between even a 997 Cup and a new TCR...huh. I guess it's GT-No, then?

        6 months ago
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