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RACER magazine excerpt: IMSA Enduring Memories

21w ago

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For a half century, IMSA has been the conduit through which top-level North American sports car racing has flowed. In that time, a lot of history and a lot of memories have been made. Here are a few thoughts and recollections from eight drivers who’ve all made their mark in IMSA.

HURLEY HAYWOOD

Five-time winner of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, two-time 12 Hours of Sebring victor, and a double IMSA GTU class champion.

Say “Hurley,” and you’re pretty much saying IMSA, too. One man, one organization, linked together in sports car racing perpetuity.

IMSA Founders John Bishop and Bill France, JR.

HURLEY HAYWOOD: "The first really serious race Peter Gregg and I competed in was the first sports car race IMSA held, at VIR in 1971. We won the race. I was based in Fort Lee, Virginia, but getting out of the military, so that was a pretty monumental career steppingstone, winning that first IMSA race.

I’m proud of what IMSA stands for and what it started off being. Back then, Peggy and (IMSA founder) John Bishop were sort of mom and dad at the race track. John didn’t like what the SCCA was doing, so he started his own organization with the help of Bill France Sr., and away they went. They told the ACO to go screw themselves, “We’re going to set our own rules up,” and they were such good rules that everybody came onboard. It’s really great to be able to be with an organization for that long.

IMSA has been part of my whole entire life. And even though it’s had a couple different owners and different directions, it’s always been a major player. I’m just thankful that it’s back under one roof and the Frances have bought IMSA and are creating some great races now.

Even though, we had Grand-Am and some other series going in different directions for a while, really, it’s all the same group, the same players, that all came back to square one. I started with IMSA and I ended my career with them. It makes me proud that I’ve been there from the beginning to the end."

DAVID HOBBS

A truly versatile racer, with Formula 5000 and Trans-Am titles, and starts in Formula 1, the Indy 500 and 20 times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans just part of his résumé.

In IMSA, the irrepressible “Hobbo” spans the rich mid-1970s scene filled with titanic GT combat, through the peak of GTP ferocity, and usually with a certain Bavarian manufacturer whose presence continues to be felt today.

DAVID HOBBS: "One way and another, I did a hell of a lot of IMSA races, and my time with BMW covered the majority of it, starting back in 1976. I’ve got so many great memories of it. I had a massive pole position run at Sebring; broke the lap record there by about four seconds. And everybody thought I was cheating, said I missed a couple of corners… Of course, that BMW 320i Turbo was definitely not suited for a 12-hour run, that’s for sure. And we dropped out of the race. But we had some pretty good times with that car.

Oh gosh, my first win in IMSA came at Mid-Ohio in 1977. And another great moment was the penultimate race of the year at Laguna Seca that same season. I had a terrific battle with Al Holbert, who had his Chevy Monza there. Of course the Monza had much more grunt than the BMW because, in that first year in particular, we had terrible turbo lag because of that great big turbocharger and that little engine.

I overtook Al pretty much on the last lap coming down through the Corkscrew. Then you came around the left-hander, then down to the right-hand sweeper and then into the hairpin to fire up the straight to the checkers. I overtook him around the outside of that right-hander and I always thought that old Al could’ve just eased me off the track into that wall in a heartbeat. But that’s not how we used to race in those days. You didn’t just push everybody off the track. Anyway, I won the race, so that was terrific.

But I suppose the most memorable day when we raced the 320i Turbo was Derek Bell and I winning the Pabst 500 at Road America in 1979. We’d thought long and hard about even doing it, because the BMW was quick, but longevity was not its finest attribute.

And then my first prototype year with BMW was in 1981. It was a real

flop with that awful March M1C with a six-cylinder in it. It was absolutely no match for the Lola T600 and the V8s.

But then we came back in 1986 with the second prototype March. And by that time, its engine had gone through more development. It was based on the four-cylinder, turbocharged Formula 1 engine and gave 1,000hp. I mean, it gave like 900hp in race trim. We won Watkins Glen in that car. Simply magic, it was."

STEVE MILLEN

Two-time IMSA GTS class champ and the overall winner of the 1994 Rolex 24 At Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring.

The versatile New Zealander was in his element with IMSA’s silhouette GTO cars, using his prodigious car control to tame GTP-engined tubeframe concoctions bearing the Nissan name beginning in the late 1980s.

STEVE MILLEN: "IMSA racing was extremely good for my career. The seven years that I had with Nissan in IMSA were terrific, because we developed a car from scratch to where we got it to lead laps, win pole positions and then win races.

The other thing is that IMSA did a pretty good job of parity with the GTO cars. You’d have a rotary Mazda RX-7, and you’d have a Roush Cougar with either a four-cylinder turbo or naturally-aspirated V8, and you’d have an Audi with a five-cylinder turbo motor, or whatever, and the parity in the cars, plus the power and the weight and all that, was amazing.

You could get four different combinations of car and engine qualifying within a quarter of a second of each other. So for me, it made it technically very, very interesting. Then that would then parlay into a race strategy, because we often used to fight with the Mazdas, which had decent lap times, not necessarily the top speed, but they were very light, which was a huge advantage.

They would often go with a very soft tire, whereas we would have to stick with a more durable harder tire. Often, the Mazdas would disappear at the beginning of the race, but at the end of the race it came back to a fight to the checkered flag. There was a lot of really interesting stuff going on in IMSA GTO racing that maybe gets overlooked historically.

Later, GTS was fun, too. Winning at Daytona in 1994 with the 300ZX was very special.

CHIP ROBINSON

1987 IMSA GT champion and Rolex 24 At Daytona winner; 1989 12 Hours of Sebring winner.

Chip Robinson made waves in junior open-wheel racing, tried his hand in Indy car, and finally found a home in IMSA as the GTP series rose from its privateer roots to all-out factory wars.

CHIP ROBINSON: "One of the really great races for me was winning at the Daytona season finale in ‘86, my last race with Bob Tullius and the Group 44 Jaguar team. That was actually my first IMSA win and it was Bob’s last race. As a driver, that just meant an awful lot to me because Bob had given me the opportunity to have a professional career as a driver.

From there I went straight on to drive for Al Holbert. There was something really special about doing that with Bob, and then getting the chance to drive for the Holbert Racing team – the best in GTP – and win the 1987 drivers’ championship. And, of course, the next race after the finale with Bob was the Daytona 24 with Al, and we won that, too. That was cool."

WAYNE TAYLOR

As a driver, he’s a multiple IMSA WSC title-winner, 2005 Grand-Am champ and a two-time Rolex 24 At Daytona winner. His eponymous Wayne Taylor Racing squad continues to be one of IMSA’s benchmark teams in the prototype ranks.

Taylor’s first chapter was written at home in South Africa and throughout European sports car racing. His move to the U.S. penned a second chapter that contains championships and wins at every major event as a driver and team owner, and shows no signs of being completed.

WAYNE TAYLOR: "When I came to America in ’89, at the end of my Group C program, I did three GTP races for Spice. And getting to race in front of Geoff Brabham and Davey Jones and Jaguars and Toyotas and Nissans and factory cars was electric. I was in a privateer car when I got that first call, and then I suddenly realized how much I loved this country. I said to myself, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to come back here.”

And then the next thing was obviously getting an invite to come race with Jim Miller and General Motors in 1991. Wow, that Intrepid GTP is still probably one of the most spectacular cars I’ve ever driven.

Soon after that, I won my first championship in 1994 with Jim Downing and the Kudzu, but we didn’t win a race. So while I was excited, I was disappointed that I hadn’t won a race, but so many other achievements came in the latter part of the 1990s. All from staying here with my wife Shelley, raising our boys here.

So I had a championship in 1994, another in ’96, and in 2005, my last championship, I was 49 years old and I thought, “You know, man, I just can’t believe that all these things have happened like this for me.”

And then I went into team ownership, and that was a whole new world for me. And now my sons are champions and continuing the tradition in IMSA for the Taylors. I am so humbled by what I’ve been given."

GEOFF BRABHAM

IMSA GTP class champion in 1988, ’89, ’90 and ’91, and a two-time 12 Hours of Sebring winner.

The son of Aussie F1 champ Sir Jack took IMSA by storm in the late 1980s with the sublime Electramotive Nissan team, reeling off those four consecutive championships and setting a consecutive win streak that still stands.

GEOFF BRABHAM: "The old GTP cars were incredibly fast, quite dangerous for some of the tracks we ran on, and very unforgiving. However, I would do it all over again as the thrill of driving such a high-powered, high-downforce car is something I’ll never forget. They were the last of the dinosaurs and I’m very grateful to have been given the chance to be successful in that era. The lap times don’t lie when you compare todays cars to those awesome beasts.

The race that gave me the most satisfaction was the 1990 Road America round. It started to drizzle around the back half of the track just before the last pit stop, and I didn’t know whether to stay on slicks or change to wets. I made the decision coming down pit road to stay on slicks, but not change them so they were still hot when I left the pits. Most of my rivals changed to wets; I was really slow in the wet parts, but very fast around the rest of the track that had stayed dry.

Luckily, a couple of people who were chasing me spun and I managed to keep it on the black stuff and win the race. The heavens opened up on the slow down lap. People said it was a gutsy call, but it was a decision based on total mental confusion on my part!"

BUTCH LEITZINGER

A three-time Rolex 24 At Daytona race winner and the holder of IMSA titles in GTU (1993) and WSC (1997 and ’98).

The son of sports car legend Bob Leitzinger laughs at the notion of being received as “IMSA royalty.” His wins and titles in the hotly-contested GTU category and similar success in the post-GTP World Sports Car formula would suggest his crown is duly deserved.

BUTCH LEITZINGER: "Being there with my dad when he was racing, and then for 20 or 30 years when I was driving in IMSA, I suppose when I look back I’m reminded that we were probably having the most fun of anyone as a racing family through those times.

My favorite behind the wheel times would have been 1997 or so, with the Riley & Scott Mk III. That car was great. We had fantastic competition against the Ferraris, with Giampiero Moretti’s and Andy Evans’ teams, and Wayne Taylor had the other Riley & Scott.

We just kept making our car better and better; Pat Smith was our crew chief and he had a great feel for what the car needed. That was one of the great things about the Dyson Racing team, because they were always willing to fiddle with a car and just make changes with it. It wasn’t just something where they just bought parts off the shelf and that was what we had. You know, we were always trying different suspension geometry and things like that. Everyone was really working at the top level and a lot of success came to us as a result. Such a fantastic time for sports car racing."

OLIVER GAVIN

A five-time American Le Mans Series class champion and five-time 12 Hours of Sebring class winner – not to mention the GT ace’s five 24 Hours of Le Mans class wins.

The complete package is found within the Englishman who turned his attention to the States in the early 2000s and continues to serve up championships and the grandest of endurance victories for Corvette Racing.

OLIVER GAVIN: "If I think of IMSA, I think of the headquarters at Daytona. And when I think about Daytona, I think about the GT Le Mans class win we had there in 2016. It was an absolutely unbelievable race with a titanic finish between Antonio Garcia in the other Corvette and I for those last 10, 12 laps…really racing as hard as we could to the finish. It summed up Corvette Racing and the way everyone goes about their work within the team.

We try to get every last thousandth of a second out of the cars – the strategy that goes into it, the work behind the scenes, and the preparation of the cars and team well before the start of a race week. You can filter all that down through the last 10 laps.

Anyway, when someone says IMSA to me, that 2016 finish is what I think about. It was special for me of course, and a dream finish for the team. I remember getting out of the car and seeing the smile on Gary Pratt’s face.

When I first started racing in the UK, the Daytona 24 Hours was about the likes of Derek Bell, Bob Wollek, James Weaver, Andy Wallace, the TWR Jaguars, the amazing GTP cars. The racing was fast, aggressive and tough. You would see guys pouring themselves out of a car after a stint, soaked in sweat from giving it everything. The cars were absolute brutes to drive, but they were amazing to watch – the raw power, the downforce, the size of the tires.

To get the most out of those cars at that time, you had to get in and drive them very, very hard. It definitely was a golden era looking back on it. In fact, it was definitely one of the motivations for me to come to the United States and start competing over here."

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