#01: Cadillac Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac DPi , DPi: Renger van der Zande, Scott Dixon, Kevin Magnussen, #88: Team Hardpoint EBM Porsche 911 GT3R, GTD: Katherine Legge, Christina Nielsen

Driver Change: Working through the ‘JJ Effect’

IMSA.com Contributors Opine on how to Turn Casual IMSA Fans into Avid Ones

By IMSA.com Contributors

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In IMSA racing, the driver change is an integral part of any team’s success. The ability to hand over the car quickly, efficiently, flawlessly to a teammate and see that “next up” driver keep it on the path to victory is essential.

With that in mind, we introduce “Driver Change,” a new feature where one of our regular contributors launches into a topic and then “hands the wheel” to another contributor. That contributor will apply his or her own “driving style” to the subject before tapping out for another contributor.

The inaugural version of “Driver Change” tackles the “JJ Effect.” The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has gained new casual fans thanks to NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson competing this year. How or what is the best way to keep their attention and turn them into avid fans. Jeff Olson is the starting “driver” for this salvo, followed by John Oreovicz and David Phillips.

JEFF OLSON: A thought struck me when I saw a photo Chad Knaus posted on Twitter. Or, more specifically, the reaction to the photo.

It was a shot of the No. 48 Ally Cadillac DPi from above at Sebring, at night, lit up with rotors glowing. One fan wrote in response: “These cars are so damn sexy.”

Jimmie Johnson’s foray into sports cars brings an audience that isn’t as deep into the sport as its base, people who love racing but aren’t as familiar with this form of motorsports as its regulars.

Johnson presents a unique opportunity for the WeatherTech Championship, as do Knaus – Johnson’s former NASCAR crew chief who’s assisting with strategy and personnel for the IMSA effort – and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who masterfully explains the genre to its new onlookers via NBC’s platform. The question, then, is how best to keep the new crowd coming back for more.

Is it, as Knaus’ followers responded, the beauty of the equipment? Is it the depth of talent? Is it the range and closeness of the competition across five classes? Is it the variety of manufacturers and types of vehicles? Is it the freshness of it to eyes that haven’t been on it as frequently or intensely as its core crowd?

Through a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, IMSA is able to present its show to a group of fans that: a) already enjoy racing, b) are familiar with at least one of its competitors, and c) appear to be eager to see and know more.

But Johnson is only competing in the endurance portion of the 2021 schedule. He won’t be racing when the season resumes in May at Mid-Ohio. How best does the series continue to appeal to the people he brought along for the ride?

Take it away, Oreo.

JOHN OREOVICZ: IMSA’s biggest strength? Sheer variety.

In an era when cars in many other forms of racing look and sound the same, IMSA offers sexy and exotic prototypes (as observed above by Jeff and Knaus), as well as a plethora of GT-class entries with clear and obvious linkage to sports cars on the street.

With minimal effort, a spectator can soon recognize the differences between the Acura, Cadillac and Mazda Daytona Prototype international (DPi) cars, both visually and aurally. And make no mistake: the sound that a racing car makes really does matter. With so much contrast between the deep roar of the 5.5-liter Cadillac V-8, the mesmerizing thrum of Acura’s turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 and the urgent buzz of Mazda’s 2-liter, turbo-boosted four, you can stand trackside with your eyes closed and still know which DPi car is whipping past.

The GT Daytona (GTD) and GT Le Mans (GTLM) categories ramp up the soundscape even more, adding a howling flat-six (Porsche), rumbling V-8s (Aston Martin, BMW and Mercedes-AMG) and the unmistakable wail of a V-10 (Audi and Lamborghini) to the mix. And don’t forget the Corvette C8.R, with a flat-plane crankshaft that gives its mid-mounted V-8 a sound very much unlike traditional Detroit iron. The clear visual similarity to production versions of these iconic sports cars makes GTLM and especially GTD relatable to fans.

While other forms of racing have resorted to homogeny in equipment to achieve parity, IMSA still permits competitors to essentially “run what they brung,” relying on Balance of Performance adjustments to keep the competition close. It’s a successful formula, giving the WeatherTech Championship the kind of technical variety that other series lack while generally maintaining harmony between the participating manufacturers.

In short, IMSA offers something for everyone. What’s your take, DP?

DAVID PHILLIPS: Thanks, Jeff and Oreo. Tough acts to follow but I’ll give it a whirl with my version of “what comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

I was initially drawn to the sport of auto racing by photos in “Road & Track,” “Car & Driver” and “Sports Car Illustrated” of races on the hallowed grounds of Spa-Francorchamps, the Nurburgring, Clermont-Ferrand and the Circuit de la Sarthe; Watkins Glen, Mosport, Riverside, Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio, Bridgehampton, Road America. I found those dramatic, even exotic, images of sleek Formula One and sexy sports cars negotiating public roads or permanent road courses against a backdrop of forests, fields and mountains, houses and skyscrapers (in the case of Monaco) inescapably alluring.

Arguably, the WeatherTech Championship is unique among the world’s top-tier racing series in that the vast majority of its calendar still features “old-school” road courses chock full of spectacular settings and vistas, be it the incomparable arena of Moss Corner, bucolic Canada Corner, the iconic Corkscrew or a field of cars storming through Sunset Bend at, um, sunset. Yes, Riverside’s Esses, Bridgehampton’s Thunder Valley and other classic sections of racetracks may have fallen to the real estate developers’ bulldozers, but their places have been taken by The Hogpen and Oak Tree Bend, the Queen’s Hairpin and the roller coaster plunge of Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta’s Bridge Turn.

And yet, Formula One, World Sportscar Championships and United States Road Racing Championships wouldn’t have been the same without the likes of Jim Clark and John Surtees, Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert, Mark Donahue, Jim Hall and Hap Sharp on those great racetracks. Likewise, IMSA wouldn’t be IMSA if the competitors negotiating its classic sections of racing tarmac were not a melting pot of the world’s top drivers representing a veritable cornucopia of nationalities and racing backgrounds, together with accomplished amateurs capable of holding their own amidst a field of take-no-prisoners professionals.

Where else would you find Sebastien Bourdais, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Magnussen going wheel-to-wheel with one another and with Bill Auberlen, Jan Heylen, Katherine Legge, Cooper MacNeil, John Potter and, yes, Jimmie Johnson?

But combine this cast of characters/drivers with some of North America’s, no, the world’s most spectacular racetracks (and yes, some very sexy appearing and sounding race cars) and what do you have? The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.