The Team’s First Season in Michelin Pilot Challenge is Off to a Promising Start
By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – PF Racing’s 1-3 finish with a quartet of Ford Performance development drivers was naturally the main talking point following the BMW M Endurance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway, the opening round of the 2023 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge season on Jan. 27.
But a Ford Mustang GT4 fielded and co-piloted by another driver with NASCAR history provided a further great storyline in the battle for Grand Sport (GS) class honors and the overall win.
Chad McCumbee and Jenson Altzman showed plenty of pace in the first Michelin Pilot Challenge outing for McCumbee McAleer Racing with AEROSPORT, a new venture for McCumbee and versatile sports car star Stevan McAleer.
McAleer and McCumbee, an eight-time Michelin Pilot Challenge race winner who has also tasted success in NASCAR trucks, formed McCumbee McAleer Racing (MMR) in 2014 and have built it into one of the most successful teams in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires series.
Altzman, the 20-year-old great nephew of renowned IMSA racer Elliott Forbes-Robinson, competed in Mazda MX-5 Cup for MMR the last two years. Together, they are advancing into the Michelin Pilot Challenge this season with support from AEROSPORT. McCumbee will co-drive with Altzman in all but two events.
At Daytona, Altzman qualified the No. 13 Ford Mustang GT4 12th but gained three places on the opening lap and moved into the lead on the 24th circuit. McCumbee took over the car on a pit stop some 30 minutes into the four-hour race and had the Mustang sitting in second when he relinquished the wheel back to Altzman for the final stint. Primed for a top-five debut, a punctured tire in the closing stages relegated them to an unrepresentative 22nd-place finish.
“We certainly would have loved to have seen a result that reflected our performance a bit better,” McCumbee admitted. “We didn’t have our hands on a car until the week before the Roar (Before the Rolex 24), so huge thanks to AEROSPORT and Vervantis for jumping on board and wanting to see this program even happen. For us, even to get to Daytona was a massive accomplishment in itself.
“Generally, everything was positive,” he continued. “I had hopes that we would go and be competitive, and from a performance standpoint, I believe we far exceeded our expectations. It’s easy to get super excited about great on-track performance, and we were fortunate to see that so early and that sometimes changes your mindset. But for what we’re doing and trying to build a brand-new program, we need to keep all that at bay and just keep trying to build it so that performances like that are a consistent thing.”
McCumbee admitted it was frustrating to see the potential for a strong finish vanish in the final laps. But he was encouraged by the way the team functioned in its first Michelin Pilot Challenge race and by Altzman’s debut performance in a machine with easily twice the power of the Mazda MX-5 Cup cars.
“We ran well all the way through the middle of the race, running up in the top three for pretty much the middle two hours of the event, and then Jenson was making a charge back up through the field at the end,” said McCumbee, who engaged in some epic battles with the other Fords during his stint. “I thought for sure a top-five finish was well within reach. But a large part of results in motorsports is luck, and we just didn’t quite have that on our side to get the result. Anybody who looks at the data and how the whole race played out, I think we certainly made our mark on it.”
Michelin Pilot Challenge is an attractive option for young drivers like Altzman. The Arizona native’s goal is to advance up the sports car ladder to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in what he hopes is a four-year preparatory program similar to high school or college.
“2023 will be my ‘junior’ year racing cars, and to be a part of this new program with McCumbee McAleer Racing stepping into Michelin Pilot Challenge, is a real honor,” Altzman stated. “Chad and Stevan have built an amazing MX-5 Cup program. The knowledge and insight they both have shared with me over the past two seasons feels like a lifetime of experience. (Michelin Pilot Challenge) was the clear next step and has been a big goal for both myself and the team.”
Putting on his team owner hat, McCumbee is also grateful for the opportunities provided among IMSA’s various platforms.
“What IMSA has as options for drivers and teams is really second to none,” he remarked. “Having a successful MX-5 Cup team really helps us kind of tutor the up-and-coming group of guys and girls that are ready for the next step. Stevan and I always wanted to have that internal next step, but we haven’t had it until this year.
“The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present,” he added. “So we’re going to try to win as many MX-5 Cup and Michelin Pilot races as we can.”
Their next opportunity will come in March at Sebring International Raceway, where McCumbee was one of the winning Michelin Pilot Challenge drivers for PF Racing in the 2022 Alan Jay Automotive Network 120. Should he prevail again at Sebring this year as an owner-driver, McCumbee will have multiple reasons to celebrate.