How do you win an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the GT Daytona (GTD) class?
It’s the most populous class in the series, with 18 entries from no less than nine different manufacturers teed up to compete in the 2020 season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 25-26. And yet, since the inception of the WeatherTech Championship in 2014, there have been just four GTD teams that have won championships.
Turner Motorsport took the inaugural title with its then-season-long driver Dane Cameron aboard the No. 94 BMW Z4. Scuderia Corsa won the next three, with Bill Sweedler and Townsend Bell capturing the title in 2015 followed by back-to-back championships with Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan in the team’s Ferrari 488 GT3 in 2016 and 2017.
Paul Miller Racing broke Scuderia Corsa’s stranglehold with Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow in the No. 48 Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in 2018. And last year, it was Trent Hindman and Mario Farnbacher who delivered the first sports car title for Meyer Shank Racing in the No. 86 Acura NSX GT3.
That title was a long time coming for the team, which began competing full-time in sports cars back in 2004. But after coming close in prior years, the light bulb finally came on for the MSR squad and team owner Mike Shank in 2019 and gives the team a roadmap to follow into 2020.
“You know, in 2018 we finished second by one point and we won last year by 21 points,” Shank said. “We had two different years there. In 2018, we had another team that didn’t make any mistakes. Last year, a lot of people made mistakes and we were able to capitalize on that.
“So, I would see us more as steady. We’re trying to keep that steady progression. We want to win championships. Obviously, we want to win races, but we think we know how to win championships now.”
Therein seems to lie the secret.
Of the GTD championship winners since 2014, Cameron and the Turner squad were the winningest team with four victories that season. Nielsen and Balzan had two wins in their first championship season of 2016 and Sellers and Snow also had two in 2017. But three times – Sweedler and Bell in 2015, Nielsen and Balzan in 2017 and Farnbacher and Hindman last year – the GTD champions only had one win during the season.
That seems to suggest that, if you’re going to contend for a title, you’ve got to accept that race wins aren’t always part of the equation.
“We accepted P2,” said Shank. “We accepted P3, ‘cause sometimes that’s the way the race goes. We were P7 at Sebring, as a matter of fact, but that was kind of our worst finish minus getting a stone in the radiator at Petit (Le Mans, the 2019 season finale).
“We accept that we can’t win all the races. So, what do you do then? What we do is, we let our drivers know, sometimes it’s not our day, and when it’s not our day, P4 is good. Let’s get the car in the trailer whole, take P4 and let’s move to the next track. I think that’s one of the biggest things actually.”
But there’s more to it than that. A lot more, says Shank.
“We’re like any other team in this class,” he said. “We have to fight BoP (Balance of Performance). The series put almost a hundred pounds on us – 80-some points – over the course of the year, which is a challenge for us to try to get the car to handle like it should.
“We all have to deal with it. I’m not making a judgement at all. I’m just saying that’s a part of the strategy now. At some point, you’ve got to figure out what’s the best way to manage that. I don’t mean manage BoP, but just understanding what you have at the time and not trying to overshoot that, making a mistake on the track or anything like that.”
Another common thread among past GTD champions – Meyer Shank Racing included – is a preponderance of podium finishes. In five of six seasons since 2014, the champion had podiums in at least half of the season’s races. And the one pairing that didn’t – Bell and Sweedler in 2015 – had top-four results in six of 10 races.
“We had more wins and stuff in ’18, but we had some mistakes too, and the 48 car that year just did what we did (in 2019),” Shank said. “There’s really something to be said about that. You’ve still got to be fast, and you’ve got to have a win, at least. And you should finish on the podium four or five, six times and have some poles, which we did.
“But it’s just understanding that there are days it’s just not going to be your day no matter what you do. Being able to be OK with being P4, P5 and put it in the trailer. We’ll go and we’ll be better next time. That’s what (Paul Miller Racing) did, it’s what Scuderia Corsa did, and it’s what we did. I think we strategized it really well.”
Shank hopes to carry that strategy over to 2020 with his team’s pair of entries and a shuffled driver lineup. Farnbacher is back full-time in the No. 86 Acura but his full-season co-driver will be 2019 WeatherTech Championship GTD champion Matt McMurry, while the team’s No. 57 entry run in partnership with Henricher Racing now features a full-season driver lineup of Misha Goikhberg and Alvaro Parente.
Hindman will compete in the No. 57 for IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup rounds, with AJ Allmendinger – who won the 2012 Rolex 24 At Daytona with the team – lined up for another Rolex 24 run in the No. 57. Japanese racer Shinya Michimi and Frenchman Jules Gounon complete the No. 86 lineup at Daytona alongside McMurry and Farnbacher.
And with all the talk of accepting podium finishes or the best result you can get, there are still two races – the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts – where a win-at-all-costs mentality is acceptable.
“Of course, we won the race overall in 2012, but in GTD, we have not won Daytona or Sebring,” Shank said. “We were second here (at Daytona), but Sebring just kicks our butt every year in every car we’ve ever been in.
“So, we have some real, hard goals to do better with the next here and at Sebring, potentially. We’ll test there at Sebring in February and we’ll try like crazy to get some better results.”
On-track activity for the 58th Rolex 24 At Daytona begins Thursday, Jan. 23 with practice and qualifying. NBC will have live network coverage of the start of the race beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 25, and also will televise the race finish beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 26 as part of NBC Sports’ complete coverage of the event that includes windows on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App and TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold.
IMSA Radio also will have live coverage throughout race weekend on IMSA.com and RadioLeMans.com, with complete race coverage also airing on SiriusXM Radio.