There may be advantages to having a bad year — if you’ve hit bottom, the only way to go is up. Last year was a bad year for most people. For every racing series, it was a struggle of limited entries, shrinking budgets and constantly shifting schedules. SRO America and its flagship series, GT World Challenge America, faced those same struggles; but even before the pandemic hit, as hints of the world shutting down were beginning to swirl when it opened its 2020 season at Circuit of The Americas, it was clear that, at best, it was going to be a “rebuilding year.”
Deciding at the end of the previous season to forego a pro class and make Pro-Am (or Silver, depending on one’s point of view) the top category, 14 entries gathered for the season debut, and that became eight when the series resumed racing at Virginia International Raceway in July. By contrast, IMSA went from 18 GTD entries to 12 in its first post-shutdown race. Racing across the board suffered; but it seemed that GT World Challenge America took it right on the chin.
Fast forward to March of 2021 and the series opener at Sonoma Raceway. Once again there were 14 entries. But among them were four Pro entries with the class’s return. That includes two new Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evos from series stalwart K-PAX Racing, which spent last year racing in GT World Challenge Europe. They were joined by a pair of drivers moving up from the GT4 SprintX Pro-Am Championship — Robby Foley and Michael Dinan — and two of the Rolex 24 at Daytona GTD-winning quartet from Winward Racing, Russel Ward and Phillip Ellis. With the usual bunch of Pro-Am competitors, plus several other moving from GT4, the field is looking much stronger than in 2020, and is likely to grow.
The same is true for GT4 America, now with only the SprintX two-driver, 60-minute format. At 33 entries and flush with sports car racing stars such as Bill Auberlen, Ryan Eversley, Brandon Davis, Jeroen Bleekemolen, Spencer Pumpelly, Ian James and Christina Nielsen, the category is looking stronger than ever.
With GT4 Sprint falling by the wayside, and some competitors missing the old World Challenge sprint format, a new series was formed — GT America. Combining GT2, GT3 and GT4 cars in a 40-minute, single-driver race, it harkens back to SRO America’s legacy. The first race with nearly 20 cars was by most measures a success.
We sat down with SRO America President and CEO Greg Gill at the Sonoma opener to discuss the state of the four SRO America series — GT World Challenge, GT America, GT4 and Touring Car America and where he saw things going as the year progresses. As GT America is the newcomer, it was foremost on his mind.
“We assumed a minimum of 12 cars, but let’s budget for 20, 22 cars and that will be good,” said Gill. There were 19 cars, a mix of current and older GT3 machinery and GT4 cars, starting at Sonoma. “There’s a good opportunity to have more cars at COTA. The customers are saying, ‘This fits what I wanted.’ There is a bit of the nostalgia — World Challenge, single-driver sprint races.
“I had in my mind, are there customers that we’re not serving, are there customers that are not part of our paddock right now? Anybody in motorsports knows there’s an incredibly active … not only club, but country club, scene, where the customers are certainly more than capable of going pro racing and they have teams that support them and pro racer driver coaches. They say they’d love to do one of our weekends, but they’re not comfortable with the refueling and tire and driver changing. When we started looking at it, it seemed like a no-brainer.”
There was a good bit of crossover between GT America and GT World Challenge/GT4 — chief among them double overall winner George Kurtz. But there were also several drivers who showed up to do only GT America, such as Masters winner Charlie Luck or Sunday GT4 winner Robb Holland.
Gill credits GT America with some of the growth in GT World Challenge America and GT4 America. Further, focusing on reducing costs by keeping the race weekends to three days (the season opener was an exception, featuring a Thursday test day) helped. Gill also points to the prestige of being part of a global series, in conjunction with the Fanatec GT World Challenge series in Europe, Asia and Australia, and affiliated with the Intercontinental GT Challenge.
“We were a 30-year old business before we became part of a global brand, but there’s a cachet to the global business. People want to race at Spa someday. They want to race at Bathurst someday. We always tell people, we are a great series for you to perfect your craft in, and if you want to go endurance racing in this country, go to IMSA. They have a great program and you can run Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring. But we’re also fortunate to say you can race at the Indy 8 Hour, you can race at Bathurst, you can race at Silverstone, and you can race the 24 Hours of Spa. It gives people that want to have the global view the ability to say that. I think that’s why we’ve seen growth here.”
Seven manufacturers have committed to competing across the global platform, and five were represented at Sonoma — AMG Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche, plus Acura and Aston Martin, which have not joined the global manufacturer championship — with Audi and McLaren absent in the GT3 ranks. The Lamborghini contingent swelled in 2021, with not only the two KPAX pro cars for double winners Andrea Caldarelli/Jordan Pepper and Corey Lewis/Giovanni Venturini, but also entries from Rearden Racing and TR3 Racing as well; Zelus Racing is expected to join the series with another at COTA. Plus the series has a shiny new Lamborghini Urus safety car.
Gill says he expects entries to be up further at COTA next month, and while the series isn’t where he wants it to be, he’s pleased with the progress.
“There’s an adage I’ve used from early on in business, and I don’t think it’s original at all: ‘Plan your work, work your plan.’ You see in motorsports, and certainly for this series, that having a consistency and working through your processes works. SRO globally stands for professional motorsports and doing it well; we want to continue building on that. We want to give the racer and fan the best possible experience, and there’s always something you can do to improve that. The livestream now, it’s as good as live television and I appreciated getting comments from fans globally who are watching.
“We’re going to build on that, and that’s where sponsorship with Amazon Web Services and Fanatec have been really good for us. AWS and Crowdstrike have brought us the technology and security, and that helps power the global relationship,” explains Gill.
New title sponsorship from Fanatec will provide additional opportunities as well. While sim racing played a big part in keeping fans and drivers engaged during the COVID-19 shutdown last spring, it will likely play a role into bringing new interest into the sport. GT World Challenge Europe is already bringing a sim racing component into its real-world events.
“That is really looking at the future,” Gill noted. “It’s difficult and I don’t want to upset fans of real-world racing, but you also have to look at how things change and evolve. If we’re going to add more eyeballs to the sport, then let’s look at an area like this where there’s an installed fan base of hundreds of thousands.”
While things are looking up for SRO America, the organization and its series are still being impacted by the pandemic. The Sonoma races were run without spectators — who are likely to be welcome at COTA, however — and the race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park had to be scrubbed for the second year in a row due to quarantine requirements for anyone crossing the Canadian border. The series is looking at replacements, and Gill said he hopes to have an announcement by the end of March.