It's impossible to handicap the pair of IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda races that will take place at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. April 21-22. The series has never competed at Barber, but given how nimble and quick these cars are, and how the complex 2.38-mile road course rewards those two characteristics, this series and this track are made for each other.
There's another reason that the races will be a wild card at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama - one of the two classes that make up the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda field is brand new for 2017, not only to the series, but to competition in the United States. The LM P3 class originated in Europe and is spreading around the world, and these races at Barber are only the second time the class has competed in North America.
The other class in the series, the Mazda Prototype Challenge, is well-known to sports car racing fans at other venues, but prior to this year, the open-cockpit cars were known as Prototype Lites. They continue to use the proven, open-cockpit Élan DP02 chassis, powered by the potent four-cylinder Mazda MZR 2.0 race engine. Both classes run exclusively on Continental tires.
The LM P3 cars are closed-cockpit models, which can be built by a half-dozen approved companies. They use a 450-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 engine. They look a lot like slightly smaller versions of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype cars, because that's essentially what they are - and the LM P3 class should provide an excellent training ground for drivers looking to move to the fastest class IMSA offers.
One thing we do know for sure - the LM P3 class will have a new points leader after the Barber Motorsports Park weekend. Nico Jamin, a last-minute entry in the two season-opening races at Sebring International Raceway in March, won both. And while he is indeed racing at Barber this weekend, it will be in his regular ride, the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Mazda-powered Indy Lights car.
Certainly there's no shortage of talent in the LM P3 class at Barber, with 11 drivers all looking to move up in points. One of the favorites has to be Andres Gutierrez, of Monterrey, Mexico, who will be driving the same No. 12 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3 that gave him a second- and third-place finish in the two races at Sebring, placing him second in the points to Jamin.
And you can't discount the potential of a late entry to the series who is making his LM P3 debut at Barber: Kenton Koch of Glendora, Cal., will be driving the No. P1 Motorsports Ligier, teaming with Lonnie Pechnik of Oceanside, N.Y., who is third in overall points and first in the Masters division after a third- and fourth-place finish at Sebring. Drivers in the Masters division are ages 45 and above, but compete for full honors.
Koch, who was on the winning team in the LMPC class at the 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona, dominated the Mazda Prototype Challenge class in 2015, winning a stunning 11 of 14 races on his way to the championship.
Colin Thompson of West Palm Beach, Fla. had problems in his first race at Sebring, but scored in race two with a come-from-behind second-place finish in his No. 14 Kelly-Moss Road and Race Norma M30; and there's little doubt he'll be a contender at Barber. Norma was the last of the six constructors approved by the ACO, the global sanctioning body overseeing the progress of the LM P3 class worldwide. Thompson has the only Norma in the field at Barber.
Paul Fix of Williamsville, N.Y. will be driving the Ave Motorsports/Stop Flex No. 44 Ave-Riley AR2, after a promising series debut at Sebring. Fix, who won five Trans Am races in 2016 and missed winning the season championship by just nine points, is racing the lone Ave-Riley in the field, which is the only United States-based LM P3 manufacturer.
In addition, look for Matthew Dicken of Louisvile, Ky., piloting the No. 4 ANSA Motorsports/Strategic Wealth Ligier JS P3, as well as Rob Hodes of Montreal, Quebec in the No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier. Robert La Rocca of Miami, Fla., will be at the wheel of the No. 87 HP-Tech Motorsport/3Dimensional Services Ligier.
Naj Husain of The Plains, Va., will be driving the No. 3 Cloudistics Ligier for Extreme Speed Motorsports, the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi team that notched overall victories at the 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona and Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.
Juan Perez of West Palm Beach, Fla., will be racing the No. 71 P1 Motorsports/Sonic Tools Ligier, a teammate to fellow P1 drivers Koch and Pechnik.
And rounding out the LM P3 field is Joel Janco of Key Largo, Fla., driving the No. 25 Liger for JDC Motorsport, a team that currently sits third in the IMSA WeatherTech points in the Prototype class.
In the Mazda Prototype Challenge class, it's easy to find a favorite: Kyle Masson of Windermere, Fla., won both races at Sebring, and he's back in the same No. 18 Performance Tech Motorsports/Neurospine Institute Élan/Mazda that has him solidly in the points lead.
Adding to a stellar short season for Masson: He was on the Performance Tech team that won the LMPC class at not only the Rolex 24 At Daytona, but the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. His father, Robert Masson, will be in the No. 11 Performance Tech car, and there are two more Performance Tech entries: Howard Jacobs of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., will be in the No. 77 CardioAccess car, while Stephen Dawes of Sidney, N.Y., is in the No. 38 A.I.G. Technologies car.
Should Kyle Masson stumble, expect Brian Alder of Dublin, Ohio, driver of the BAR1 Motorsports/TOP 1 Oil entry, to pounce: Alder is second in points. But just two markers behind him sits Gary Gibson, who races the Team Perfect Pedal car from his home in Libertyville, Ill. While third in points overall, Gibson is at the top in the Masters division.
They will have to contend with Kris Wright and Tazio Ottis, both drivers for JDC Motorsports - the team that also fields a Prototype in the IMSA WeatherTech series. Wright, of Pittsburgh, Pa., will be in the No. 7 entry, while Ottis, of Alameda, Ca., will be driving in the No. 72 entry.
Also teammates under the Eurosport Racing banner are Jim Garrett of Austin, Texas, in the No. 42; Michal Chlumecky of Windsor, Ontario, in the No. 31, and John Brownson of Breckenridge, Colo., in the Westridge Development No. 34.
Stuart Rettie of Aberdeen, Scotland, will be driving the No. 21 ODU Motorsports/Lion Rampant Group entry, and he'll have an ODU Motorsports teammate in Jay Salmon of Lynchburg, Va., in the No. 46.
While the V-8-powered LM P3 cars will race on track alongside the Mazda Prototype Challenge cars, the four-cylinder-powered MPC cars are surprisingly fast - Kyle Masson was fourth overall in the first race at Sebring and fifth in the second race, though the drivers in the two classes are competing for points and podium finishes only against others in their class.
The first of the two 45-minute IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda races will take the green flag at 3:45 p.m. CDT on Friday, April 21, while race two takes place Saturday at 12:00 p.m. That race will stream live from 11:50 to 12:45 p.m. CDT on IMSA.TV.
Delayed television coverage of the IMSA Prototype Challenge Races at Barber Motorsports Park will be provided on May 4, 2017 on Fox Sports 2 (FS2). The broadcast will also be available on YouTube 24 hours after it airs on television.
For more information on all IMSA competition - or to access IMSA Radio, which will have live streaming of both races - visit IMSA.com.
For more information about the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series, visit www.imsa.com, follow hashtags #IMSAPC and #MRT24 @IMSA on Twitter or IMSA on Facebook.
Practice: 2:00 - 2:30 p.m. (CDT) and 4:15 - 4:55 p.m. Thursday, April 20
Qualifying: 9:20 - 9:40 a.m. Friday, April 21
Round 1 (45 minutes): 3:45 - 4:30 p.m. Friday, April 21
Round 2 (45 minutes): 12:00 -12:45 p.m. Saturday, April 22