Youth Is Being Served Throughout IMSA Ranks

By David Phillips

IMSA Wire Service

For some, sports car racing used to be viewed as the second act to many an open-wheel racer’s career; a soft landing from the cut-throat environments of Formula 1 and IndyCar; an environment where wisdom and experience trumped ambition and raw aggression.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. But the record books are replete with open-wheel drivers who shifted to sports cars later in their careers and achieved remarkable success: Jacky Ickx and Tom Kristensen come to mind as do, more recently, Johnny O’Connell and Jan Magnussen, Felipe Nasr and Gianmaria Bruni. And the fact that Jenson Button and Felipe Massa took their turns at the helm during January’s Rolex 24 At Daytona testifies to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s ongoing lure for open-wheel veterans.

But a look at the Daytona International Speedway podiums the last two weekends of January reveals that IMSA is also a hotbed of young talent poised to take center stage in many forms of racing.

Cases in point, 17-year-old Connor Zilisch and Christian Rasmussen, 23, teamed with veterans Dwight Merriman and Ryan Dalziel at the Rolex 24 to win the Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) class in the No. 18 Era Motorsport ORECA LMP2 07. Zilisch has already signed as a development driver for NASCAR’s Trackhouse Racing. Rasmussen plans to run the IndyCar Series road courses this year with Ed Carpenter Racing.

Sebastian Priaulx (age 23, shown above) saw success at Daytona too, finishing second in Grand Touring Daytona Pro (GTD PRO) in the No. 77 AO Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R (992) he shared with Laurin Heinrich and Michael Christensen. As the son of accomplished racer Andy Priaulx, “Seb” has been exposed to racing the world over and likes what IMSA has to offer young drivers.

“I love the WeatherTech series,” he says. “Most drivers will say the same thing: It’s proper racing. I’ve loved racing in America, not just WeatherTech but the Michelin Pilot (Challenge) and Porsche Carrera (Cup North America) championships. There’s a lot going on with the various series and I love racing on the old-school tracks where there’s no room for error.”

As Priaulx notes, sharing a car with a veteran driver who is truly your teammate – as opposed to your principal rival – accelerates a young driver’s learning curve.

“You have Michael Christensen in the car with us at Daytona,” he says. “He’s won that race before (2017, GTD); he’s won a lot of races including Le Mans. So, it’s great having his experience as part of the team. If you look around IMSA there’s a lot of ex-Formula 1 and IndyCar drivers, so that’s a lot of experience you’re racing with and against. It’s such a good place for a driver to work their way up the ladder.”

Young drivers needed only look to the No. 1 Paul Miller Racing BMW M4 GT3 to understand the truth in Priaulx’s words. There, former amateur driver Madison Snow made his first start as a BMW factory driver, having spent the past seven seasons as a protege/teammate of veteran professional Bryan Sellers.

You’re Not Alone Anymore

Riley Dickinson had his first taste of working with driver teammates at Daytona when he, Michael McCarthy and Brady Golan joined forces to win the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race in Kellymoss with Riley’s No. 91 Porsche 718 GT4 RS Clubsport. Having competed in the Porsche Carrera Cup North America the past three seasons (winning the 2023 Pro class title), the 22-year-old Texan is only now getting a taste of sharing his car with teammates.

“There’s something to be said for the growth you can have when you’re paired up with a professional driver or one who has other experience in the sport,” Dickinson says. “It’s quite useful compared to the single driver format. You’re able to rely on and push your teammate to get the most out of you and the car. It’s something I have to adjust to, but to be honest it’s something that I completely like and appreciate.”

Although Dickinson has raced Porsches exclusively since transitioning from karts, the opportunities presented to young drivers by the 17 other manufacturers competing in IMSA is not lost on him.

“My pathway was from go-karts straight off the deep end in the Porsche Cup,” he says. “Now I’m still with Porsche in the Michelin Pilot series. It’s cool to see IMSA’s partnership with Porsche but all told there’s (many) manufacturers in their ladder system. There are so many opportunities for young drivers such as myself to be able to come up through the ladder system and make a career.

“Transition(ing) from karts to cars, whatever ladder I chose, the goal was to wind up at the pinnacle of that form of motorsports. When you look at IMSA’s biggest race, there were about 60 cars with three or four drivers – so let’s say about 220 drivers. Whereas on the IndyCar side you only have 33 cars at their biggest race and it’s only one driver per car, so 220 versus 33. Simply put it comes down to opportunities that are available.”

Luca Mars is another young talent making a name for himself in IMSA. He won both rounds of the IMSA VP Racing SportsCar Challenge’s GSX class in the No. 59 KohR Motorsports Mustang GT4 on Jan. 20-21, then finished seventh in the Michelin Pilot Challenge race on Jan. 26 sharing the No. 59 Ford with Bob Michaelian in the Grand Sport (GS) class. Jobs well done, the 17-year-old Mars returned to Pittsburgh where he is a high school senior.

“I always wanted to do sports cars,” he says. “I started in (Mazda) MX-5 Cup, and GT3 and GT4 was always my dream. When the Mustang test came up, I was blown away by how much fun it is and I thought, ‘This is definitely what I want to do.’ My goal is to be a paid driver for a factory or team, it doesn’t matter which. To be a paid professional driver is the goal.”

No wonder then that, following his VP Racing Challenge wins, Mars could be found closely watching the Rolex 24. And while he was taking it all in, he readily concedes he was paying particular attention to the progress of the No. 1 Paul Miller BMW.

“Whenever I had a free moment and then during the Rolex 24, I watched Madison Snow,” he says. “That’s what I can see myself doing in another few years.”