Drivers Take Pride in Repping IMSA at Le Mans
IMSA leaves a gap in its schedule between mid-May and late June to account for a rather important 24-hour endurance sports car classic in south central France. The longstanding partnership between IMSA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) helps make this happen.
There are two types of IMSA competitors in the 24 Hours of Le Mans: those who are thankful to get to Le Mans, and those who have tasted success in the race ranging from speed to podiums to the ultimate prize, a class or overall victory.
For the IMSA drivers who win at Le Mans during the season, it’s a testament to their team’s preparation, performance and how they conquered the field against their competitors.
“What makes Le Mans special is that it's full of the best drivers in the world from different forms of racing competing for some of the top manufacturers,” said Corvette Racing’s Jordan Taylor, whose role at Le Mans this year isn’t driving but instead coaching and supporting the NASCAR Garage 56 program.
“On the sports car side, you're racing against a lot of the same guys you see in America, so that says a lot about the depth of the IMSA championship.”
That depth was tested for Corvette Racing in 2015 when it lost its sister car in a prerace accident, so it was down to Taylor, Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin to bring home the bacon and deliver a popular GTE Pro class victory. That remains the team’s most recent Le Mans triumph, and Taylor’s only one.
A year later in 2016, IMSA drivers proudly flew the flag in both GTE class categories. Townsend Bell, now an NBC Sports commentator and a longtime member of the Vasser Sullivan Lexus program, was part of the most recent all-American driver lineup victory in any class at Le Mans. He shared a Scuderia Corsa-entered Ferrari 458 Italia with Bill Sweedler and Jeff Segal in GTE Am.
“With Scuderia Corsa, we have won Le Mans as well as the IMSA championship,” Bell reflected in 2016. “We had a terrific race. The Ferrari was exceptional, and my teammates were so fast that we won it with a margin. You couldn’t ask for a better race than this.”
The Legendary Return of the Blue Oval
Ferrari won in GTE Am but it was the story of the blue ovals – Ford – beating Ferrari in GTE Pro that was a bigger GT headliner at that 2016 Le Mans race. As Joey Hand reflected seven years later, there was a mission to accomplish.
Hand shared one of four Ford Chip Ganassi Racing entries – two from IMSA and two from the FIA World Endurance Championship – and there was one and only one clear objective: capture the win in a new Ford GT, 50 years after the famous Ford victory at Le Mans in 1966. The task was not lost on Hand, who shared the winning car with Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais.
“One of the most memorable times for me in 2016 was before the race even started,” Hand said. “I was standing on the grid, which was on the front straight, with Edsel Ford. He was telling me how he hadn't been there in 50 years, since the 1966 win. I didn't know that! He was telling me how things looked so different; obviously the grandstands and way the track looked right there.
“For me, it was a pretty cool moment there, walking around there. It felt more real and put more pressure on having him be there with me.”
The moment of passing a Risi Competizione Ferrari – a regular IMSA rival – added to the importance of what played out during the race.
“We were super quick, running second, but running down the Ferrari. Me and Dirk and Seabass had all put some good stints together, reeling them in,” Hand said. “When I was in the car, we caught them from 10-12 seconds back. I knew this could be the move, the last time we had to pass anyone for the lead. I set up for a clean pass to put as much distance as possible.
“Looking back, that exact part of the race is played over and over in the Henry Ford Museum; you see the car there. It's another little tidbit of history from that race win. I was super proud to be part of it.”
The Meaning of It All
A man who so nearly won Le Mans in a Ferrari or a Ford but didn’t ultimately do so until last year in an Aston Martin is longtime Viper dealer Ben Keating. Cruel misfortune and a postrace disqualification erased a victory for the Bill Riley-led Ford GT privateer program in 2019, but in 2022 Keating finally got, and kept, his GTE Am class win.
The man who’s raced five GTE brands and two Le Mans Prototype 2 (LMP2) chassis in eight Le Mans starts seeks to defend that win with the aforementioned iconic Corvette Racing team. He’ll share the No. 33 Corvette C8.R at Le Mans with Nicky Catsburg and Nico Varrone.
“I’ve often said that it’s really special to win a World Endurance Championship race as an American driver racing an American car, racing something I sell and racing for an American team,” said Keating, who already has two FIA WEC wins with his new team this year.
“It’s hard to imagine what that would be like at Le Mans and the 100th (anniversary) Le Mans. That would be on a totally different level.”
What does standing on the winner’s step of the podium feel like? Ask Taylor, who remembers the 2015 triumph with fondness.
“I've been fortunate to win this race before, and there's no feeling like standing on the podium knowing that you've beaten a collection of the best drivers and teams from around the world,” he said.
“It's such a big deal for us as drivers but also everyone with the team. You know you've accomplished something together that none of you will ever forget."