The 2010s may rival the 1980s as the most significant decade in the history of the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA).
As the decade comes to an end, IMSA is firmly established as a world leader in sports car racing and the undisputed premier sports car sanctioning body in North America. There have been countless memorable moments over the past 10 years, and we’ll take a look at the top 20 in a four-part series.
Our final installment brings us the top five moments of the decade. No. 1 was a no-brainer, but there’s four more good ones in here.
5. 50th Rolex 24 At Daytona is Memorable One as Shank Team Scores Overall Victory
Daytona International Speedway – Jan. 29, 2012
As we saw throughout the IMSA 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2019, there’s something inherently special when it comes to golden anniversaries.
Back in 2012, the 50th Rolex 24 At Daytona brought a huge crowd of race fans to Daytona International Speedway to relive five decades of amazing history and enjoy fantastic on-track action. The 50th Rolex 24 At Daytona goes down as one of the most memorable ever, with the driving quartet of Ozz Negri, John Pew, AJ Allmendinger and Justin Wilson steering the No. 60 Ford Riley Daytona Prototype into victory lane on the ninth attempt for Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian team owner Mike Shank.
“I feel like we deserved it, to be honest,” said Shank. “I think we’ve worked hard. I don’t make any excuses for that. We paid our dues, for sure, and I hope it can take us to new cool places in the coming years.”
The intense battle for the victory came down to the final hours between the No. 60 MSR entry and the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport Ford Riley shared by Ryan Dalziel, Lucas Luhr, Allan McNish and Enzo Potolicchio. A door-banging battle for the lead on the high banks between Allmendinger and McNish with just over two hours remaining remains an iconic piece of video footage from this race.
The GT class featured a popular victory as well. The No. 44 Magnus Racing Porsche team of John Potter, Andy Lally, Richard Lietz and Rene Rast brought home not only the team’s first Rolex 24 victory, but first IMSA premier series victory as well.
4. Dyson Mazda Beats Pickett Honda to Win Closest ALMS Race Ever
Road America – Aug. 20, 2012
It came down to a final, uphill drag race.
In the No. 16 Dyson Racing Lola-Mazda, it was Guy Smith. In the No. 6 Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD ARX-03a-Honda, it was Lucas Luhr.
Both teams had been here before, just one year earlier. On that day, Smith got close but was unable to pull off a last-lap pass of Luhr’s co-driver, Klaus Graf, who went on to win by 0.112 seconds in what was then an Aston Martin-powered LMP1 prototype for the Muscle Milk team.
This time, it was even closer. Smith took the white flag as the leader in the No. 16 Mazda, with Luhr right in his tire tracks aboard the open-cockpit HPD machine. In fact, Luhr stayed tucked underneath the Mazda’s rear wing all the way to the 14th and final turn before diving to the inside to take the lead coming out of the corner.
But Smith carried more momentum coming out of the corner and shot to the inside of Luhr. The German made a slight attempt to block Smith’s run coming up the hill, but the Mazda was too fast. Smith crossed the finish line 0.083 seconds ahead of Luhr to claim the closest overall victory in American Le Mans Series (ALMS) history.
“It was too close for comfort,” said Smith. “Last year was really close. I never expected something to beat that.”
3. 0.034 Seconds Separates Corvette Racing Teammates After 24 Hours of Racing at Daytona
Daytona International Speedway – Jan. 31, 2016
There are two opposing axioms when it comes to racing against your teammate depending upon your perspective.
If you’re the team owner or principal, the rule is, don’t hit your teammate. If you’re a driver, the first car you must beat is your teammate.
That scenario played out as the clock wound down in the 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona in an epic battle for the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class victory between Corvette Racing teammates Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen and Mike Rockenfeller in the No. 3 Corvette C7.R and the No. 4 machine of Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Marcel Fassler.
Once the final pit stops were completed on both cars, the drivers – Gavin in the No. 4 and Garcia in the No. 3 – were given the go-ahead from atop the pit box to decide the winner between themselves. For the final half hour, Garcia intensely pressured Gavin and the two cars were nose-to-tail with 10 minutes to go in the race.
Garcia very briefly claimed the lead coming off the banking and into Turn 1, but Gavin reclaimed the position exiting that same turn. Garcia made one final lunge to the outside coming to the checkered flag, but Gavin had just enough to hold off his teammate and win by a Rolex 24-record 0.034-second margin.
“On the last lap, I was thinking I had just enough on him, but he towed up behind me,” Gavin said. “It was like the (finish) line was just going away from me. I couldn’t get to the line fast enough. I’ve just seen a picture of it, actually, and it was pretty close.”
2. Nielsen Becomes First Woman to Win Major Sports Car Championship… Then Repeats
2016 and 2017
In 2015, Christina Nielsen’s first full season of WeatherTech Championship competition, she narrowly missed winning the GT Daytona (GTD) championship. She wound up second in the standings that year driving the No. 007 TRG Aston Martin.
For the 2016 season, Nielsen moved to Scuderia Corsa, where the Dane was teamed with Alessandro Balzan in the No. 63 Ferrari. She picked up her first series win in one of the biggest races on the schedule, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, alongside Balzan and endurance teammate Jeff Segal.
She and Balzan then went on an incredible run of consistency, scoring four straight podiums, including another victory in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen. In the second half of the season, she and Balzan added three more podiums – running their season total to seven in 11 races.
In the season finale at Motul Petit Le Mans, Nielsen drove a monster, three-hour and eight-minute stint to open the race and clinch the title, making her the first woman to win a major, full-season professional sports car championship in North America. And just for good measure, she, Balzan and Segal also went on to take the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup season title as well.
In 2017, Nielsen and Balzan proved their 2016 campaign was no fluke. That year featured a run of six consecutive podiums from Round 2 at Sebring through Round 7 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and a victory in the penultimate race of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, powering them to a second straight WeatherTech Championship GTD title.
“You win the championship performing the best you can and getting the most out of a race weekend when it’s not your race weekend,” said Nielsen after her second title. “When you have everything going against you and nothing seems right, and it’s really hard mentally but you still create a decent or good result. That’s when you know you’re a strong contender for the championship. That’s when you know you’re a champion.”
1. The Merger
Daytona International Speedway – Sept. 5, 2012
It was hailed at the time as the most significant development in the history of sports car racing in North America, and in the seven-plus years since, it has proven to be true.
The blockbuster announcement that the GRAND-AM Road Racing Association and the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) was announced at Daytona International Speedway and was televised live on the SPEED network. It featured GRAND-AM founder Jim France and ALMS founder Don Panoz, as well as GRAND-AM President/CEO Ed Bennett and ALMS President/CEO Scott Atherton and was the first official step in unifying professional endurance sports car racing in North America.
“Today’s announcement will transform sports car racing on this continent, along with having world-wide industry implications,” said Bennett, who became CEO of the new IMSA post-unification. “Aside from the organizations involved, everybody wins: drivers, teams, manufacturers, sponsors, tracks – and most of all, fans.”
Prophetic words that still ring true today, as we open a new decade.