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In At The Deep End?

Rayhall and Falb on why the ELMS is attractive to a US Pro-Am line-up

Sportscar racing in the United States is at – arguably – one of its healthiest points in the modern era. The DPi program has garnered significant manufacture interest, the World Endurance Championship has committed to running a race alongside the Sebring 12 Hours next year, and over the last handful of years manufacturers like BMW, Porsche and Ford (and possibly Aston Martin in the near future ) have chosen to run their newest racing GT cars in the rapidly expanding North American market. For drivers this means good news for the development of the North American ladder.

The Continental Tyre Sports Car Challenge, the Mazda Prototype Challenge, and others including Porsche GT3 Cup USA by Yokohama, all act as stepping stones to the IMSA Weathertech Sports Car Series and races like the Daytona 24 and Petit Le Mans.

United Autosports’ 2017 ELMS LMP3 Championship-winning pairing of Sean Rayhall and John Falb, who combine to make the only all-American lineup in this years European Le Mans Series, still though leave their home country of the United States to further progress their sports car racing career. Whether it was for more opportunity, a chance at bigger races, or other reasons, DSC was able to sit down with the pair at the last European Le Mans Series race in Monza to learn a little more about what brought them to the European continent in the first place.

“I thought it was the next step in my career because being able to win over here kind of gives you an international background… it was a good spot to further my career,” said Rayhall. The 23-year-old from Winston, Georgia had competed part-time in Indy Lights in 2015 with two wins coming at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “The competition is really high here… this is the best place to be for Pro-Am lineups in my opinion.”

Rayhall also believes that the transition from a GT4 to a GT3 car, that CTSC to IWSC provides, is one that is more difficult in comparison to the LMP3 to LMP2 ladder present in Europe with series like the Michelin Le Mans Cup, and ELMS, feeding into the World Endurance Championship.

“Going from a Prototype Lights car or and LMP3 car to an LMP2 car is very easy. Whenever I jump into an LMP2 car it is actually easier to drive than an LMP3.” This is actually a common theme among drivers who have piloted both cars, LMP2 have aids and other systems like traction control that are not present in LMP3 cars.

It’s also not just the difficulty of driving the car that is more friendly but the competition level in Europe’s LMP3 and LMP2 class is more friendly for Pro-Am lineups according to Rayhall.

“GT Daytona is almost a Pro-Pro level class now so its kind of hard to see where an Am would develop themselves in CTSC.” “I think the progression level prototype wise is good, and I think GT is what it is,” said Rayhall.

“Being able to win over here [in Europe] kind of gives you an international background in case you want to get hired by a manufacture…being able to have deep ties in both makes you so versatile as a driver and it makes manufactures look at you harder.”

Rayhall however has far from abandoned his campaign in North America though, “I have some programs waiting to be developed that are pretty big stateside,” said Rayhall, “…as an American the first race I want to win is Petit Le Mans. My ranking goes Petit Le Mans, and then Le Mans, and Daytona is somewhere in the top five.”

“It’s forever evolving so maybe it will be a different answer in two years.”

As for Rayhall’s teammate, John Falb, he sees Europe as a much more Am friendly atmosphere, one where drivers can get more racing out of a smaller budget. “The PC category was really competitive, and a great series but from a budget perspective it was much more expensive [than LMP3]. Looking at LMP3 and running six events of four hours for twenty four hours of racing, plus an opportunity to run an LMP3 in Road to Le Mans became very attractive.”

North America’s top sports car category also requires prototype drivers to run in LMP2 cars, which as Rayhall pointed out may not be that much more difficult on the driver, however it is more difficult on the wallet. “Strictly from a racing budget perspective there is more opportunity in ELMS…in IMSA you have to be in an LMP2 car, and those budgets are significantly more expensive and there is no Pro-Am prototype category,” Falb pointed out.

That lack of a solid Pro-Am category hurts the Weathertech Series according to Falb who believes that the pre-merger American Le Mans Series served the amateur driver better. “The ALMS catered better to the gentleman driver, where is in the Weathertech Series you’ve got DPi and LMP2 together and even the pro LMP2 lineups are having a struggle keeping up with the DPi programs.”

Falb also floated the idea of splitting the DPi and LMP2 into two separate classes, a suggestion that has gained traction, especially following the pace differences seen between the DPis and global LMP2s at the WTSCS’s first four races.

“My opinion as an amateur would be to split it into two, have a DPi Pro-Pro, and a LMP2 Pro-Am category.”

After speaking to Sean Rayhall and John Falb it became clear that there where a handful of reasons for each of them making the trip and crossing the Atlantic to compete.

For Rayhall it seemed like it was for a chance to grow as a driver, and advance his career, and at the age of 23, most of it is potentially still ahead of him. “Being able to be diverse and race both IMSA in the states and over here at the same time takes a special kind of niche… you have to make the best of every opportunity.”

While for the 46-year-old John Falb, he was attracted to Europe by the possibility of getting more time behind-the-wheel of the prototype cars that he loves and doing it a much cheaper and more cost-effective  price. “Typically there are more teams and with three driver lineups there is just more seats and that definitely creates more opportunities.”

The newly developing North American ladder may not be at the same level or better than what is currently present in Europe, and it could never be, but it is hard to deny that the level of competition in the United States is not improving and becoming ever more attractive for drivers. Even if it was too late for Falb and Rayhall to reap the benefits of, the future of sports car racing in North America seems bright for racing’s next generation of talent.