One of the major revelations of the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was the performance of co-drivers Misha Goikhberg and Stephen Simpson in the JDC-Miller Motorsports ORECA LMP2 car.
Goikhberg and Simpson combined to finish fourth in the Prototype class point standings, behind a trio of Cadillac DPi-V.R entries – which had a phenomenal season – but ahead of all others. The then-No. 85 team had a solid start to the season with top-five results in in the first four races, but the team popped up on everybody’s radar with back-to-back runner-up performances in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen and the Mobil 1 SportsCar Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where Simpson also turned the fastest lap in the race.
Simpson turned the fastest lap in the race again the next time out, in August’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase at Road America.
Those are the next three races on the 2018 WeatherTech Championship schedule for the Prototype class, starting with the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen next Sunday. And if you’re looking for a favorite, it might make a lot of sense to look in the direction of Simpson, Goikhberg, endurance-racing co-driver Chris Miller and the JDC-Miller Motorsports No. 99 GAINSCO Auto Insurance “Red Dragon” ORECA.
“They’re very high speed, they reward commitment very much and all three of them are very old school,” says Goikhberg of Watkins Glen International, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Road America. “It takes a different kind of mindset than some of the other tracks. Because of those similarities, I think most teams that tend to do well at one usually tend to do well at all the others. Hopefully, that’s what we’re going to see this year.”
Indeed, a lot has changed this year. For starters, Goikhberg and Simpson welcomed a new primary sponsor to their JDC-Miller Motorsports entry, which brought with it a new car number and color scheme. GAINSCO, which has a long and successful history of prototype sports car racing dating back to the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series era, chose this team to make its return to the WeatherTech Championship, and use its signature No. 99.
That meant Simpson and Goikhberg would be moving away from No. 85, which affectionately earned the nickname the “Banana Boat” for its solid, bright-yellow color scheme. But the Banana Boat lives on in 2018 with co-drivers Robert Alon and Simon Trummer now sharing the No. 85 ORECA as part of a two-car team for JDC-Miller Motorsports.
“The actual car that I’m driving now is the Banana Boat from last year,” Simpson said. “Even though the Banana Boat is still the 85 car and we’re in the 99, it definitely confused a few people to start with, but honestly, it’s such a privilege to be driving the Red Dragon and representing GAINSCO Auto Insurance.
“Really, it’s a huge deal for me personally. I remember watching the Red Dragon race many years ago. They’ve been such a stable part of sports car racing over the last 12 years. It’s just extra motivation for me to do extra well and make sure that this No. 99 car is running strongly.”
Both Simpson and Goikhberg – who have been with the JDC-Miller Motorsports team for several years – emphasized the benefits of having a two-car team.
“It’s been a very positive addition to the whole JDC-Miller Motorsports team,” Simpson said. “We are able to learn from each other, which is very good. Especially in some of these races that have gone by where – at Long Beach and at Detroit – we don’t have a whole bunch of practice time, so we’re able to try different things on both of the cars and make a little bit more progress than we would if we were just by ourselves.”
Goikhberg agrees but sees the team’s expansion as a natural evolution. He’s had a front-row seat for much of it in the sports car ranks, dating back to a championship-winning performance with the team in 2014 in what now is known as the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda series.
“It didn’t start this year,” says Goikhberg. “I feel like, why I love the group of guys and girls that we go racing together with is because that kind of core group has been growing almost every year. Something every year has been in one way a big step.
“A couple years back, we were only racing in Prototype Lites, it was called at the time. Then, the team got a PC car and we did that for a couple years, and then we stepped into the main Prototype class. Now, in the last offseason, we were able to expand to a two-car team, as well as get a major sponsor. All those have been events of the same chain. They were all little pieces of the same kind of puzzle.”
Of course, as the team expanded, so has the WeatherTech Championship Prototype class. Last year’s entry list for the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen had 10 Prototype class entries. This year, there are 16, including some high-profile additions. That’s undoubtedly made things tougher, but neither Simpson nor Goikhberg would prefer it any other way.
“They’re giving us some tough competition,” Simpson said. “At the end of the day, I really thrive on it. I want to beat Penske. I want to be racing with them. I want to be overtaking those cars. I think we’ve already shown what we can do as a team, but I want to get this GAINSCO Auto Insurance car running up front.”
Goikhberg thinks the team’s performance is trending in the right direction. They’re currently eighth in points with best results of seventh on three separate occasions through the first half of the season, but again, based on their performance last year, we could be approaching the Red Dragon’s time to shine.
“We kind of manage our expectations,” Goikhberg said. “We knew that to get the results like we did last year is going to be a lot tougher this year. We don’t get too hung up on the actual finishing position. We just try to perform the best that we could.
“Obviously, it is extremely rewarding when you know you’ve been doing a good job against a field of drivers and teams that is this deep. Hopefully, we can continue to showcase good results, and hopefully that will result in something for us the next year.
“The progress is clear as day to see. It’s a good group of people. There’s a lot of fun going on. We don’t forget how to make jokes, laugh, which is also a big help. We’re just having a good time racing, which I think is very important. At this level of racing, sometimes certain people might forget what it is that we’re doing it for. Definitely, that’s not the case here. We’re having lots of fun here.”
The Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen will be televised live in its entirety on FS1 beginning at 9:30 a.m. ET, with live IMSA Radio coverage available on IMSA.com, RadioLeMans.com and SiriusXM Radio. Tickets are on sale now at TheGlen.com.