At least one driver from the first- and second-place finishers raced in the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires for at least one of the last two seasons.
The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA)-sanctioned series is designed to groom talent for the top-level IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and a look at the tired but jubilant faces on the podium at Daytona International Speedway indicated that mission is being accomplished.
Misha Goikhberg and Kenton Koch, the respective Lites 1 champions in the last two seasons of the series, drove for the winning No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports car along with Stephen Simpson and Chris Miller. It was the first victory in the class and in the WeatherTech Championship for the team, based near Minneapolis.
"It obviously feels amazing," Goikhberg said. "We were fourth here last year, so we missed it, and watching other people celebrate didn't sit well with us, so we were very happy to be in the winner's circle this year. But most importantly, I think for us this is a foundation for the bid for the championship in 2016 in this category."
Prototype Lites veteran Robert Alon, from Encino, California, was one of four drivers in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports entry that finished second in the 24-hour endurance classic on the 3.56-mile circuit at Daytona. WeatherTech Championship rookie Alon joined Tom Kimber-Smith, Jose Gutierrez and Nicholas Boulle in that car.
Goikhberg, from North Vancouver, British Columbia, and Koch, from Glendora, California, are homegrown standouts for JDC-Miller. Goikhberg won the 2014 Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires championship for JDC Motorsports, and Koch repeated the feat in 2015.
"I think the Prototype Lites championship is a great foundation for the PC," Goikhberg said. "I think that as a training ground, the way Prototype Lites prepares you is unlike anything else, and I would recommend to all young drivers to go through with that program and that championship so one day they can drive a car in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
"Kenton actually won the Lites championship a year after me, in 2015, so it's good to see the two of us on this team have came from the IMSA Lites background."
The No. 85 JDC-Miller team won by four laps over the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen team. Koch was behind the wheel at the finish, taking the checkered first in class in his first WeatherTech Championship start. He also earned sweet, safe redemption for a pre-dawn crash on cold tires about nine hours from the finish that sliced the team's lead.
"The team did an awesome job of getting the car back together, and obviously we were able to capitalize on it and pull out the win," Koch said. "We were pretty far ahead (at the end). I didn't really want to take any risks. There was no point in fighting for that. So we played it safe and we made it to the end, and super happy."
While Goikhberg, Koch and Alon all are recent graduates of the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires, Koch also is one of the latest products of the Mazda Road to 24.
That program comprises Mazda's sports car driver development system. The Mazda Road to 24 has presented nearly $3 million in driver scholarships in recent years, taking drivers from the grassroots categories all the way to the top rung of North American sports car racing.
"The Mazda Road to the 24 is probably the best stepping-stone for young drivers that might not have a lot of money trying to get to the pinnacle of motorsport," Koch said. "Mazda has made this ladder system all the way from starting out from karts all the way up the ladders through the global Mazda MX-5 Cup and then on to the Mazda Prototype Lights or the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
"I've been lucky enough to win consecutively (championships) to use that scholarship money to then get to here. It's pretty unbelievable that I've been able to now come here with this amazing team and awesome support to be able to pull this win off, so it's pretty cool."
There was one more DNA strand between the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires series and the final podium finisher in the PC class at Daytona. Three-time and reigning Lites 2 champion Brian Alder owns the No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports car that finished third.
Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires: Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires, an International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) Challenge Series, is in its 11th season in 2016. The series provides thrilling action and grooms drivers for future WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competition in the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes.
The two classes of competition in the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires series take drivers and teams down unique, exciting roads of prototype sports car racing. Nimble, high-tech, purpose-built Lites 1 machines pack in the power with a 230-horsepower, 2-liter Mazda engine designed to prepare aspiring professionals for prototype competition in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and offer a challenging environment for mature semi-professional drivers, including competition in a Masters Championship. Equally capable and cost-effective Lites 2 machines offer new competitors a perfect introduction to the world-class competition offered by IMSA.
For more information about Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires, visit www.imsa.com, follow hashtag #MazdaLites @IMSA on Twitter or IMSA on Facebook.
About IMSA: The International Motor Sports Association, LLC (IMSA) was originally founded in 1969 and owns a long and rich history in sports car racing. Today, IMSA is the sanctioning body of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the premier sports car racing series in North America. IMSA also sanctions the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and the Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires, as well as four single-make series: Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama; Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Yokohama; Ferrari Challenge North America; and Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America. IMSA - a company within the NASCAR family - is the exclusive strategic partner in North America with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) which operates the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a part of the FIA World Endurance Championship. The partnership enables selected IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship competitors to earn automatic entries into the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. For more information, visit www.IMSA.com, www.twitter.com/IMSA or www.facebook.com/IMSA.