Written by John Dagys via SpeedTV.com

While the economic meltdown has affected us all in more ways than one, it’s also helped create new opportunities that wouldn’t have likely been possible two or three years ago. Case in point: the ALMS Challenge category. With dwindling car counts and an excess of Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars racing in the Patron GT3 Challenge, IMSA took the proactive decision of allowing these cars on the ALMS grid this season.
Cosmo (L) and Baker (R) is just one example of the Pro-Am driver concept in the ALMS Challenge category. (John Dagys)What initially looked like an easy way to boost car counts turned into something much more. A new breed of drivers and teams were exposed to top-line professional motorsports. And with its pro-am driver format, new racers were given a once in a lifetime opportunity to jump in with the big boys. By the same token, a handful of work-deprived season veterans got a new lease on life too, by helping these gentlemen drivers get up to speed in the fast-paced world of sportscar racing.

Thanks to IMSA’s initiative, Guy Cosmo and John Baker are living the ALMS dream. Cosmo, a former full-time ALMS and Grand-Am racer, was itching for a new challenge, while Baker, a businessman without any prior racing experience, needed a driver coach to come to grips of a pure-bred race car.

They first met two years ago, when Baker was peddling a Porsche Carrera GT around Moroso Motorsports Park in Jupiter, Fla., and Cosmo was there as an instructor. After getting a taste of high-speed, closed-circuit racing, Cosmo suggested Baker take the next step, or giant leap that is.

“I convinced him to do a test with Orbit, because they had a Porsche Cup car,” Cosmo said. “We got him a track day down at Homestead-Miami Speedway where he got his first experience in an actual race car. He immediately fell in love with it and ordered a Cup car in December.”

One month later, Baker was lapping Sebring International Raceway in preparation for the season-opening Patron GT3 Challenge race in March. Along the way, he and Cosmo took the overall win in a six-hour Porsche Club of America endurance race at the famed 3.7-mile airfield circuit. Not too shabby for Baker’s first-ever race.

Fast forward four months and Baker was behind the wheel of the same Orbit Racing-prepared Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, but instead racing in the American Le Mans Series. He made his debut at the Salt Lake City round, where he and Cosmo scored a runner-up result before being disqualified for a small technical infraction. Yet, that weekend proved to be one eye-opening experience.

“I remember like it was yesterday,” Baker said. “The first time I went into the final turn at Miller Motorsports Park, I was side-by-side with a prototype. Even though we were six inches apart, both of us held our line and there were no problems. I think we were all surprised by the level of respect that was given both ways. Plus, there was not a single caution that race.”

Ironically, Baker relies on public transit when at his day job as a private equity investor in New York City. (John Dagys)Baker has continually made progress throughout the five-round ALMS Challenge season and has also relied on experience in the Patron GT3 Challenge. But to come as far as he has, in such a short period of time has even shocked his instructor.

“From this point, I would have never imagined that you could take someone, and not only build his confidence behind the wheel, but also be competitive to the point where he’s in the American Le Mans Series, racing world class and professional drivers. It’s phenomenal!” Cosmo said. “I think it’s a tribute to the formula we’ve had and the driver development process he and I had together for the past two years. This is the culmination of all this work, but also his natural ability to adapt and continually make progress every time he sits in the car.”

One of the major benefits has been Baker’s additional seat time on adjoining Patron GT3 Challenge race weekends. With over an hour of additional practice time, plus two 30-minute races, Baker has been able to not only come to gripsof each track, but also hone his race craft.

“We’re now working on his outright speed,” Cosmo said. “Today, for the first time ever, he’s within two seconds of my best time. It’s remarkable. I’m going out there setting quick times for the session and killing myself to do it, and he’s within two seconds of that. In the past, he’s been an average of four to five seconds [from me]. It’s amazing how quickly he’s learned.”

Much of the Baker’s immediate success is credit to Cosmo’s hands-on coaching techniques that have helped make the duo one of the quickest ALMS Challenge teams in the paddock. On Friday, Cosmo earned his third consecutive class pole and will be hoping to translate that into he and Baker’s first Challenge win in Saturday’s season-finale.

Whatever the outcome is on Saturday, Baker knows he’s certainly come a long ways in what usually takes most drivers years, not months, to accomplish.

Cosmo scored his third consecutive ALMS Challenge pole on Friday. (John Dagys)“This year has opened up a whole world of opportunities, especially for someone like myself,” Baker said. “I’m trying to figure out how this kind of passion can be fit into my life. There’s a potential of this becoming a full-season effort [next year]. But this is all still very new to me.

“I think what Guy and I have done is relatively unique. His coaching style and the way we communicate is great. I would have never been able to get up to speed in this kind of timetable.”

Cosmo, who sampled the Series’ new LMP Challenge car at Road Atlanta two weeks ago, also has yet to confirm his 2010 plans. The former Star Mazda champion and ALMS Rookie of the Year wants another stab at a full-season championship run, but is thankful for every opportunity given to him, especially in these tough economic times.

After all, Cosmo and Baker wouldn’t have likely been racing in the ALMS this season if wasn’t for the launch of the Challenge category. Sometimes, things happen for the right reasons.