This weekend, the talk, the speculation, the rumors all end. The cars of the IMSA sanctioned Tudor United Sports Car Championship will hit the high banks of the Daytona International Speedway at ten minutes past 2 o’clock pm.
After a decade of dividing the American sports car scene the Grand-Am Rolex Series and the American Le Mans Series have merged. The biggest casualty, the lightning fast and prohobitively expensive P1 prototypes are gone. A top tier class composed of Daytona Prototypes, P2 machines and the ever popular DeltaWing will fight for overall honors. A growing contingent of Oreca FLM-09’s comprise the ALMS carryover PC class. Behind them lies a massive GT field, divided among two categories; the premier, factory backed teams of GTLM and the more cost effective GT3, Rolex GT and ALMS GTC cars all huddled together in the GTD class. It will be the biggest, most diverse field to ever take the green flag at Daytona.
Mirroring the open-wheel merger of 2008 and the vast increase in IndyCar exposure that followed, sports car racing in America is on the verge of its most historic season in decades.
Sports car racing at Daytona began in 1962 with a 3 hour sprint race won by Dan Gurney in a Lotus 19. It was expanded to a 2000KM race for the 1964 and 65′ events as it gained in popularity and prestige, but it was the 1966 event that established the Daytona as a legendary race. Organizers extended the length to 24 hours in the hopes of creating an American version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The idea worked brilliantly drawing in multiple manufacturer teams, and many high profile drivers. The race was won by Brit Ken Miles and his Texan team-mate Lloyd Ruby in the iconic Ford GT40 MK II.
The race has gained a great following over the decades and along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring is part of endurance racing’s famous Triple Crown. A major draw for Daytona over the years has been the participation of Hollywood celebrities teaming with racing’s brightest stars. The long list of notable names includes the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, Tim Allen, Tony Stewart, Dan Wheldon, A.J. Foyt, Gene Hackman, Jimmie Johnson, Dario Franchitti, Dale Earnhardt, Paul Newman, Jeff Gordon, Sebastien Bourdais and James Garner.
This weekend the celebrity contingent will be a filed by heart-throb actor, team owner and driver Patrick Dempsey. The all star driver line up has been augmented by drivers from IndyCar, European series as well as a NASCAR regular or two. Notable one off drivers include Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, James Hinchcliffe, Sebastian Bourdais, Max Papis, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Justin Wilson and Ryan Briscoe. As well as young up and comers like F1 hopeful Alexander Rossi, GP2 runner-up Sam Bird, and IndyLights driver Sage Karem. Also competing are NASCAR stars like Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson.
The fight for victory seems set between the top DP machines after they took the first 7 spots in qualifying. Alex Gurney put the venerable Red Dragon Corvette of Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing on pole, some two tenths ahead of Richard Westbrook in the Spirit of Daytona car. The DeltaWing lines up 8th on the grid, with the top P2 car, the Nissan backed Muscle Milk machine of long time partners Lucas Luhr and Klas Graf no better than 11th. Many expect the P2 cars to move forward in the race as they are both easier on their tires and more fuel efficient than the heavier DP machines. But with nearly 1.6 seconds separating the Red Dragon and the Muscle Milk Car in qualifying, it will take a massive effort on the part of any P2 machine to make it to the podium, let alone take top honors. Also of note among the P2 cars are the Speedsource Mazda SkyActiv Diesel prototypes. Much as Mazda was the first company to campaign a rotary prototype, they are the first team to race a turbodiesel powered P2 car, following the footsteps of the P1 turbodiesel cars of Audi and Peugeot. The PC pole went to Colin Braun in CORE Autosport’s distinctive white and orange Oreca FLM-09.
The GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes may well be the most exciting to watch. Marc Goosens in the SRT Viper snagged pole for the GTLM ranks, just piping Nick Tandy in the new Porsche 911 RSR and the sister Viper of Jonathan Bomarito. GTLM was very close, with the top 6 cars in class all running within one second of Goosens’ pace. The race should come down to a straight fight between the SRT Viper squad , the new 911’s and the new Corvette C7R’s. Christopher Hasse captured pole for the GTD class in the Paul Miller Racing Audi R8, but the car was found to be running illegal settings on the rear wing and was stripped of its pole position, promoting the Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 to the head of the GTD field. Audi is eager to strike back and take the GT crown for the second year running.
This race begins with so many questions; will the DP’s dominate? Will the P2 cars be able to compete? How will two classes of GT cars mix? Who will last the full 24 hours and who will win it all? We will bring you all the answers as they unfold, with updates throughout the race as drivers work together to overcome unpredictable conditions, new cars and the ticking hands of time as the Rolex 24 at Daytona rocks around the clock.
Images: IMSA and Ford Racing Archives