By IMSA Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – As IMSA embarks on its 50th anniversary season beginning with next month’s 57th Rolex 24 At Daytona, highlights and memorable moments from throughout IMSA’s history will be celebrated.
One such moment is sure to be the 50th Rolex 24 At Daytona in 2012, when NASCAR racer A.J. Allmendinger joined forces with IndyCar racer Justin Wilson and a pair of sports car veterans, Ozz Negri and John Pew, to win the prestigious race for the first time in the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ford/Riley Daytona Prototype.
Being the milestone 50th race, a huge crowd turned out to Daytona International Speedway to experience it. And what they got to experience, particularly in the closing hours, lived up to the hype.
The race came down to a battle between the No. 60 Shank team and the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport Ford/Riley DP shared by Allan McNish, Ryan Dalziel, Lucas Luhr, Alex Popow and Enzo Potolicchio. The battle reached a fever pitch with two hours and 19 minutes remaining, when Allmendinger went door-to-door, literally, with McNish through Turn 2 on the DIS oval before completing the pass for the lead heading into the chicane.
“We bounced off each other a couple of times,” recalled Allmendinger on Tuesday in the garage at Daytona where he was busy preparing for his newly announced ride in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 86 Acura NSX GT3 in the 2019 Rolex 24. “I remember, there were still two hours to go when it happened.
“I bounced off of him, took the lead and the caution came out right after. I got on the radio and said, ‘You all right over there, Mike? You having a heart attack? We’re just having fun out here.’ His response was true racer form. He said, ‘Nah, man, this is why I love watching.’ It was just a cool race.”
At the end of it, Allmendinger had the honor of driving the car into Daytona’s famed victory lane. It was an emotional experience after years of trying to win the Rolex 24 for Shank.
“Gosh, we finished second in our first year – in ’06 – that we ran the race,” Allmendinger said. “You just think, ‘Wow, we’re so close. Eventually, it’s going to come, no problem.’ In ’08 and in ’09, we had dominant race cars and something came up and bit us. I think in 2010, we were running in the top three and caught on fire with an hour to go. It seemed like so much would happen and at some point you start doubting. ‘Is this ever going to happen?’
“I remember, I think it was after the 2010 or 2011 race, Mike came to me and said, ‘Hey man, if you want to go to a team like Ganassi or a team that can go win this race, feel free. Don’t hold back.’ I’m like, ‘Shut up, Mike. That’s not even a question. We’re going to win this together.’
“Once we finally did it and the fashion that we did it in, to pull into victory lane, I knew it was going to be this emotional feeling of, ‘Gosh, we won. I won.’ The ‘we won for Mike Shank’ part felt more than I ever expected. It just shows how much I care about him and we all do. Anybody that’s ever driven for him cares about the guy, because he gives everything he has.”
Allmendinger will have another chance to win for Shank in 2019 as he returns to the team for the 13th time in 14 years in 2019. He’ll share the No. 86 Acura in the GT Daytona (GTD) class with its full-season co-drivers, Trent Hindman and Mario Farnbacher, as well as the team’s 2019 IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup driver, Justin Marks.
After 11 years of racing in the prototype ranks, this will be Allmendinger’s second consecutive year in the GTD class. He finished second in class last year alongside co-drivers Hindman, Katherine Legge and Alvaro Parente, but admitted it was a bigger adjustment than he originally anticipated moving from prototype to GTD.
“To come back and try to be at the level with everybody else – this past year was a new challenge for me with the GTD, and the Acura is completely different than anything I’ve ever driven,” he said. “It was a steep learning curve, more than I expected, but I got back in it already for a couple hours and feel a lot more comfortable than I did at this time last year.”
He is particularly comfortable with the new Michelin tires he and the rest of the field will use for the first time in the 2019 Rolex 24. He got his first experience with the tires Tuesday during the Michelin on-track opportunity at Daytona.
“They feel great,” he said. “Just the feel that I had right away rolling out on the racetrack; it was pretty cold this morning, it was in the high-40s, and I was surprised how quick the tire came in and how much feel that I had on it right away. You know, with the track being cold, once it got a little temp in it, it had a lot of grip.
“Immediately, I felt like I could go out there and start challenging brake zones and just really have a better feel of what the race car was doing. I really feel like the Michelin tires play a big part of that. I’m looking forward to getting some more time on them, but more importantly, going through a 24-hour race and double stinting for sure, maybe triple stinting. We’ll see, but it’s a great tire.”
Most of all, Allmendinger is looking forward to reuniting again with Shank. Their relationship goes far beyond the racetrack.
“It’s honestly hard to put into words,” he said. “We’ll do anything for each other. We’ve both helped each other at times when we’re down and when the other person needed the person. For me, it’s always been an honor to drive for him. He’s a true racer. Anybody that’s met him knows that.
“Anybody that’s ever experienced just talking to him for five minutes understands the passion that he has for the sport, the kind person that he is and the friendly person that he is. He’s one of my best friends and it will always be like that, long after we get done doing this.”