The 50th Rolex 24 at Daytona will be a weekend where the history of the legendary endurance race and the future of the Rolex Series come together to cohabit Daytona International Speedway.
The history of the event goes back to a three hour sportscar event held three years after the speedway opened – won by Dan Gurney, driving alone. The event quickly expanded to the full 24 hours with a roll of honours including names from motorsport history around the world – Pedro Rodriguez, Phil Hill, Jo Siffert, Mario Andretti, Henri Pescarolo – and the marques to match – Lotus, Jaguar, Ferrari, Ford, Nissan and Porsche before the Riley chassis dominated Grand-Am era.
For the 50th event that history comes together, as speedway president Joie Chitwood III explained; “the best part of celebrating the 50th Rolex 24 is looking back at the history of what we've done here. We're going to have 29 for the former winning cars from the 42 possible at Daytona Beach to celebrate the look and the feel of how it was in '62 all the way to the current era.”
As well as the array of winning machinery – grouped together in the 50 Years of Champions exhibit at the track for the weekend – 47 of the former champion drivers will also appear at Daytona, with 30 competing to take another title, including Hurley Haywood, already a five time overall winner, who will contest the GT class with Brumos Racing.
One of these previous winners – A.J. Foyt – will serve as Grand Marshall for the event. Foyt takes a special place in US racing history as the man to win the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans and Rolex 24. As well as this pantheon of accolades Foyt took pole position and led the opening lap of the 1962 race. Having started the Rolex 24 story half a century ago on the track Foyt will start the 50th Rolex 24 from the flagstand.
And the future will pass beneath him at the start of a day of competition.
A future will be represented in the 60 car field that will take the green flag on Saturday. The new specification Daytona Prototypes dominated the entry in the premier class. Four teams, including 2010 winners Action Express Racing will run the new Chevrolet Corvette DP with others, including defending race winners and series champions Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates running the new Riley chassis for the first time.
Ganassi's drivers are the same eight – in the same combination – that scored a 1-2 finish in 2011 – but while the human element is tried and tested a question mark has to remain over the new cars, plunging into their toughest event for their first competitive outing.
Though all the teams using the new cars have been able to test at Daytona both in December and at the Roar Before The 24 earlier this month, the balance of power – real and figurative – between the new and old cars is likely to be one of the race's talking points.
As far as headline grabbing goes Starworks Motorsport are the biggest of the teams using the older chassis, with a two car team using Ford powered old-spec Riley cars. The driving staff that includes Indycar race winners Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter–Reay as well as Ryan Dalziel – winner with Action Express in 2010 – and Allan McNish – double winner of another famous 24 hour race – making them difficult to rule out of contention.
Also in an old-spec Riley, run by Michael Shank Racing is Felipe Nasr. Followers of the British Formula Three championship – and indeed regular visitors to The Checkered Flag – will be familiar with the Brazilian's championship winning season in the UK that included taking the prize drive from the Sunoco Rolex 24 at Daytona Challenge.
Teamed with fellow South Americans Jorge Goncalves and Gustavo Yacaman and NASCAR and Grand-Am regular Michael McDowall, Nasr has almost unarguably the best chance of any previous Sunoco Challenge winner to run with the overall favourites, especially if his testing pace is any guide after he led the times in December on his very first visit to Daytona.
The F3 champions presence adds another series to the Rolex 24's catchment, with European drivers from a huge range of series joining the familiar names of Indycar and NASCAR stars drawn in my the 24.
The second – and more numerous – class in the race is the GT category will also begin a new era on the high banked turns of Daytona.
More than 40 GT entrants are expected, including established Grand-Am brands like Mazda, Porsche and Chevrolet. However, joining them for the first time are Grand-Am spec variants of both the Ferrari 458 and Audi R8, boasting a collection of the top sportscar and GT drivers in the driving seat.
Five of Maranello's latest creation are on the entry list. Scott Sharp's Extreme Speed Motorsport makes its Rolex Series bow while their American Le Mans Series rivals Risi Competizione enter two cars with Gimmi Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella, Toni Vilander and Olivier Beretta all included in a stellar line up.
These new teams, and new drivers add a new level of the competition for the regular Rolex Series drivers and teams such as Scot Robin Liddell who will start his seventh Rolex season with Stevenson Motorsports.
“There are outstanding drivers who want to be part of this race especially as it the 50th anniversary,” Liddell told The Checkered Flag, “so as a British driver based in Britain but racing in the US I saw a lot of people I've raced against in the past in Europe – Ferrari works driver and so on – plus all the usual protagonists and people from other series so it's a really great crop of drivers. I think it's going to be really exciting, you'll see a lot of top quality drivers in the GT drivers and I know from my experience we're going to be battling wheel-to-wheel for the 24 hours.”
Needless to say – especially after a 2011 European endurance season haunted by clashes between faster cars and the GT machinery they were trying to lap – one key to winning at Daytona is overtaking. Indeed, the winning Daytona Prototype team can expect to pass an average of 17 cars on each of the 700-plus 3.56 mile laps around the roval track. However, while the focus will be on the how the overall contenders can cut through traffic, as Liddell explains the challenge for the GT drivers being overtaken is just as important in deciding that class.
“The prototype drivers are trying to lap the slower cars as fast as they can losing as little time as possible,” he said. “We're doing exactly the opposite – we're trying to allow cars to pass as easily as possible whilst losing the least amount of time. I think it's a unique challenge. In some ways as a GT driver I think it's harder because you're not just overtaking, or fighting with the people around you, you're also looking in your mirrors and letting people overtake. Over time it becomes a skill to allow cars to overtake you while still retaining your position in a battle you're in or even better when a car overtakes you that can then force an opportunity for you to get ahead of the guy in front.”
Liddell and his Stevenson teammates feature in a GT class dominated by Porsche – marque stalwarts TRG field five of the 22 examples of Stuttgart engineering on the entry list. Other Porsche field teams included Flying Lizard Motorsports who return to their GT roots after entering a Daytona Prototype in 2011 – Brumos Racing, and Liqui Moly Team Engstler, featuring the ever-youthful Franz Engstler as part of the driving squad.
The representation of Mazda – oft Porsche's main rival in Grand-Am competition – has decreased, with 2010 class winners Speedsource scaling back to a single RX-8, the Dempsey Racing team maintain their own two car entry in pursuit of a repeat of the 2011 result, which delivered the team's figurehead – actor Patrick Dempsey – to the class podium.
Qualifying for the 50th Rolex 24 at Daytona is on Thursday afternoon and the race itself begins at 3:30pm local time (8:30pm UK time) on Saturday January 28. Motors TV are broadcasting 15 hours of the race live in Europe while The Checkered Flag will be delivering comprehensive coverage of the event all weekend.