The Daytona 24 Hours or – to give it it's proper name – The Rolex 24 At Daytona can often get a little lost on the endurance racing calendar.
Maybe it's because it's in January. Maybe it's because it's in America – away from the more familiar 24 Hour races of Le Mans, Spa and Nurburging and at a track synonymous with NASCAR in Daytona International Speedway.
For whatever reason it never gains the same coverage, but it should be held up alongside the trifecta of European races listed above.
The track is legendary. The track the 24 uses loops around both of the famous tri-oval's 31 degree banked turns as well as the infield with its twin horseshoe turns and a 'bus stop' style chicane half way down the back straight for which “applying as much braking as the engineers have provided is as necessary as breathing” according to experienced Grand-Am driver Mark Patterson, who races this year for United Autosports. You can read the rest of Mark's description of a lap of the track in this feature.
This will also be the first major race on the track since it was repaved, following the pothole debacle during last year's Daytona 500. Many of the bumps have been ironed out but, according to the NASCAR drivers, the transitions from turn to straight are now more sudden than the old track.
But it's the gathered field that perhaps lifts Daytona over anything else the racing world can offer.
The regulars of the Grand-Am series are all present – the Rolex 24 forms the first round of their championship – but are joined by some of the biggest names from Indycar, NASCAR and sportscar racing.
No team illustrates this better than Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. The team themselves are one of the giants of American racing, and the eight drivers they have for their two car entry are testament to that.
Alongside Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas – reigning Grand-Am champions – are Joey Hand and Graham Rahal, the former a driver for the BMW Team RLL squad in the ALMS and the latter the youngest ever Indycar winner. The other car brings together Gannasi's Indycar and NASCAR drivers – Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya.
British participation is high throughout the grid. In the premier class, the Daytona Prototypes, Scottish-born Ryan Dalziel won last year and returns, this time with Starworks Motorsport, Richard Westbrook races for Level 5 Motorsports. Ross Kaiser also takes his place in the field, a driver with Doran Racing the prize for winning the Sunoco Challenge last year. In the GT class – roughly equivalent to GT3 as it would be in Europe Porsche Carrera Cup and British GT driver Glynn Geddie will line up among the drivers for Bennett Racing and 2008 Formula Renault UK champion Adam Christodoulou races for the Speedsource team who won the class last year. You can view the full entry list on the official Grand-Am website here.
The challenge ahead of these four – and the other Brits (and non-Brits) – is predictably tough. The 2010 winners logged 755 laps of the 3.56 mile track, and like many other endurance events the increasing reliability of the cars has transformed the event into a twice-around-the-clock sprint race – or as Martin Brundle phrases it “the 24 Hours of Qualifying Laps”.
Brundle – a winner of the 1988 race – returns alongside Patterson, Mark Blundell and Zak Brown in the United Autosports with Michael Shank Racing Ford-Riley. “Someone will go flat out and finish so we all have to. It's going to be full on,” says Brundle. That high speed, high pressure race adds more problems to drivers like Brundle and teams like United Autosports.
“We don't know the cars and of course we're not as fit as we were twenty years ago but we're fit enough.” Brundle says. “I think we're going to have to it through stealth and cunning and treachery rather than youth and fitness. I think that's quite clear.”
Indeed it is likely the race win will be settled between the regular squads. The three day 'Roar Before The 24' test proved – as if proof were needed – that the two Ganassi/Sabates cars will be among the fastest on track. Both the no.01 and no.02 car topped sessions, as did the no.8 Starworks Motorsport car (Ryan Dalziel at the wheel) and the reigning champion team Action Express Racing, boasting three of the four 2009 winners among the drivers in its no.5 entry.
Those three teams – each with two cars – will doubtless be among the front runners. These six cars – to briefly give a potentially disasterous prediction – should provide the winners, though A.J. Allmendinger, Justin Wilson and Michael McDowall in Michael Shank Racing's no.6 car and the Flying Lizard Motorsports car (not forgetting the stealth and cunning of United Autosports) could be pretenders to the throne.
The GT class looks, amid a class that includes Ferraris, BMWs and Camaros and a Mustang, to be a battle between Porsche and Mazda.
Porsche squads dominated the test, led by the three car effort of Grand-Am veterans TRG. However, some of the Porsche limelight will doubtless be taken by Brumos Racing. One of the most famous names in Daytona 24 and Grand-Am history Brumos won the race overall in 2009, but have stepped down into the GT ranks for 2011. The team, however, have kept some of the top drivers. Multiple winner Hurley Haywood came out of retirement for the race and will be joined by Andrew Davis, Leh Keen (part of the Hankook Team Farnbacher team that finished second overall in last year's Nurburgring 24) and Porsche works driver Marc Lieb.
Mazda will be led – at least on paper – by Speedsource. The reigning class champions bring two RX-8s to the race. The Mazda effort will also include Team Sahlen and Dempsey Racing, the team of actor Patrick Dempsey. Dempsey is an experienced racer himself – and is listed among the driver in the no.40 car – having driven at Daytona himself and taken his team to Le Mans in 2009. The man, however, is unlikely to challenge for a class win.
In both classes the pace is likely to throw up surprises and punish the smallest of mistakes harshly. Even the slightest delay – either after an on track problem of a mechanical fault – could end a team’s shot of starting the year off with a win.
All the best ingredients of a great race.
The Checkered Flag will be bringing you news from the build up to the race, the race itself and the post-reaction