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Sportscar racing is born again during the Rolex 24 at Daytona

For twenty four grueling hours, and over 2,474.2 miles. beginning at 2:10 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 25 and concluding at 2:10 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26, a record setting sixty-seven of the world's finest race teams, comprised of more than 200 drivers, competed for one of the most coveted trophies in sport during the fifty-second running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the first round of the four-race Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup (NAEC).

A brief glimpse at some of the action from the 52nd running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
AJ Sinclair

The event was also the first race under the International Motor Sports Association, the sanctioning body for professional motorsports racing, that merged the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series with the American Le Mans Series to create the new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship, and drew a record number of fans onto the crowded infield, and a surprisingly well populated main grandstand.

The command of “drivers, start your engines” was given by Grand Marshal David Hobbs, the British driver who raced in the inaugural edition of this race in 1962. Hobbs’ 30-year history in the sport covered all levels of racing and led to his being included in the FIA list of graded drivers, essentially designating him as one of the best in the world. Inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2009, he has worked as a commentator on the sport since 1979.

“When I raced at Le Mans for the first time in 1962 it was in a Lotus Elite which had 85 horsepower," Hobbs commented. "Going downhill with a following wind it might do 125 mph and the Ferraris were doing about 185 mph, so the closing speeds were pretty horrendous. In the 24-hour race we are watching today and tomorrow even the slowest cars are pretty quick. The slowest Porsche 911 will probably be doing 180 mph and the Prototypes will be doing about 195 mph which is nothing like the closing speeds from years back. However with 67 cars in the field and over 200 drivers with very mixed ability, it presents a different kind of challenge. In my racing days, endurance races were tough to finish so you had to baby the car. Race cars today are so reliable and so bulletproof you can drive them flat out. So if you are in a Prototype car and you are leading the race it’s very difficult to give up too much time while you are lapping traffic. You have to be careful, but you must keep humming along. It is a big responsibility for the fast guys when they are lapping slower traffic to make sure they pick the right place to get by.”

It was a race that saw it's share of caution flags, including one of the most horrendous looking automobile crashes in the history of racing. As the race approached the three hour mark and the angle of the sun was becoming more of a challenge, Italy’s Matteo Malucelli reported to his team that he had lost engine power in the #62 Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia he was driving in the GTLM class. Memo Gidley, heading into the sun at the wheel of the much faster Prototype car that had started on pole, the #99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Corvette DP, hit the #62 on the way to the kink – the high speed corner in the infield. The resulting impact sent both drivers to local hospitals and halted action on the track for an hour and 25 minutes.

Near the end of the event, it all came down to a four-lap dash to the finish as Action Express Racing and the No. 5 Corvette DP held off Wayne Taylor Racing and the No. 10 Corvette DP to take the checkered flag at the world center of racing.

“I didn’t want to see it (the final caution). I had quite a good gap and cushion so I could manage traffic. I was getting quite worried initially because I kept hitting traffic at the wrong moments. When the yellow came, I was struggling with the car. The gears weren’t as smooth as I would have liked it. They were sticking a little bit," stated an elated Barbosa. “These Action Express guys are the best. And my teammates…what a phenomenal job. We had a little hiccup during the night but we still had plenty of time to come back and that’s what we did. We kept fighting to the end.”

During the final green flag stint, the Portuguese born driver of the No. 5, Joao Barbosa, was able to hold off Italy’s Max Angelelli in the No. 10 car to win the debut event of the IMSA TUDOR United SportsCar Championship by a margin of 1.461 seconds. Brazil’s Christian Fittipaldi and France’s Sebastien Bourdais teamed with Barbosa in the winning car. The overall Rolex 24 win was the second for Fittipaldi and Barbosa and the first for Bourdais.

“It’s one of these big races that you want to put on our resume,” Bourdais said.

The victory also had some local flavor. Bob Johnson, owner of Action Express Racing, is from Daytona Beach while Barbosa now resides in nearby Ormond Beach.

“If we didn’t have competitors like the #10 car it wouldn’t be as much fun,” stated Johnson, who was celebrating his second overall win at the Rolex 24 At Daytona. “It sounds arrogant to say I expected to win, but I knew the resources, talent and assets we had, how hard they had worked, how well our drivers had gelled. We had run every session of every test and for the most part were the fastest. That gave me every indication we had something going here.”

The team also took third place overall with the No. 9 Corvette DP with drivers Burt Frisselle, Brian Frisselle, John Martin and Dabien Giroix.

“The Rolex 24 At Daytona is a huge race that everyone wants to win,” said repeat winner Christian Fittipaldi. “This year the regulations have changed for all of the classes and a lot of things are completely new to everyone and on top of that this year we are racing with 67 cars in the field which is at least 10 more than we are used to and are comfortable with. Believe it or not those last 10 or 15 cars make a big difference.”

Wayne Taylor, owner of the No. 10 car, made a return to the cockpit for this year’s Rolex 24 to drive alongside his sons Ricky and Jordan and Angelelli, who is a longtime Taylor Racing driver. While runner-up honors were disappointing, Wayne Taylor said he thoroughly enjoyed the driving experience with his sons and Angelelli.

“It was an incredible weekend, an emotional weekend to be in a situation to have my kids and Max is like my oldest kid, to be together. We’ve known each other for the last 20 years.”

The No. 54 CORE autosport ORECA FLM09 and drivers Jon Bennett, James Gue, Colin Braun and Mark Wilkins claimed the first-ever Rolex 24 class win in the Prototype Challenge.

“These guys did such a good job and I think it comes down to the preparation that we had over the wintertime,” Braun said. “We worked really, really hard to come up with a plan that we wanted to stick with and we just come prepared this weekend and executed our plan down to being quickest in both practices before qualifying, qualifying on the pole, winning the race. I think we must have led the most laps.”

The GTD class (GT Daytona) victory came down to an intense last lap battle between the No. 555 Level 5 Motorsports Ferrari 458 Italia and the No. 45 Flying Lizards Motorsports Audi R8. Though the No. 555 Ferrari F458 Italia, driven Alessandro Pier Guidi, was first to the checkered flag, IMSA initially imposed a stop-plus-75-second penalty on the No. 555, enough to give the victory to the No. 45 Audi.

But after further review, IMSA reversed the ruling and awarded the win to the Ferrari team, which also included Scott Tucker, Jeff Segal, Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler. The Audi team was relegated to second place.

“The winning team is now declared the winner,” Sweedler said following the announcement in the Infield Media Center.

In the GTLM class (GT Le Mans), the No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR with Nick Tandy, Richard Lietz and Patrick Pilet edged the No. 55 BMW Z4 GTE of Bill Auberlen, Andy Priaulx, Joey Hand and Maxime Martin by 2.838 seconds to take the class victory as well as sixth overall.

“We knew Daytona, the circuit, would be good for the characteristics of our car,” Tandy said. “We knew if the car was going to run well, we would be competitive for sure. The Roar was a really good time to get a lot of work done. Normally it’s a time where you can refine settings and little details, it was really a good three days to prepare for the race. We really expected to be good and competitive.

The victory was the 40th class triumph for the Porsche 911, and 76th class win in all the many different models of the car run at the Rolex 24 At Daytona in the past fifty-two years.

Although the enormity of the winner’s achievement may take a while to sink in, the validation came as always at the final prize giving with the award of the Champion’s Trophy and the traditional Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.

Although history will tend to only remember the winning teams, for the second place finisher in the 2013 American Le Mans Series Championship presented by Tequila Patron, Extreme Speed Motorsports (ESM), the day-long battle yielded a respectable seventh and 15th in the highly-competitive prototype class that was comprised of former American Le Mans Series (ALMS) P2s and former GRAND-AM Daytona Prototypes.

Scott Sharp, Ryan Dalziel and David Brabham, co-drivers of the No. 1 Tequila Patrón Honda Performance Development (HPD) ARX-03b, earned a 15th place finish in class. The three former Rolex 24 At Daytona winners had a rollercoaster of a race, filled with highs and lows typical of endurance racing, with tough competition, a race-high run of sixth place and an unusual gearbox failure.

“It was a tough day for us," stated driver/owner Scott Sharp. "It wasn’t what we expected. We really thought we might have been a little bit down on pace and reliability would be our forte. Unfortunately it was the opposite. In some ways it is nice to see us a little more competitive than expected but then we had the gearbox problems and a mechanical problem.

Better luck shined on the No. 2 Tequila Patrón HPD of Ed Brown, Johannes van Overbeek, Anthony Lazzaro and Simon Pagenaud, crossing the finish line in seventh place in prototype class.

“This is my first time finishing the Rolex 24, so it is an achievement," added Pagenaud. "It was the first of a lot of things this weekend. The first time the two series were together and the first time the Prototype and Daytona Prototype cars were together. Daytona is all about straight-line speeds, so we struggled a little bit, but I think Sebring will suit us better. It was enjoyable. I enjoyed driving the car. The ESM Patrón team was awesome all night. Everybody was on the deck the whole time and worked hard to get us this finish. It was a very enjoyable weekend. I really enjoyed working with the team. I look forward to Sebring and Petit Le Mans."

Last year's Grand-AM Rolex Sportscar Series GT Champion, Scuderia Corsa, also had a less than stellar finish to the 24 hours, but all three of the team cars were still in action at the end of the event.

Team Principal Giacomo Mattioli said, “I want to thank the crew for the outstanding job during this past weekend. We ran 3 cars in GTD and 4 in the Ferrari Challenge, a massive effort. We had wins and podiums in the Challenge and all three of our entries finished the 24 Hour race. I’m proud and grateful for their efforts and the long hours they put in. It is always special to represent Ferrari but this year it was even more special as Ferrari North America celebrates its 60th year anniversary. I’m humbled by the opportunity to continue the Ferrari dealer racing tradition started by Luigi Chinetti 60 years ago."

Next up for the newly minted TUDOR United Sportscar Championship is the IMSA-sanctioned test at Sebring International Raceway on Feb. 20-21, with a return to the track for the second race of the Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup during the 62nd Annual Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh from Florida at Sebring International Raceway from March 12 - 15, 2014.

Stay tuned to this column for continuing coverage surrounding the Rolex 24 at Daytona weekend, as well as interviews and behind-the-scenes access to some of the sports greatest teams. Be sure to subscribe to the West Palm Beach Motorsports Examiner, and keep track of your favorite racers. If you're a motorsports fan, and know of an event, team, or person you'd like to see profiled, please let me know. Also, be sure to follow me on twitter, and read my articles about local getaways, HOAs, elections, and restaurants.