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Rewind from Rolex 24 at Daytona – where do we go from here?

January 29, 2014

(This story was saved until today pending changes from IMSA – just wanted to be sure the results didn’t move again between Sunday night and Wednesday morning)
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I really enjoyed working the 52nd annual Rolex 24 at Daytona. While the very cold weather prior to the race made it difficult to figure out who had what, by the time things settled in it was pretty evident. This first race of the TUDOR United Sports Car Championship merged the GRAND-AM Rolex and American Le Mans Series’ into a single entity. For the most part, it seemed to work pretty well.

The 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road/oval track favored the well-developed Daytona Prototype (DP) GRAND-AM cars over ALMS’ LM P2 machines, despite the latter’s lighter weight and inherent chassis balance. Horsepower is king here; ’nuff said. The sharp end of the official grid was dominated by DP machines, from Alex Gurney’s pole in the Red Dragon No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Corvette DP to the seventh-placed No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Corvette DP, the reigning GRAND-AM champs.

Next car up was the DeltaWing (qualified by Katherine Legge), followed by two more DPs before the No. 6 Muscle Milk/Pickett Racing ORECA/Nissan LM P2 entry crashed the party. In the GTLM ranks, it was a crapshoot, with Detroit muscle of Corvette and SRT Viper battling Ferrari, BMW, Porsche (winners at Le Mans); in GTD the battle came to Audi, Porsche, SRT Viper, Ferrari and BMW.
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Racing gods shuffled the order a bunch and the record shows the No. 5 Action Express Corvette DP took a tight 1.461-second victory over the Taylor family reunion (father Wayne driving with sons Ricky and Jordan Taylor, together with good friend/business associate Max Angelelli. The No. 9 Action Express finished third. Up until the final half-hour it looked like Chip Ganassi’s latest great experiment, switching from Dinan BMW V8 power to Ford EcoBoost V6 might yield fourth place, but a dislodged undertray foiled that, leaving the Ganassi bunch in 15th.

Officiating was a big story of the weekend, with a disqualification – never explained – for the Continental Tire series BMW 200 opener’s winners. That portended more of the same during the 24-hour race with many head-scratching decisions.
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Officiating colored the finish in the GT Daytona (GTD) category. Initially IMSA, sanction for the TUSCC declared the No. 45 Flying Lizard Audi R8 first in class after penalizing Level 5’s No. 555 Ferrari 458 Italia for unavoidable contact. Discovering there was no such contact or rough driving on the final lap of the race – when everybody wants to improve their station – the Ferrari was declared the winner. No champers to spray and with most photographers already gone or busy editing their photos; the winning quintet’s Rolex watches were likely already being used by the No. 45 drivers, but I’m hoping Level 5 got them back. Maybe.
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In the LM PC category, the race went to CORE Autosport, which also prepped and fielded the GT LM factory Porsche 911 RSR that beat Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s BMW Z4 by less than two seconds. This was a grand triumph for CORE, who were announced as Porsche’s American factory team in October at Circuit of the Americas. It’s no wonder Porsche decided to work with this group; they do superb preparation and their pit stops were exceptional. They pitted the PC car next to the pair of Porsche cars, thereby making it easier for either crew to chip in and help the other.

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This 24-hour race was marred by a horrid accident that maimed Memo Gidley (pole-winning GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Corvette DP) and injured Matteo Marucelli, who had slowed dramatically with driveline problems in the No. 62 GT LM Ferrari 458 Italia entering the very fast kink near sunset, likely the most dangerous time of the day at Daytona.
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Memo’s had surgery on his left arm and leg – no further details given on that front – and has unstable back fractures that required surgery on Monday – we’re assuming it was successful and thankfully, the team has kept us notified of his progress. Marucelli was released on Monday and returned home to Italy for his recuperation from a severe concussion. If you’ve seen the videos, you know what a mess this was. Incredibly, Gidley’s team owner, Bob Stallings is sticking around the hospital in Daytona Beach to look after his driver. Now that’s a real man.

Even so, the biggest mess of this race occurred before it started and those are the machinations of TUSCC’s technical department, which is attempting to NASCAR-ize sports car racing. We all knew it was in the cards but heck, I didn’t want to believe that it would go this far. After all, from the standpoint of the Prototype category, we’re taking antiquated technology (DP) and modern techniques and these folks at IMSA are attempting to equalize them with the use of diffuser changes, weight changes, restrictors for the DPs (that never had them before), paddle shifters for the DPs (that never had them before) and so on.

It might have been smarter to do a “run what you brung” for the first three races at Daytona International Speedway, Sebring International Raceway and on the streets of Long Beach, the latter being the first stand-alone (without GTLM and GTD) for the new series. Rather than piling on expense after expense and rule after rule – that might or might not work – for two distinct classes, why not see how they coexist before dictating “how” they coexist? IMSA doesn’t see it that way, and therein lies the rub.

When this dysfunctional group gets to Sebring, things will be different. We expected the DP cars to have the upper hand at Daytona, where they’ve raced since GRAND-AM began; no doubt the LM P2 prototypes will have things their way on the bumpy and difficult airport circuit, where World Endurance Championship (WEC) teams come to prepare for the Le Mans 24-hour race (for just those reasons).

I have hope for this new series because of the professionalism of the teams involved. I just hope the officials destined to police them become more proficient at their jobs. Granted, there were 67 starters on the 3.56-mile DIS racetrack and it was a difficult race for everyone – those on and off the racetrack – but to write a rulebook in vanishing ink so it can be changed at will leading up to one of the biggest contests of the season? Not the wisest idea from anybody’s standpoint.

I just hope they get it better next time around.

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit

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One Comment
  1. geek49203 aka Bad Rubbish permalink

    Anne — nice work.

    I wish I was there. Seriously. ‘Cause the broadcast, both TV and radio, had its issues. Normally people would simply say, “Well, you just gotta go to the races” and that would end it. However, United/IMSA is a sponsor-powered series, and without good broadcasts (especially on TV) the thing won’t survive long.

    In my case, the local Fox affiliate opted to carry a ACC basketball game — which I figure was both a contractual as well as ratings decision. After that, I failed to find FoxSports2 on my fairly extensive — and expensive — cable lineup. The Internet chat forums buzzed with info on what pirate sites were carrying low-quality live video feeds, at least until someone shut ’em down.

    Worse yet, as I watched that pirate feed,I listened to MRN. It quickly became obvious that both TV and radio were missing things — important things, such as notable cars spinning off of the track. And while the first-line commentators did an okay job on MRN, the consensus was that after midnight,the thing became totally silly.

    So, at 8 am, I finally got high-quality FOX broadcast feed. Which wasn’t bad, having 6 hours of coverage. But I still have to wonder how hard it is to sell sponsors with the garbage we had for 18 hours at the only race on the series that the casual race fan knows about?

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