DC's ROLEX 24 SLEEP PARTY
The Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16, undertakes its 2009 season in traditional manner with the Jan. 24-25 Rolex 24 At Daytona. The party even begins at an "old" time, 3:30 p.m. EST.
Inasmuch as the Daytona Prototype and Grand Touring fields just keep getting better, a greater number of cars can be expected to contend for bragging rights in the two-class sportscar race.
Gone are the days when better than half of a Rolex 24's starting field could be expected to post a DNF (that would be a time period to which many often refer as "the good ol' days").
In last year's edition, 29 DP and GT cars traveled 2,100 miles or more in the twice-around-the-clock race, completing at least 85-percent of the 2,474 miles compiled by the winning No. 01 TELMEX/Target Lexus-Riley fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix (y Jose) Sabates.
Two-thirds of the 2008 field completed 75 per cent of the winner's 24-hour lap count, during which 35 drivers in 15 different cars would lead two or more race laps.
While the Rolex 24 remains a contest wherein the most enduring team wins, teams also are enduring ever more. Also becoming more likely is that the race's eventual winner still will be looking over his shoulder even on the white-flag lap - and thus correspondingly difficult to handicap, if not a lot of fun to watch.
Below begins DC's annual list of those who at some point will likely lead their race, might win it and is guaranteed to ruffle feathers in the paddock.
The Biggest Sleeper ...
Already mentioned as a team to watch, the No. 55 Supercar Life Level 5 Motorsports' BMW-Riley DP team of Christophe Bouchut, Scott Tucker and Ed Zabinski has since added Raphael Matos.
Matos is so smooth that he invokes memories of and compares favorably to Wayne Taylor at his smoothest gear-shifting, steering-wheel-turning younger days. (Taylor still is better than many if not most drivers; it's just that he takes one or two micro-seconds longer than in the past - and knows it, too).
In the extent of his previous Rolex Series starts, Matos book-ended his 2008 season with a Rolex 24 GT-class win (SpeedSource No. 70 Castrol Syntec Mazda) and won overall honors in September's SunRichGourmet.com 1000 Rolex Series finale at Miller Motorsports Park (Mike Shank Racing No. 6 Ford-Riley DP).
All of Level5's drivers have at one time or another taken a checkered flag ahead of a trailing field, but can Matos really go three for three?
DP BUNKMATES (in no particular order) ...
No. 13 Beyer Racing Pontiac-Riley DP. Driver Jason Beyer showed impressive maturity in his 2008 Rolex Series debut at VIR. His co-drivers, brothers Rick and Jordan Taylor, carry the genetic material that has already twice won the Rolex 24. All three have great coaches.
No. 22 Alegra Motorsports' BMW-Riley DP, sponsored by Gatorade, TodayMD, Strategic Air and Assist Card. Drivers are Ryan Dalziel, Carlos de Quesada, Chapman Ducote, J.F. Dumoulin and Thomas Enge. Having driven its way to a 2007 Rolex 24 GT class win, there is little question Alegra knows the way to Gatorade Victory Lane and has a competent driving team to take it there. At the same time, it's also this team's biggest obstacle. With each driver having a say in a car's settings, a sportscar's setup tends to move away from the ideal of a team's strongest driver or, conversely, disfavors the weakest. Whatever it may be, someone won't be fully comfortable in the car.
No. 45 Victory Junction BMW-Riley DP, with Bill Lester, Darren Manning and Kyle Petty as its drivers. Strong points include Steve Dinan's BMW power plant (also in the Alegra DP); team manager Peter Baron (whose team finished second in the 2007 Rolex 24); Manning and Lester as drivers ... but can they carry Petty, with his thus far less-than-convincing enthusiasm for this year being in the car, or racing at all?
No. 77 McDonald's Dallara-Ford DP has Memo Gidley, Brad Jaeger, Matteo Bobbi and Fabrizio Gollin driving. Kevin Doran likely is among the most experienced endurance-race-winning team managers around and Gidley just doesn't know "slow." Jaeger, having made huge strides in his DP driving since 2007, is competent. But if the two Italians - both past FIA GT champions - haven't put their once-mutual animosity behind, it'll be an insurmountable 24-hour barrier for the team.
Sleeper Most Likely To Awaken With A GT Podium ...
No. 33 Wright Motorsports Porsche GT3. Team namesake John Wright has been around Daytona for a few tries (well, actually, 16) in various capacities - from under-hood to behind the wheel. Bottom line: Wright knows his stuff and he's looking to put it all together for the 47th Rolex 24. Then there's another aspect to the team, best summed in two words: Sascha Maassen. Joining him is fellow Porsche Werks driver Patrick Pilet and Wright's regular-season, non-slacker driving team of Phillip Martien and BJ Zacharias. Pretty stout stuff which could make a dream come true.
GT BUNKMATES (in no particular order)...
No. 15 Blackforest Motorsports' Ford Mustang GT steering wheel will be gripped by Tom Nastasi, Boris Said and Australian V8 Supercar driver Paul Morris, who probably hopes it rains like crazy during his Rolex 24 stint. Most everyone knows Said's insatiable appetite to go fast, regardless, and anyone who's been around the Koni Challenge Series is aware of Nastasi's talent - especially at Daytona. This team's two largest probable hassles: seat inserts and pedal travel.
No. 40 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer/Dempsey Racing Mazda RX-8. Drivers are Patrick Dempsey, Joe Foster, Charles Espenlaub and Jep "Heavy" Thornton. If piercing blue eyes, ruggedly handsome looks and tons of lusting female fans were enough to thrust one into the winner's circle, then Steve McQueen would've many times been so thrusted (well, in a race car, anyway; 'Sup, Chadley?). The positives: Mazda should've long ago first employed the whole Energizer Bunny advertising-concept thing. Foster, Espenlaub and Thornton are proven winners - in race cars. And, despite his piercing blue eyes, ruggedly handsome looks and tons of lusting female fans, Dempsey gets better all the time. True.
No. 52 Mastercar-Coast 2 Costa Racing Ferrari 430 sponsored by Handmadefilms, CJR Logistics, Ferrari Owners Club, Wilton Partners and LA Dodgers (what, no GEICO Gecko? As if there isn't room for one more!). Drivers are Costantino Bertuzzi, Max Papis, Luca "Brasi" Pirri, Nathan Swartzbaugh and Cort Wagner. The upside: a mostly Italian crew driving an Italian car. One of 'em, Papis, made his U.S. racing dream come true by driving a Ferrari in the 1996 Rolex 24. Wagner, despite sharing his surname with a former German Big Band leader, also is a proven, winning Ferrari driver. The downside: the multiple driver thing and Italian cars tending toward temperamental - they seem to run very well or, well, not well at all (say THAT six times). Still, this poor (kids-in-college) writer will gratefully and humbly accept one or more Ferrari Enzo donations. Or an F40, a Testarossa, an F50GT, a Scaglietti, California or, even, the fake 250 GT0 "trashed" during Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It'd make a great conversation piece.
Next Up: the teams, drivers and sponsors who in some manner will directly and prominently figure into this weekend's 47th Rolex 24 At Daytona.
DC Williams, for Motorsport.com