Just call it A.J. & Justin's grand adventure as the two RuSPORT Champ Car World Series drivers are among the stellar pilots who will undertake the 44th annual Rolex 24 at Daytona on 28-29 January 2006.
The pair are currently at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course getting their indoctrination into the Riley/Lexus they'll co-pilot twice around the clock, learning the ins and outs of sportscar racing in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype class.
While neither has had a lot of laps in their first time out at the Hoosier Tire Test Days, both are enjoying the experience. For Allmendinger, this will be his longest stint behind the wheel, as the youngster from northern California has never driven a race longer than a couple of hours. Since he's came up through the openwheel ranks, Allmendinger is looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about the Daytona Prototypes.
"This is a totally new experience for me," Allmendinger admitted. "I haven't driven in a race longer than a couple of hours. I've always wanted to get into a car with fenders because you can't bang wheels in an openwheel car and get away with it!
"Anytime you're in a car it's good," Allmendinger added, "and since the Champ Car World Series season doesn't start until April in Long Beach this will be a good tune-up for both of us."
Wilson, who earned his first two Champ Car wins this year en route to third place in the chase for the Vanderbilt Cup has competed in the summer twice around the clock contest at Le Mans. "I like the sportscar world and I've wanted to compete in the Rolex 24. This is a great opportunity and I've had my first try behind the wheel just today. It's going to be quite challenging," he contended.
"Endurance racing is quite different from openwheel. These days you've got to push all race yet not overstress the equipment too early. You have to make sure not to use up the car and be careful with the different speeds of the traffic you encounter," the Briton stressed.
"I wanted openwheel talent - the cream of the crop - for this car," he related. "I think openwheel drivers are good for our series. Although A.J. doesn't have long distance experience per se, the openwheel system produces good drivers. The last two hours of the race these guys should shine," Shank implied.
Michael Shank Racing will have two cars for the 44th Rolex 24 at Daytona but has not released the names of the other four drivers at this time. Shank ran a one car stable this past season and with his switch back to the Lexus power plant had recently indicated he will run two DPs in 2006.
Shank believes the biggest challenge facing these two drivers, who will likely get a lot of seat time during the night hours, is to have patience in their driving. "The [slower] GT cars aren't about to give way to our Daytona Prototypes as they've got their own competition and race pace. The guys will have to know who is behind and in front of them, and we're going to utilize a lot of spotters to help them out. It's traffic management and changes in the car throughout the 24 hours that will challenge these two."
Allmendinger, who hasn't raced a sportscar in the past, finds the Lexus/Riley similar to the Barber Dodge Pro Series car in which he earned his 2002 championship. "There's not a lot of downforce and it's fairly heavy but still a lot of fun to drive," he said. "The car slides around some so I have to figure out what the car wants. It really doesn't roll around as much as I expected."
Former Minardi and Jaguar F1 racer Wilson realizes that racing the DPs will have different requirements on him as a driver. "Patience in these events and cars is so important. I'm doing this type of race so I can learn as a driver." In his first opportunity to drive the car at Homestead today, "I found it quite challenging. It's pretty warm inside the cockpit!" he laughed.
CCWS' 2004 Rookie of the Year, Allmendinger finished fifth in the final Champ Car standings in his second season of competition and is looking forward to racing with, rather than against his regular RuSPORT teammate Wilson. "It's going to be great to go for the same goal. The Rolex 24 has always been on my list of races to do and it's one of the coolest - if not the coolest - races to do."
Michael Shank Racing earned fourth place in their first stab at the Rolex 24 at Daytona during the rain-imbued 2004 contest. Engine problems took them out of the 2005 race but Shank is hoping for a return to competitiveness in 2006.
"It's really exciting for the team to have guys of AJ and Justin's caliber join us for the Rolex," Shank exulted. "We are really excited about the full 2006 season with both our cars, and hopefully we can get the year started off on the right foot with a good run in the 24."
After finishing out the two-day test at Homestead, Shank's group will be part of the three-test test at Daytona International Speedway January 4-7 as preparations for the Rolex 24 at Daytona ramp up in earnest.