End of one era, beginning of another for Rolex 24

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End of one era, beginning of another for Rolex 24

This year's 41st running of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona will mark the end of one era in the four-year history of the Grand American Road Racing Association's Rolex Sports Car Series and the beginning of another. Gone are the venerable ...

This year's 41st running of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona will mark the end of one era in the four-year history of the Grand American Road Racing Association's Rolex Sports Car Series and the beginning of another.

Gone are the venerable open-cockpit sports racing prototypes that, since their introduction in 1994, produced scintillating battles between Rob Dyson's Ford-powered Riley & Scotts and Doran Racing's Ferraris and Judd Dallaras.

In their place, a new class of closed-cockpit, mid-engine coupes, known as Daytona Prototypes, will become the featured class of the Rolex Sports Car Series in 2003.

Toyota-FABCAR.
Photo by W. Robert Phelps, III.
Originally conceived as a way to make top-flight professional sports car racing more affordable for the competitors and more appealing to American racing fans, the newly conceived Daytona Prototypes represent Grand-Am's attempt to strike a favorable balance between performance and cost, thereby increasing grid size as well as fan interest.

So far, Grand-Am has approved six constructors to build Daytona Prototypes: Crawford, Doran, Fabcar, Multimatic, Picchio, and Riley & Scott.

To keep costs down, the use of composite materials, such as carbon fiber, fiberglass, Kevlar, magnesium, and titanium, has been strictly limited. Instead, constructors may choose from tube frame and/or semi-monocoque designs.

The cars will continue to feature flat bottoms; however, the engine may not be a stressed member of the chassis. Depending upon engine displacement, the cars may weigh as little as 2000 lbs. or as much as 2075 lbs. Bodywork may incorporate carbon fiber, fiberglass, and/or Kevlar.

Five engines, BMW's five-liter M5 V8, Chevrolet's LS6 V8, Ford's 5.0 V8, Porsche's GT3R flat-6, and Toyota's TRD V8, have been approved for use in the Daytona Prototypes. Several other motors could be eligible in the future. All engines must be normally aspirated, production-based six or eight cylinder power plants with maximum RPM, throttle body size and diameter, valve size and lift, and maximum compression ratio to be determined at the time of approval by Grand-Am.

Except for valves and valve spring retainers, Grand-Am has also expressly prohibited the use of titanium. Moreover, all major components and parts must be available to the public. Maximum fuel capacity is 24 gallons. And, as in the past, teams may not use carbon fiber brakes.

At the time this article was written, six Daytona Prototypes had been entered in the 2003 edition of the Rolex 24. Here is a quick look at how each of those Daytona Prototypes fared during pre-season testing, held the first weekend in January at the Daytona International Speedway.

The No. 58 Brumos Porsche-powered Fabcar of David Donohue, Mike Borkowski, Randy Pobst, and Chris Bye led the way during pre-season testing, lapping the 3.56-mile road course in 1:48.980, almost seven seconds slower than last year's pole-winning time. The second Brumos entry of five-time Rolex 24 winner Hurley Haywood, 1996 Indy Racing League co-champion and 1996 Rolex 24 winner Scott Sharp, Scott Goodyear, and J.C. France, posted the third fastest Daytona Prototype time of the three-day test session, less than two seconds behind their teammates.

Brumos Porsche-FABCAR.
Photo by W. Robert Phelps, III.
With an interesting assortment of drivers, an apparently well-sorted chassis, and a potent Porsche power plant, both Brumos entries seem well positioned to vie for overall honors this year, if they can avoid the pitfalls that traditionally plague brand new race cars. To date, Brumos has amassed 10 major endurance racing victories, including five wins in the Rolex 24, three wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and two wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Second fastest in Daytona Prototypes was the G&W Motorsports BMW-powered Picchio, driven by 2002 Trans-Am champion Boris Said, 2001 Grand-Am GT champion Darren Law, Dieter Quester, and Lucca Riccatelli. G&W finished second in the SRPII team championship last season and Law finished second in the drivers' championship. Although this team has a solid driver lineup, it remains to be seen whether the Picchio can make it the distance, since the '02 iteration of the Picchio managed only 107 laps in last year's Rolex 24.

The Multimatic Ford of David Brabham, two-time Toyota Atlantic champion David Empringham, and Scott Maxwell set the fourth quickest time in Daytona Prototypes. Although this car has not officially entered the Rolex 24 yet, expect Brabham and company to be in the mix once the cars take to the track.

The Cegwa Sport Toyota-powered Fabcar of Darius Grala, Derek Clark, Oswaldo Negri Jr., and Joshua Rehm turned in the fifth fastest time in Daytona Prototypes. Cegwa is a brand new Florida-based team founded by Grala, the 2003 North American Ferrari Challenge, John Shapiro, and Luis Amores. While it is refreshing as well as encouraging to see new teams taking the plunge into sports car racing, there is just too much newness and inexperience here to expect Cegwa to challenge for the win. Finishing the race will undoubtedly be herculean challenge for this team.

Finally, the Bell Motorsports Chevrolet-powered Doran JE 4, piloted by two-time Rolex 24 winner and defending series champion Didier Theys, last year's SRPII champion Terry Borcheller, CART hot shoe Christian Fittipaldi, and Forest Barber, is a relatively unknown commodity at the moment since it did not appear at the pre-season test. Nevertheless, with veteran team manager Kevin Doran (five wins in the Rolex 24) calling the shots in the pits and three talented drivers, the Bell squad could prove to be a contender once the green flag falls.

JMB Racing USA Team Ferrari Ferrari 360GT.
Photo by W. Robert Phelps, III.
But if history is any indication of what can happen when a 24-hour race serves as the backdrop for the introduction a new class of cars, do not overlook the production-based GTS and GT classes, both of which could find themselves battling for overall honors if the Daytona Prototypes falter in their 24-hour debut.

Take 1994 for instance, when the GTS class Nissan 300ZXT of Paul Gentilozzi, Scott Pruett, Butch Leitzinger, and Steve Millen won the Rolex 24 after a rag tag assortment of eight then brand new world sports cars, the most competitive of which finished ninth overall, 56 laps behind the winners, proved slow and unreliable in their maiden outing. Add that to the fact that GTS class cars have won two of the last three Rolex 24s, and this year's race could easily turn into a wide-open affair with a wide variety of cars vying for the overall win.

In fact, the top GTS car in pre-season testing, the Derhaag Motorsports Corvette of Justin Bell, Derek Bell, and Simon Gregg, turned in the second fastest overall time, a little more than half a second behind the leading Daytona Prototype. Indeed, GTS cars, which now include cars formerly classified in the American GT class, produced six of the top 12 times during pre-season testing. As a result, look for the Konrad Motorsport Saleen S7R, the Morgan Dollar Motorsports Corvette, the Flis Motorsports Corvette, and the Heritage Motorsports Mustang to contend for the overall victory.

In addition, a number of GT cars, including the Risi Competizione Ferrari, the JMB Racing USA Team Ferrari, the Ferri Competizione Ferrari, the Racer's Group Porsche (last year's GT class winner), the Seikel Motorsport Porsche, and the Schumacher Racing/Champion Porsche, could play an integral part in this year's race.

Finally, yet importantly, there is still an outside chance that an SRP or SRPII car, both of which have been grand fathered into the rules for 2003, may despite significant weight penalties, smaller air restrictors, and smaller fuel tanks, enter the race at the last minute. Although both SRPII cars that showed up at pre-season testing were well off the pace, five SRPII cars have been entered in this year's race, including the Archangel Motorsport Nissan Lola of two-time GTS class champion Chris Bingham, 1991 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, Larry Oberto, and Brian DeVries.

With the introduction of an entirely new type of prototype and a solid bevy of proven production-based cars, this year's Rolex 24 could turn out to be one of the most competitive and unpredictable races in recent memory.

Notes of Interest

SPEED Channel will provide 16 hours of live coverage of the this year's Rolex 24, beginning Saturday, Feb. 1, from 12:30 p.m. - 9 p.m. ET, and concluding Sunday, Feb. 2, from 6 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. ET.

This year's field, which features drivers from 15 countries and 27 states, will include participants from nearly every form of motor racing: Busch Grand National, CART, Craftsman Truck Series, Indy Racing League, SCCA Trans-Am, and Winston Cup.

The race will also contain seven former overall winners, including Hurley Haywood (1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, and 1991); Mauro Baldi (1998 and 2002); Derek Bell (1986, 1987, and 1989); Max Papis (2002); Scott Sharp (1996); Didier Theys (1998 and 2002); and Andy Wallace (1990, 1997, and 1999).

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Series GRANDAM