Aside from a smattering of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup stars, one look at the 56-car entry list for the upcoming Rolex 24 at Daytona reveals that interest in the Grand American Road Racing Association Rolex Sports Car Series' bold, new, Daytona Prototype class has soared dramatically since last year.
Currently, at least 18 Daytona Prototype (DP) coupes will compete in the 42nd Rolex 24 at Daytona, which will begin at 1 p.m. on Jan. 31. The new DP spec was originally created in an effort to lower participant costs, increase dwindling prototype fields, level the competitive playing field and renew interest in domestic sports car racing,
So, with the start of the Rolex 24 less than one week away, it seems like a fitting time to detail the numerous off season changes and additions in an effort to set the table for the beginning of Speed Weeks 2004 at Daytona International Speedway.
In the Daytona Prototype class, the temporary addition of Porsche factory drivers Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen makes the Red Bull sponsored Brumos Racing Porsche-powered Fabcar of Luhr, Maassen, David Donohue and Darren Law the odds-on favorite to become the first Daytona Prototype to win the Rolex 24. Though it was not as fast as the Bell Motorsports Doran in preseason testing, the Brumos squad has a strong driver line up, a well-sorted car, a reliable Porsche power plant and an impeccable record in endurance races.
Nevertheless, do not expect the Bell Motorsports quartet of Terry Borcheller, Andy Pilgrim, Christian Fittipaldi and Forest Barber to allow the Red Bull boys to romp to victory unchallenged. The team set the pace throughout preseason testing and Borcheller, the 2003 Daytona Prototype champion, is one of the finest sports car drivers in the world.
Moreover, the Chevrolet-powered Doran is a known commodity that helped the team win both the drivers' and the team championship last year, despite opening the season with a dismal 39th place showing in the Rolex 24. Whether this team can mount a sustainable challenge for the overall win, however, will depend on how quickly Fittipaldi can come to grips with the car and whether Barber can put in solid lap times and avoid unforced errors.
Then there is the Lista Racing Lexus-powered Doran, with two-time Rolex 24 winner Didier Theys, Fredy Lienhard, two-time winner and reigning FIA World Sports Car champion Jan Lammers and Belgian Marc Goossens sharing the driving duties. Though the team focused on race setups during preseason testing, they still managed to record the fifth fastest time of the three-day preseason test session. And with team owner Kevin Doran orchestrating race strategy from the pits and a consistent group of experienced drivers behind the wheel, expect to see this team vying for the lead on Sunday morning.
Five-time winner Hurley Haywood, JC France, 1996 winner Scott Sharp and Scott Goodyear, who were sixth quickest during preseason testing in the second Brumos Racing Fabcar, should also find themselves in the hunt for a podium finish, assuming they can avoid the off-track excursions that plagued them last year.
The brand new Crawfords, fielded by Howard-Boss Motorsports and driven by Andy Wallace, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, and Elliot Forbes-Robinson, Butch Leitzinger, Jimmie Johnson and team owner David Brule, may, in time, become the class of the Daytona Prototype field. However, given the problems that typically befall new cars in 24-hour races, they will probably not be around on Sunday morning.
Academy Award-winning actor Paul Newman, who will turn 79 on Jan. 26, will also be on hand, sharing the Gunnar Racing Porsche Fabcar with Gunnar Jeannette, Kyle Petty and Michael Brockman.
In the new GT class, which now includes cars formerly classified in the 2003 GT and GTS classes, the Racer's Group Porsche GT3 RS of Kevin Buckler, Timo Bernhardt, Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long should have its hands full with the Prototype Technology Group BMW M3, driven by Bill Auberlen, Boris Said, Justin Marks and Joey Hand. Another GT class win would make it three-in-a-row for the California-based Racer's Group, while a win by Tom Milner's BMW Team PTG squad would be its third class win in seven years and first in the Rolex 24 since 1998.
Finally, in the Super Grand Sport class, formerly part of the Grand-Am Cup Series, keep an eye on the AASCO Motorsports Porsche of Craig Stanton, David Murry and Tim Sugden, which led the way during preseason testing, and the TPC Racing Porsche of John Littlechild, Bill Adam, Randy Pobst, Andy Lally and Michael Levitas.