The annual Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series offical Daytona Test Days concluded on Sunday with a familiar face on top of the time sheets. While some teams were trying to set an early mark for 2008, others were coming to grips of new developments made during the off-season.
A bumper field of 63 cars tackled the 12-turn, 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course, all gaining valuable track time in advance of the 46th Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. Eight sessions in all were held over the three-day test, with teams walking away hopefully with a better idea of how their car will fare in the twice-around-the-clock classic.
Chip Gansssi Racing's Scott Pruett peddled the No. 01 Lexus Riley to a 1:41.232 lap, ending up quickest in the test. His time was over two seconds faster than last year's pole record. Pruett didn't spend much time in the car, rather giving co-drivers Memo Rojas, Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya some needed extra miles.
"The car felt really good," Pruett said after the run. "I really didn't spend a lot of time driving this weekend. We worked hard to make sure that Dario (Franchitti), who hasn't spent much time in these cars at all, and Juan (Montoya) became acclimated and comfortable in the car, so the speed and, maybe most important, consistency that we showed was a definite positive."
In addition to the No. 01 entry, the two-time and defending race champions has entered a second Lexus Riley for IndyCar aces Scott Dixon, Dan Wheldon with open-wheel standouts Salvador Duran and Alex Lloyd. The No. 02 entry ended the test sixth quickest overall, just six-tenths of a second from the leading sister machine. If one of these two cars makes it to victory lane, Ganassi will become the only three-time consecutive winner of this event.
Penske-Taylor Racing's No. 9 Pontiac Riley of Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Kurt Busch clocked the second-best time of the weekend, a 1:41.277 set on Saturday. The trio stacked from Roger Penske's stable of IndyCar and NASCAR teams will be hoping to bring "The Captain" back into Daytona victory lane.
Wayne Taylor Racing will also field its regular No. 10 entry for Max Angelelli, Michael Valiante, Wayne Taylor and his 17-year-old son Ricky. Angelelli and father Taylor won the 2005 Rolex 24 and will be looking to repeat again this year. They proved to also have the speed in the test, clocking a 1:41.855 laptime to end up seventh quickest overall.
"The Penske-Taylor effort has been a great collaboration so far this weekend and we will carry that over to the race," said Wayne Taylor. "The number one goal was to make sure the No. 10 and the 9 have the best equipment. We leased the 9 car and had to rebuild it from the ground up, and the guys have done a great job."
The thirteen quickest cars on the leaderboard were all Riley chassis. But four of those were running the new Riley Mk XX bodywork, with more teams expected to make the switch for the race. Riley-Matthews Motorsports, AIM Autosport as well as Michael Shank Racing's two cars all ran the latest-generation aerodynamic updates during the test.
MSR's brand-new No. 6 Ford ended up third quickest overall, fastest of the new bodywork cars. AJ Allmendinger posted the quick lap of 1:41.555 on Saturday. He along with co-drivers Ian James, John Pew and Burt Frisselle will share the driving duties in the race.
The sister No. 60 MSR Ford Riley of Mark Patterston, Oswaldo Negri Jr. and Champ Car drivers Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal clocked the eighth best time overall, only seven-tenths of a second slower than the Ganassi pacesetters.
Another updated chassis, the No. 61 AIM Autosport Ford Riley, put in the fourth best time overall, a 1:41.584. On Friday, the team announced that NASCAR Truck Series driver Colin Braun and NASCAR Canadian Tire Series Champion Andrew Ranger will join full-season drivers Brian Frisselle and Mark Wilkins in the car for the race.
Defending Series Champions Bob Stallings Racing enjoyed a rather quiet test, but still had the speed to post the fifth quickest time overall. Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty are joined by 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser and two-time and defending NASCAR Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson for the race. On Sunday, Johnson got his first laps in the No. 99 Pontiac Riley since the November test.
"The team is working on different things, but from my standpoint I was trying to get up to speed and try not to tear up their great race car," Johnson said. "I just wanted to get in some laps and get up to the pace that I need to be at. I think I'm there. I think it's time to race. I feel great in the car and I got a lot of laps here today. I am really looking forward to coming back."
SAMAX Motorsport appeared at Daytona fronting a two-car effort, with the previously announced No. 2 Pontiac Riley of Henri Zogaib and Audi factory drivers Allan McNish, Mike Rockenfeller and Lucas Luhr posting the tenth best time overall. This chassis is Zogaib's, the same one that was run under the MSR banner in 2007. SAMAX's No. 11 entry of Milka Duno, Ryan Dalziel, Tomas Enge and Harold Primat was ninth.
The two Brumos Racing Porsche Rileys ended up 11th and 12th fastest overall, ahead of the No. 91 Riley-Matthews Motorsports Pontiac Riley, the No. 77 Doran Racing Ford Doran and the No. 7 Fortune Market Racing BMW Riley.
Alex Job Racing with its Porsche Crawford struggled in the three-day test, still trying to come to grips of the new Pirelli tire. The No. 23 machine with drivers Bill Auberlen, Joey Hand, Patrick Long and Andy Wallace was 16th best, with a lap of 1:42.918.
"As far as the Crawford and Pirelli combination goes, this is a bit of a mystery to us," Auberlen said. "I don't think I've ever come to a three-day test and done that many things to a car - ever. We threw everything including the kitchen sink at it. We made so many changes that you can not evaluate all of them here. There's no way to know what the best combination is going to be. We are going to have to go back and stare at the computer, stare at the results, look at the data, look at everything we did and then decide on a combination and put it in the car."
Krohn Racing debuted their new weapon of choice for the 2008 season at the test. Two new Proto-Auto Lola DP cars were in the team's traditional lime green livery, driven by a star-studded line-up of pilots. Tracy Krohn, Eric van de Poele and Oliver Gavin steered the No. 75 Pontiac whereas the No. 76 entry had Nic Jonsson, Ricardo Zonta and Darren Turner at the helm. Unfortunately on Friday, Zonta crashed the Lola, ending the weekend early for the No. 76 car due to a lack of spare parts. Based on the Multimatic chassis, the new Lolas were three and four seconds off the pacesetters.
"Last year we decided to become a constructor resulting in the coming together of Krohn Racing and Lola to form Proto-Auto," Krohn said. "The cars are out running this weekend and we are working hard to get them to the front of the field. Our goal was to have them here for the test and of course the Rolex 24 and the season and we have accomplished that goal. We are now going to prove their competitiveness and then offer them to other teams. As a driver the car is really coming along. This race is one that I have followed since before I got involved behind the wheel. To win this race would be great, to win in a car that we built will be really special."
Another new car present was the Cheever Racing Coyote Pontiacs. Resurrected from the legendary AJ Foyt, the Coyote name makes a comeback in U.S. racing. Based off the old Fabcar chassis, Cheever is also receiving help from Italian DP manufacturer Picchio. Antonio Garcia, Matteo Bobbi, Fabio Babini and Tom Kimber-Smith were behind the wheel of the No. 16 entry, which clocked a best lap of 1:43.001 in the test. The sister No. 51 Pontiac of Tommy Erdos, Mike Newton and Scott Mayer was two and a half seconds slower. Like Krohn's Lola, the Cheever Coyote is still in its early days of development.
"We need to put some more laps on our new Coyote cars," Cheever said. "One car we had out all weekend and then we had a gear box issue in the second car and did not do as many laps as we hoped. We are really just experiencing some new car stuff which we will have solved by the end of the month."
One car using Cheever's 2007 bodywork is the No. 09 Spirit of Daytona Porsche Fabcar. The new Lozano Brothers Porsche-based 5.0-liter V-8 engine made a strong race debut at the season-ending Sunchaser 1000k at Miller Motorsports Park and is set to embark on its first 24-hour race. On Friday, the team announced that sports car-turned NASCAR driver Michael McDowell will join regular drivers Guy Cosmo and Marc-Antonie Camirand for the race.
"We're really happy Michael was able to join us for the 24 and of course we are really familiar with what Guy and Marc can offer to this program so we're just anxious to get going again here in the test," said team co-owner Troy Flis. "Obviously we are still early in the learning curve with this car but we were encouraged by the improvements we made after Miller and then again when we got the new Pirellis on it."
Part-time competitor RVO Motorsports showed up at Daytona with a very interesting driver line-up. Joining team owner Roger Schramm, Tonis Kasemets and Justin Bell was none other than Justin's father, and racing legend Derek. The three-time Rolex 24 winner is eyeing a drive in this year's race with his son.
"I'm used to driving pretty good cars, and it's a treat to drive a Daytona Prototype," Bell said. "Roger (Schramm) told me I should come out some time and drive it, and this weekend was the opportunity for me to do it."
Southard Motorsports announced during the test that former NASCAR Truck Series driver Bill Lester will join Shane Lewis in the team's No. 3 Lexus Riley for the full Rolex Series season. Lester got his start by racing sports cars in the mid '80s and is looking forward to getting back to his roots.
"I now have the good fortune of joining this team with Shane," Lester said. "One of the things I've realized this weekend was that Shane and I are very similar in what we want out of the car. Our driving abilities tend to complement each other."
A few cars absent from the test, but expected to take part in the race including entries from Vision Racing and Matt Connolly Motorsports.
A total of 39 GT cars took to the Daytona high banks for the three-day test, with the No. 30 Racers Edge Motorsports Mazda RX-8 posting the quickest time. Seventeen-year-old Robert Thorne set the quick lap of 1:50.617 in the rotary-powered entry. Thorne shares the car with Ken Dobson and Bob and Jim Michaelian.
Second quickest overall, and over one-half a second slower than the RX-8 was the No. 15 Blackforest Motorsports Ford Mustang Cobra GT of Tom Nastasi, David Empringham and Jean-Francois Dumoulin. Boris Said, who will be the team's fourth driver in the Rolex 24, was not present at the test. Instead, he was taking part in the annual Geoff Bodine Bobsled Challenge in Lake Placid, N.Y. last weekend. Said won the event.
Synergy Racing was the fastest of the Porsche brigade, with the No. 80 entry of Mark Greenberg, Damien Faulkner, Jan Heylen and Lance Arnold clocking in a 1:51.223 to end up third. Fourth went to the first of the Farnbacher Loles Porsches, the No. 89 entry of Luca Drudi, Raffael Giammaria, Gabrio Rosa, Jorg Hardt and Giacomo Petrobelli. Both Farnbacher Loles and Porsche rival TRG have entered seven cars each for the race.
"These three days went great," stated TRG owner Kevin Buckler. "I've been to a lot of tests here, and we've run the race 13 times, and this is the best test we've ever had. It was definitely the most difficult, with the most cars and the most people and the most top-level drivers, but we just had nothing go wrong."
The No. 70 SpeedSource Mazda RX-8 of David Haskell, Sylvain Tremblay, Nick Ham and Raphael Matos posted the seventh-best time in class, just seven-tenths slower than the Racers Edge RX-8. The team will unveil its 2008 sponsor at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit next Monday.
Another Mazda showing early speed was the No. 40 Hyper Sport RX-8, which was ninth. Joe Foster and Charles Espenlaub will team with TV star Patrick Dempsey, who will be making his Rolex 24 debut.
The quickest Pontiac GXP.R in the test was the No. 07 Banner Racing GXP.R of Paul Edwards, Kelly Collins and Jan Magnussen. Despite being only about a second slower than the pacesetting Mazda, the Banner entry was 19th fastest in class. The sister No. 06 Banner Racing GXP.R of Leighton Reese, Andy Pilgrim, Robert Nearn and Marc Bunting wound up 25th best. After finishing on the podium in 2007, the Leighton Resse-led team once again has high hopes for this race.
"We finished second here last year with a brand new car," Reese said. "We now have a year of running under our belt with three wins to our credit. The cars ran great all weekend. There were some rules adjustments over the winter and we seemed to have gained some weight. When I follow a German car off of the Bus Stop, it motors me by some ten car lengths by the braking zone of turn one."
One driver used to piloting DPs around Daytona is Max Papis. The Italian has signed with Autohaus Motorsports for the Rolex 24 and has favorable impressions of the GT contender.
"The GXP.R is very impressive," Papis said. "It is really a turn-key car. We had it on the track the first day and we really had no issues. The Autohaus team is doing a good job of learning the car and we get faster every session. Every car has subtleties and it is just a matter of providing feedback to the team to make the most it for 24 hours. We have been working on having a consistent car and right now we're almost as fast on used tires as we are on new rubber. The drivers are really getting along and I am very happy how the test has gone. We have the right ingredients to be successful. The car looks really good, the nose is very aggressive, it will look good in victory circle."
Papis will be joined behind the wheel by full-season drivers Lawson Aschenbach, Tim Lewis Jr. as well as Craig Stanton. The fourth and final GXP.R in the field will be run by Stevenson Motorsports for drivers Robin Liddell, Andrew Davis, Randy Pobst and Gunnar Jeannette.
Team Sahlen's had two Corvettes at the test, with the No. 43 entry of Joe Sahlen and Will, Wayne and Joe Nonnamaker ending up 22nd fastest in class.
Italian team Mastercar brought out its brand-new Ferrari 430 Challenge and clocked the 27th quickest time in class. The 2007 FIA GT Champion Thomas Biagi and his Vitaphone Racing teammate Christian Montanari were two notable drivers piloting the prancing horse.
The lone BMW GT in the field was the new Riley-built BMW M6 for Automatic Racing. Drivers Jep Thorton, Tom Long, Joe Varde and David Russell were 32nd best in class.
With the Daytona Test Days now in the rear view mirror, teams turn their attention to the Rolex 24. The green flag drops at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26.