The Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series begins its 12th season Saturday, January 29, with the 49th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. Last year, a new team named Action Express scored an upset win in its first Rolex 24, giving Porsche its second straight victory in the prestigious 24-hour race. This year, a field of 17 Daytona Prototypes, including multi-car efforts from Ganassi Racing, Michael Shank Racing, Starworks Motorsport, and Level 5 Motorsports, and single-car entries by Gainsco Bob Stallings Racing, SunTrust Racing, and Flying Lizard Motorsports, will vie for the checkered flag in the most important event on the 12-race Rolex Series calendar.
Founded at the beginning of last year, when team owner Bob Johnson formed a partnership with Brumos Racing, Action Express returns in 2011 with the same V-8 Porsche Cayenne engine that propelled it to victory last year. However, this time it has entered two cars. The first will be driven by David Donohue, Darren Law, Buddy Rice, and Burt Frisselle; the second by Joao Barbosa, Terry Borcheller, Christian Fittipaldi, JC France, and Max Papis. Both cars will contest the entire series, with Donohue and Law in one car and Borcheller and Barbosa in the other.
"We have added experienced personnel in key positions and worked very hard in the offseason to be as prepared as possible to defend our 2010 victory with a two-car effort," said Johnson. "We are much better prepared than we were last year and now we are looking forward to enjoying the race on the newly repaved track in Daytona."
Besides the usual doses of speed, reliability, and luck that factor into 24-hour races, the headlining Daytona Prototype teams will have to contend with a new spec tire supplied by Continental and a new layer of asphalt on the oval portion of the high-banked speedway. The new pavement has made the notoriously bumpy oval portions of the track smoother and easier to navigate. The infield portion of the track has not been repaved.
Fresh off a season in which the tean won nine of 12 races and only finished lower than second once, Ganassi Racing will field two BMW Rileys for a star-studded lineup of world-class drivers. Reigning series champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas will share the No. 01 entry with Graham Rahal and Joey Hand. The No. 02 car will be driven by Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya. Ganassi Racing won the Rolex 24 three straight times, between 2006 and 2008, and finished second in 2009 and 2010. The team did not attend the Continental Tire test session at Homestead-Miami Speedway at the end of last year, but that did not seem to affect their performance during the Daytona test session in early January, when Pruett unofficially dipped below the current track record for the Daytona Prototype class.
"The Rolex 24 at Daytona is always exciting for our team, especially because it involves so many of our drivers from all different series," said team owner Chip Ganassi. "There are so many elements out of the drivers' hands that need to come together, in order to have a shot at winning this event. That's what I love about it. You have to not only be good, but you also have to have a little bit of luck on your side to succeed in a race that lasts 24 hours."
The winners of the 2005 Rolex 24, SunTrust Racing, have switched to Chevrolet power for 2011 and will field a Dallara for Max Angelelli, Ryan Briscoe, Ricky Taylor, and team owner Wayne Taylor. Angelelli and Ricky Taylor won one race last year and finished on the podium seven times.
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson will join series regulars Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty, who won once in 2010, in the bright red Gainsco Bob Stallings Racing Chevrolet Riley. The team has yet to win the Rolex 24, but it finished second in 2008 and has won two series championships in the last four years.
Long-time Rolex Series contender Michael Shank has entered three cars: a Ford Dallara for AJ Allmendinger, Michael McDowell, and Justin Wilson, a BMW Riley for Marc Goosens, Oz Negri, John Pew, and Michael Valiante, and a Ford Riley for Mark Blundell, Zak Brown, Martin Brundle, and Mark Patterson. "As prepared as we felt like we were last year, we feel even better about being ready for the race here at the end of the month," said Shank after the preseason test session at Daytona. "All three of our cars could win this race." Michael Shank Racing has not won a Rolex Series race since winning the last two events of the season in 2008.
Peter Baron's Starworks Motorsport squad will contest the race with two Ford Rileys, one for Jared Beyer, Jan Heylen, Scott Mayer, Doug Peterson, and RJ Valentine and the other for Colin Braun, Ryan Dalziel, Tomas Enge, Mike Forest, and Jim Lowe. Dalziel was part of the winning Action Express team last year and set the fastest time this year in preseason testing.
"We are contenders, and we've proven that this weekend," said Dalziel after the three-day test session. "We do the best we can with what we've got. I think we could have gone faster. I didn't put together a perfect lap, and we didn't have a qualifying setup on the car. We know we've got more."
Krohn Racing, Doran Racing, and Flying Lizard Motorsports have all entered one-car efforts, with the latter featuring Patrick Long, Jorg Bergmeister, Seth Neiman, and Johannes van Overbeek. This will mark the Daytona Prototype debut for Flying Lizard.
In the 32-car GT class, SpeedSource will be racing for its third Rolex 24 win in four years. The team will field two Mazda RX-8s. Emil Assentato, Nick Ham, Anthony Lazzaro, Nick Longhi, and Jeff Segal will drive the No. 69 car, and Jonathan Bomarito, Adam Christodoulou, John Edwards, and Sylvain Tremblay will pilot the No. 70 entry. Segal and Assentato - last year's GT class champions - will contest the entire season in the No. 69 car. Tremblay and Bomarito were part of the winning GT class team last year.
Racer's Edge Motorsports, Dempsey Racing, and Team Sahlen have also entered Mazda RX-8s, nine of which will contest the race.
The Racer's Group will bring five Porsche GT3s to Daytona. Those cars will be shared by a number of drivers, including sports car stalwarts Lucas Luhr, Andy Lally, and Wolf Henzler. The team won the Rolex 24 in 2009, 2003, and 2002.
Dropping down from the Daytona Prototype division, Brumos Racing has entered a Porsche GT3 for Hurley Haywood, Marc Lieb, Andrew Davis, and Leh Keen. Davis and Keen will contest the entire series. Keen, the 2009 Rolex Series GT champion, competed most recently in a Dempsey Racing Mazda RX-8. Davis comes to Brumos from the Stevenson Camaro program.
Turner Motorsport will field the lone BMW M3 in the race, with Bill Auberlen, Boris Said, Paul Dalla Lana, and Matt Plumb sharing the driving chores.
Three teams - Banner Racing, Stevenson Motorsport, and Autohaus Motorsports - will race Chevrolet Camaros. General Motors has announced it will provide more support for Rolex Series teams this year, so improved performances by the Camaros could be in offing.
As of January 21, 49 cars (17 Daytona Prototypes and 32 GT cars) have been entered for the Rolex 24, which will take the green flag Saturday, January 29 at 3 p.m. ET. SPEED will broadcast the race from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, and from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 30.