Each year, the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series kicks off its season at the "World Center of Racing", Daytona International Speedway. The 46th annual Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona also ignites the global racing scene, with world-class drivers from nearly every discipline taking part in this twice-around-the-clock road racing classic. From NASCAR and IndyCar champions to past Formula One stars and regular Rolex Series competitors, all are set to do battle on the famous Florida high banks.
Twenty-five Daytona Prototypes and forty-two Grand Touring cars have been entered for this year's race, almost equaling the 69 starters seen in 2007. With a bumper field of cars, action is expected to be intense all around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. This year, competitors also face the challenge of adapting to a new spec Pirelli tire, and some teams are also debuting new cars and/or bodywork. It's all part of the Daytona challenge that attracts the world's finest.
Two-time and defending overall winners of the race, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, return as one of the favorites to take the crown once again. The No. 01 Lexus Riley features NASCAR drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti and full-season pilots Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas. Car No. 02 has IndyCar champs Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon at the helm as well as up-and-coming open-wheel standouts Salvador Duran and Alex Lloyd. The trio of Montoya, Pruett and Duran took victory last year while Wheldon and Dixon won the Rolex 24 in 2006 with Casey Mears.
"Everyone knows how special this race is and how much of a team effort it takes to win at Daytona," said team owner Chip Ganassi. "I'm extremely proud of the effort put forth by our organization the last two years, and we have another great opportunity this year with the addition of Dario and Alex to the lineup. It is a tremendous feeling to know that we have this many talented drivers on our teams to pick from."
Wayne Taylor Racing's efforts are equally impressive. The Indianapolis-based team fields a car in conjunction with Penske Racing. The 2004 NASCAR Cup Champion Kurt Busch joins his teammates from IndyCar, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe in the No. 9 Penske-Taylor Racing Pontiac Riley. Taylor's full-season car, the No. 10 entry, will be steered by Max Angelelli, Michael Valiante, Wayne Taylor and his son, Ricky, making his Rolex 24 debut. Angelelli and Wayne Taylor already wear Rolex watches, having won the race overall in 2005.
RI could never imagine a better race team partner situation than we have right now with Roger Penske,S said Wayne Taylor. REven with the tremendous amount of work involved, it's really been a fun ride, too. I'm not sure how much they're learning from us, but we're learning a lot from them."
Defending series champions Bob Stallings Racing returns, hoping to erase the bad luck it's had in past Januarys at Daytona. In 2007, Alex Gurney captured the pole position, only to get collected in an early crash, dashing hopes of a good finish. But Gurney and co-driver Jon Fogarty rebounded from the disappointments of last year's race to rocket to the DP drivers' championship, taking seven wins that season. For this year's Rolex 24, the duo is joined by two-time and defending NASCAR Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson and 1996 CART Champion Jimmy Vasser. Alex's father, racing legend Dan Gurney, has been named Grand Marshall for this year's event, making it all that much sweeter if the No. 99 Pontiac Riley lands in victory lane.
"We had a good test and the guys did a real good job all weekend," Stallings said. "Jimmie Johnson did a great job coming in here and getting right up to speed, Jimmy Vasser is real strong at Daytona and Alex (Gurney) and Jon (Fogarty) ran like the champions that they are. We will keep working with the new Pirellis. It is a great racing tire but much more sensitive than what we have run in the past. The Rolex 24 is going to come down to tire management and who can get the most out of the new Pirellis and take care of them. We are up to the challenge."
Bob Stallings Racing's new partner team, Riley-Matthews Motorsports, also boasts an notable line-up. Team co-owner Jim Matthews is joined by Belgian ace Marc Goossens and IndyCar Rookie-of-the-Year Ryan Hunter-Reay behind the wheel. The trio is the most recent winners, having captured the season-ending SunChaser 1000k at Miller Motorsports Park last September. Corvette factory ace Johnny O'Connell rounds out the driving force in the No. 91 Pontiac, which is one of the Rileys featuring new bodywork for the 2008 season.
After finishing second in last year's race, SAMAX Motorsport returns with even more motivation to take the overall crown. Peter Baron's two-car effort paid dividends last year, when both entries finished in the top six overall. This year, Audi factory drivers Allan McNish, Lucas Luhr and Mike Rockenfeller join Henri Zogaib in his No. 2 Pontiac Riley, with the No. 11 entry of Ryan Dalziel, Milka Duno, Tomas Enge and Harold Primat also a force to be reckoned with come race day.
"The Rolex race is one that every driver around the world wants to win," McNish said. "To have that Rolex on your wrist is a symbol that you won the race and one of the most coveted trophies in racing. Our team should be really strong for the race. I have Mike, Lucas and Henri as teammates, all great drivers. I have finished second in this race twice overall, so it is time to win."
Michael Shank Racing, stalwart competitors of the series, has switched from Lexus to Ford power for the upcoming season. The Ohio-based team also has taken delivery of a brand-new Riley Mk XX chassis and both cars have been fitted with the new bodywork. The attention to detail paid off when both entries topped the speed charts throughout the Test Days earlier this month. Full-season drivers John Pew and Ian James are joined by NASCAR sophomore AJ Allmendinger and Burt Frisselle in the No. 6 entry. The sister No. 60 car has Oswaldo Negri Jr., Mark Patterson and Champ Car pilots Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal at the wheel.
Another team making the switch to the Blue Oval for 2008 is AIM Autosport. The Canadian-based squad has signed rookie NASCAR Truck Series driver (and former Rolex Series hotshoe) Colin Braun and former Champ Car and defending NASCAR Canadian Tires Series Champion Andrew Ranger to partner its full-season drivers Mark Wilkins and Brian Frisselle. The No. 61 Ford Riley also features the new bodywork and was quick in the Test Days.
"In racing, you snooze, you lose," said AIM Autosport team principal Ian Willis. "We know that there is going to be a learning curve-new Pirelli tires, new Ford powerplant, and now this new Riley upgrade. But it's clear to us that in order to be on the right side of that curve, we needed to move forward as quickly as we could to integrate this new Riley package. There is a lot that goes into this-so the data we collect, the impression and feedback the drivers have of the car, and the familiarity of the team working on it, so the sooner we made the switch, the sooner are able to make advances in all those areas. Hopefully this will pay off in the 24, and it should definitely pay off as the season unfolds."
Brumos Racing returns to the Rolex 24 for the first time without its longtime owner Bob Snodgrass, who passed away last April. The two Porsche-powered Rileys will be gunning for victory lane after winless seasons, despite coming very close to breaking that streak in 2007. David Donohue and Darren Law line-up in the No. 58 machine and are joined by open-wheel ace Buddy Rice. The sister No. 59 entry features full-season drivers JC France and Joao Barbosa, as well as Hurley Haywood and Terry Borcheller.
Two new cars projected to debut in the race were Proto-Auto's new Lola chassis and the Cheever Racing Coyote. While the will run, the former will not. Krohn Racing's two Lola entries showed up at the Test Days but struggled to find speed. Ricardo Zonta crashed the No. 76 car on Friday, ending that car's test early. Team owner Tracy Krohn elected to delay the debut of the cars until the second round at Homestead-Miami. Instead, they will run the tried-and-tested Riley chassis in the Rolex 24. Krohn, Eric van de Poele and defending American Le Mans Series GT1 co-champion Oliver Gavin are drivers for the No. 75 Pontiac Riley while Zonta, Nic Jonsson and Darren Turner will be aboard entry No. 76.
Over in the Cheever Racing camp, the newly renamed Coyote chassis also was not up to speed at the Test Days, but is expected to run in the race. The No. 16 car will be driven by a talented group of European road racers: Antonio Garcia, Matteo Bobbi, Fabio Babini and Stephane Ortelli. The No. 51 entry features RML Le Mans Series regulars Tommy Erdos and Mike Newton as well as Scott Mayer, Tom Kimber-Smith and Brent Sherman.
Like Krohn, Doran Racing will wait and debut its new Dallara contender at the second round. But for the Rolex 24, the Ohio-based team will revert to its reliable Ford Doran. Memo Gidley, Brad Jaeger, Fabrizio Gollin and Gabriele Gardel are down to pilot the No. 77. In addition to Doran's Dallara, Wayne Taylor Racing will make the switch to the Italian chassis at Homestead-Miami, and its rumored that there could be a third car in the mix as well.
Alex Job Racing fields one of only two Crawford cars in the race for drivers Bill Auberlen, Joey Hand, Patrick Long and Andy Wallace. The No. 23 Porsche-powered entry struggled for speed in the Test Days but may be banking on the car's reliability for the 24-hour.
"We've got a solid lineup," Hand said. "I mean come on -- Pat Long, Andy Wallace, Bill and myself. There is a lot of talk [in the paddock] about that and I am personally excited to be teamed up with these guys. We did a lot of work this weekend. We weren't quite as fast as we wanted to be, but there is a lot of dedication here especially from Alex and Holly [Job]."
Vision Racing confirmed late last week that it will make its second start in the Rolex 24. Team owner (and CEO and owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) Tony George will team with John Andretti, Ed Carpenter, AJ Foyt IV and Vitor Meira in the No. 03 Pontiac Crawford. The decision to compete in this year's race came just earlier this month, leaving the IndyCar team in a race around the clock to prepare for the race.
"Last year's race was a success for the team in many ways, but coming up just short in the end left us hungry to give it another try this year,S said George. RNot only that, but the Rolex 24 provides our team and drivers a nice opportunity to get back in the mindset of racing before we go testing in preparation for the IndyCar season."
Spirit of Daytona enters a Porsche-based V8 engine Fabcar. Guy Cosmo, Marc-Antoine Camirand and NASCAR driver (also a graduate of the Rolex Series) Michael McDowell will pilot the car. Southard Motorsports with its Lexus, RVO Motorsport's Pontiac and the Sigalsport BMW round out the 18 Riley cars entered in the race. NASCAR Modified veteran Ted Christopher has been a late add-in to the Southard squad, joining Shane Lewis and Bill Lester while racing legend Derek Bell will join his son, Justin, as well as Roger Schramm, Paul Dallenbach and Tonis Kasemets in the RVO entry. Matt Plumb, Quentin Wahl, Stephan Gregoire, Michael Cullen and Paddy Shovlin are down to drive the Sigalsport machine. Matt Connolly Motorsports' Pontiac Chase completes the 25-strong DP field.
In GT, there's an equally impressive field of cars eyeing the trophy. No less than 42 entries among seven manufacturers will be vying for their place in Daytona history. Despite the large field, the competition is expected to be extremely tight. During the Test Days, the quickest 13 cars were separated by only one second; the top 27 within two seconds. If it stays this way for the race, the class winner will most certainly be a team which makes no mistakes and runs at 100 percent for the full 24 hours.
Leading the charge are two seven-car mega teams from TRG and Farnbacher Loles. The two Porsche squads equate for one-third of the GT field, and total at least six very strong line-ups that could land in victory lane. TRG's No. 66 entry of full-season pilots Bryce Miller, Ted Ballou are joined by NASCAR Truck Series driver Andy Lally and Porsche factory drivers Romain Dumas and Emmanuel Collard. The Kevin Bucker-led squad also has another strong entry in the form of drivers Tim George Jr., Spencer Pumpelly, Bryan Sellers and Richard Westbrook in No. 67. And don't count out the No. 64 Porsche of drivers Jim Lowe, Jim Pace and Johannes van Overbeek, which finished on the class podium last year. The trio is joined this year by Tim Sugden and RJ Valentine. The team also fields an additional four more cars.
"We're going to prepare everything to the nines," Buckler said. "I mean, our whole deal is, I want to be prepared to win with every car. That's what we will do. We'll come down here with the very best we can in terms of preparation and teamwork. I call a lot of the guys and see how they're doing on their mental prep and fitness training, and they started calling me 'Sarge' this weekend. We're going to prepare all seven of those cars with the ability for them to win the race. At the drop of the green flag, it's going to be up to the drivers and the crew to do a good job."
Like TRG, Farnbacher Loles has been given Porsche factory support, with Sascha Maassen and Jorg Bergmeister joining Wolf Henzler, Eric Lux and Leh Keen in the No. 86 car. Timo Bernhard, another works driver, will share the wheel of the No. 87 entry with Dirk Werner, Dominik Farnbacher and Pierre Ehret. The Gregory Loles-led team has a third contender, the No. 88 for drivers Dave Lacey, Greg Wilkins and Audi DTM pilots Pierre Kaffer and Frank Stippler. Four more cars, including two under the banner of Team Seattle Racing, are entered by the team.
"We're very privileged to have the driver lineup and the confidence that so many people have in our team to run their cars,S said Loles. RWe also have incredibly strong people on the other side of the wall. Our technical director Horst Farnbacher, chief engineer Lars Giersing, team manager Frank Resciniti and Team Seattle team manager Michael Gue are the power behind our success.S
Other Porsches to watch out for include the defending class winners, Alegra Motorsports. The team fields two 997 GT3 Cups in their bid to become back-to-back winners. Carlos de Quesada, Marc Basseng and Nathan Swartzbaugh welcome Porsche factory ace Marc Lieb in the No. 22 entry with de Quesada, Scooter Gabel, Bob Woodman and Louis-Philippe Dumoulin tackling driving duties in No. 29. Synergy Racing also fields two Porsches, receiving notable support from the factory as well. Porsche Junior Cup driver Lance Arnold joins Champ Car pilot Jan Heylen as well as Damien Faulkner and Mark Greenberg in the No. 80 entry. Porsche works driver Richard Lietz shares the No. 81 car with Steve Johnson, Patrick Huisman and Champ Car star Robert Doornbos. Orbit Racing is another Porsche notable that could be challenging for the win. The No. 34 entry features the driving strength of Johnny Mowlem, Mike Fitzgerald, Tom Papadopoulos and Lance Willsey. All-in-all, 25 of the entries come from the German marque.
Heading up the Mazda brigade are two cars from the SpeedSource squad. David Haskell, Sylvain Tremblay, Nick Ham and reigning Champ Car Atlantic Champion Raphael Matos will steer the newly liveried No. 70 RX-8 while Emil Assentato, Nick Longhi and Jeff Segal will be at the helm of No. 69. Two other Riley-built RX-8s have been entered by Hyper Sport and Racers Edge Motorsports. TV and movie star Patrick Dempsey is taking advantage of the writer's strike by competing in his first Rolex 24, aboard the Hyper Sport entry. He will be joined by Joe Foster, Charles Espenlaub, Romeo Kapudija and Scott Maxwell. Robert Throne in the No. 30 Racers Edge Motorsports entry posted the quickest lap in the Test Days, and the 17-year-old will be back with the team for the race. Ken Dobson, Drew Staveley and Craig Stone round out the roster in the screaming rotary.
After debuting its GXP.R at Daytona last year, Pontiac returns with four GT cars for the Rolex 24. Banner Racing heads up the challenge, with the No. 06 car of drivers Paul Edwards, Leighton Reese, Robert Nearn, Marc Bunting and Andy Pilgrim. Edwards and Pilgrim are also listed in the sister No. 07 machine, alongside co-drivers Kelly Collins and Jan Magnussen.
"We finished second here last year with a brand new car," team owner Reese said. "We now have a year of running under our belt with three wins to our credit. The cars ran great all weekend (at the test). 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."
Stevenson Motorsports also enters a GXP.R for full-season drivers Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis; they are joined for the race by Randy Pobst and Gunnar Jeannette. Finally, the Autohaus Motorsports entry shouldn't be overlooked, especially with RMadS Max Papis at the wheel. The Italian and Craig Stanton pair with yearlong pilots Lawson Aschenbach and Tim Lewis Jr.
Blackforest Motorsports showed some early muscle at the Test Days, with the No. 15 Ford Mustang Cobra GT posting the second-quickest time. Tom Nastasi, David Empringham, Jean-Francois Dumoulin and all-around racer Boris Said will pilot the car. A second Mustang Cobra GT has been entered by the team as well.
Rounding out the GT field are two Team Sahlen's Corvettes, the Matt Connolly Motorsports Pontiac GTO.R and two brand-new cars. Italian team Mastercar will enter two Ferrari 430 Challenge machines while Automatic Racing has a Riley-built BMW M6 ready to tackle the 24-hour marathon.
Practice for the twice-around-the-clock road racing classic begins on Thursday Jan. 24 with first round qualifying in the afternoon to secure the top 30 positions in each class. Final practice and second round qualifying are highlights of Friday's activities before the drop of the green flag, at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday Jan. 26.