A forceful confluence of circumstance in this year's 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway can't help but evoke memories of the Earnhardts and 2001.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Thirteen years ago, Dale Earnhardt's first sports car race in a Chevrolet Corvette was the last race he completed.
Earnhardt, son Dale Earnhardt Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins finished fourth overall and second in the GT classification in the 2001 Rolex 24 At Daytona. A Corvette driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, Chris Kneifel and Franck Freon took first place overall.
A forceful confluence of circumstance in this year's 24-hour race at Daytona International Speedway can't help but evoke memories of the Earnhardts and 2001. A new Corvette, the C7.R, is making its competitive debut in the Rolex 24, competing in the GT Le Mans class that grew out of the merger between GRAND-AM and the American Le Mans Series.
The first race of the newly formed TUDOR United SportsCar Championship also marks the first appearance of the Corvette CR.7 in its traditional "velocity yellow" racing paint. The significance of the Corvette debut isn't lost on IMSA President and CEO Scott Atherton, in part because of the purity of the technology transfer involved.
"I think it goes back to the Detroit Auto Show -- the North American International Auto Show -- where they introduced both the C7 road car and the C7.R race car," Atherton said. "For us, it is the benchmark example of connecting racing technology that's being introduced and developed on the race track and then directly transferred back to the road car.
"And to have Mark Reuss, outgoing president of General Motors, make the presentation he did and make comments that this road car has more race car DNA in it than any car [GM has] ever produced, for us as a racing platform, as I say, that is the benchmark example. The fact that they're competing in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and back at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, it's the best of all worlds combined together into one. We're very fortunate, I think, to have a company and a car of that ilk so deeply involved."
In fact, as Atherton spoke, Reuss was landing at Daytona, eager to watch the debut of the Corvette C7.R in person.
Not that the Corvette wouldn't face some formidable competition from other factory-backed teams in the GTLM class in the inaugural run in the Rolex 24 for that division. SRT, for example, is returning to the Rolex after an absence of 14 years.
"To have the factory Corvettes, the factory SRT Vipers, the factory BMWs, Ferraris, Porsches -- all of them competing in that GTLM category, all with full-blown factory-backed programs -- from a racing perspective, as a sanctioning body and an organizer, that's what you work for, to create the platform that attracts that level of talent and investment, and that's why we're so fortunate to have them all involved the way they are," Atherton said.
Mark Kent, Chevrolet director of racing, echoed those sentiments...
"I think if you look at the former ALMS GT class, and now the United SportsCar Series GTLM class, I think it's the fiercest production-based racing you'll see in the country, if not the world," Kent said. "The bragging rights are very important for us to go head-to-head with our showroom competitors like BMW and Porsche. It's been an amazing rivalry for years, and we look forward to that continuing."
There won't be an Earnhardt behind the wheel this year. Jan Magnussen, Antonio Garcia and Ryan Briscoe will share driving duties in the No. 3 Corvette. Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and Robin Liddell will pilot the No. 4.
The absence of star power from the NASCAR ranks, however, doesn't diminish the significance of the new Corvette's maiden run.
"It's really exciting to introduce the new C7.R here at Daytona," Kent said. "We've got such a storied history here, going back to winning it all in 2001 with Corvette, the opportunity to have the Earnhardts drive a Corvette here at Daytona. So there's a tremendous amount of history through the years, and the new C7.R race car is just the next chapter of that history here at Daytona.
"This is an amazing event at an amazing facility. Like the Daytona 500, we always, in NASCAR, start the series off with the Super Bowl, and we're doing that this year with a brand new car [in the Rolex 24]. It's going to be, as usual, a grueling, demanding race, but we believe we're up for the challenge, and we're looking forward to seeing what the new C7.R will do."