For GAINSCO team, Rolex 24 is the first step to a championship DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 23, 2007) -- On Saturday, Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty and Jimmy Vasser will kick off GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing's 2007 hunt for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car...
For GAINSCO team, Rolex 24 is the first step to a championship
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 23, 2007) -- On Saturday, Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty and Jimmy Vasser will kick off GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing's 2007 hunt for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series title as they pilot the No. 99 GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac-powered Riley in the season-opening Rolex 24 At Daytona on the high-banks of the famed Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida. The green flag will drop at 1:30 p.m. EST Saturday live on FOX, with the checkered falling exactly 24 hours later, at 1:30 p.m. Sunday -- making the Rolex 24 one of the toughest and most prestigious races in all of motorsports.
Last year in the twice-around-the-clock classic, the 99 team ran into all sorts of trouble -- literally, when the team's GAINSCO Riley was clipped in the high-speed Kink, suffering major damage. The team's drivers and team owner Bob Stallings learned a hard-won lesson after the team's relentless '06 struggle. In endurance racing, they said, survival and not speed is the key to victory.
"I really started to get a perspective on the sheer length of the race around hour 14 or 15 last year," Gurney said. "You start to realize how unimportant the first few hours of the race really are. Our job is pretty simple -- stay on the racetrack, don't hit anything and keep going!"
Fogarty, who will start his third career Rolex 24, said it's key for the drivers to work together and spread their workload, so each one has energy when they need it most, even if that time comes at 3 a.m. on the high banks.
"Keeping the GAINSCO Pontiac in one piece will make it easier on us all," Fogarty said. "You have to be patient as a driver and realize that the end of the race is very far out -- put the sprint race aggression aside for a day and just drive heads-up, clean laps. The best bet we have for a good finish is to not go behind the pit wall, and if we stay clean it's a lot easier to stay out of the pits."
While the Rolex 24 is the richest and most recognized race in the series, Gurney, Fogarty and Stallings all know that it's also just the beginning of a nine-month, 14-race season that will crown the 2007 Daytona Prototype champion. With that perspective, the team is hoping for a victory but aiming for a solid, points-paying finish that will set the 99 up for a championship run.
"Everyone on this team knows what our objective is for this race: We must put ourselves in a position to do well when the sun comes up on Sunday morning. This is the beginning of our season, not an end unto itself, and we have to see that race as part of that objective," Stallings said. "We'll take the win if we can get it, but our goal is to finish with points toward the 2007 championship."
Still, nobody on the team will deny that if the GAINSCO car is in the right place when the sun comes up Sunday, they'll take a shot at the victory.
"I know we don't get any more points for the Rolex, so it's just another race from that perspective," Gurney said. "But it's the crown jewel of the series, so we're just gonna go ahead and win it."
As part of his commitment to make GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing a title threat this year, Stallings has taken himself out of the driver's seat, remaining on the entry list only as a backup driver. The decision was not an easy one for the 2004 SCCA Formula Atlantic National Champion.
"Not driving is difficult for me because I love it so much, but our goal is to win the championship and my presence in the car is not consistent with that," Stallings said. "I am trying to send a message to the GAINSCO team, a message that says I'm willing to make sacrifices to win -- and in turn, inspire them to make sacrifices to help Alex and Jon win the 2007 Rolex Series title."
Instead, as the team's third driver, Stallings once again tapped a champion, a veteran and "a mighty good friend" who he says brings experience, maturity and leadership to the GAINSCO team -- 1996 Champ Car champion Jimmy Vasser.
"Having Jimmy back for this race is awesome," Stallings said. "When he speaks, all of us on the team listen to his voice, because it carries the weight of a champion. He helps bring perspective to the team and, best of all, he's a remarkable race car driver."
Vasser saw "massive improvement" in the GAINSCO team during his stint driving at the Daytona Test Days, and believes the squad is poised for a breakout success that he'd like to be a part of.
"I can't wait to get back to Daytona with Alex, Jon, Bob and the GAINSCO team," Vasser said. "We've got as good a shot as anybody to win this thing and I want a Rolex."
To stand atop the podium on Sunday afternoon, the driving trio will have to first survive one of the toughest physical and mental tests in the racing world. Apart from the task of just staying awake, Gurney says he'll be faced with non-stop traffic, like a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.
"Avoiding the slower cars is the biggest challenge of the race," he said. "Some of them are pretty unpredictable, especially at 3 in the morning! Some guys are good about looking in their mirrors, and some are not." But even then, he continued, "some guy might have his windshield covered in mud and just not have a chance to see you at all. Those situations, you just have to try and anticipate."
The GAINSCO Boys in the pitbox will have to try and anticipate all day, too. For more than 24 hours, the crew, led by engineer and race strategist Kyle Brannan, team manager Terry Wilbert and crew chief Link Smith, will be charged with the task of keeping the 99 car in the game. They'll perform an estimated 30 pit stops for fuel and tires, not counting any unanticipated stops -- which, Stallings said, they anticipate will happen.
"The GAINSCO Boys have the most difficult task of all," Stallings said. "They will get the least rest of all of us and yet they have to be the sharpest. The difference between success and failure in this race will likely come down to their ability to respond to adversity after the sun goes down. Kyle's our quarterback -- he'll be awake all 24 hours, come hell or high cotton. I have faith in all of them."
The Rolex 24 in a word?
"Demanding." -- Alex Gurney
"Grueling." -- Jon Fogarty
"Madness!" -- Bob Stallings