By: Drew Hierwarter
With this weekend’s running of the 46th annual “Rolex 24 at Daytona”, more commonly known as the “24 Hours of Daytona”, the 2008 North American racing season is officially underway! This year’s race was one of the best in recent memory in part due to the stellar field of international drivers. Twenty five countries were represented on the entry list and many of them were former champions and major race winners from nearly every form of motorsport. The field included Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti, Jimmy Vassar, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Buddy Rice, NASCAR champions Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch, five-time 24 Hour winner Hurley Haywood, Le Mans 24 Hour winner Derek Bell, and too many others to list here. Even Indy 500 winning car owner Roger Penske brought a team to this race 35 years after the last time he competed here. It was an amazing field.
It was also a record setting race. There were a record number of lead changes, and also a record number of caution periods. But the most important record was established by the winning team of Chip Ganassi/Felix Sebates. This was their third consecutive win, something that has never been done before. The Lexus powered Riley chassis was flawlessly prepared and combined with drivers, Scott Pruitt, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, and Memo Rojas they were nearly unbeatable. The lead in the Daytona Prototype class changed hands often during the first half of the race with most of the top teams taking a turn in the lead. But by the time the sun came up on Sunday morning, the number 01 Telmex sponsored car had built up a five lap lead. From there they cruised to the victory. The team of Bob Stallings Racing with drivers Jon Fogarty, Alex Gurney, (Son of international star Dan Gurney), NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson, and Indy 500 winner Jimmy Vassar came in second overall. In third was the Roger Penske lead team of Ryan Briscoe, NASCAR Champion Kurt Busch, and Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. Both of these teams were in Pontiac powered Rileys.
Winning the GT class and finishing ninth overall was the Speedsource Mazda RX8 driven by Nick Ham, David Haskell, Raphael Matos, and Sylvain Tremblay. This team’s dominance ruined a perfect finish for the massive TRG Porsche team who finished second, third, and fourth. Speaking of TRG, they brought a record seven cars to this event and a veritable army of personnel. Over 100 people including 33 drivers, requiring 80 hotel rooms, and 8 motor homes. The tire bill alone for this team was somewhere around $350,000!
This year’s race was more of a challenge than usual and the weather played a major factor in that. It began to sprinkle right at the start on Saturday. Some teams elected to come in and change to rain tires as the green flag waved while others stayed out on slicks. And this would be the situation through most of the night. The intermittent showers meant there was not always enough rain for wet tires, but too much water on the track for dry. It may be what led to a record number of cautions as lots of cars slid off the track at various times during the first 8 to 10 hours. Thankfully Sunday dawned clear and sunny and the run to the finish was uneventful for most.
The “Rolex 24 at Daytona” is not only the first major international race of the year, but it is the first of a 14 race season for the Rolex Grand-Am Series. If this race is any indication of the kind of competition there will be, it will be fun to watch all year long.