Fernando Alonso Soaks In Enormity Of Rolex 24 At Daytona Experience

Column By: IMSA – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Fernando Alonso hasn’t been surprised by much on the track as he prepares for his first sports car endurance race this weekend in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. But the enormity of the world-class motorsports stadium and the passion of the fans have left an impression on the two-time Formula One world champion.

“It still surprises me, the venue, the speedway, every morning when I come here,” he said. “You pass around the grandstand from the outside and it’s just the size of everything is huge.”

Alonso participated in the three-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test session in the No. 23 United Autosports Ligier LMP2, his first experience at Daytona. And he has seen a major transformation in the facility since that early January weekend.

“And now in the race weekend, compared to the test, you enter the circuit and the infield is full of RVs, full of fans. They are preparing their BBQ for tomorrow,” Alonso observed on the Friday entering the race.

“The passion for the motorsport…the people are ready to enjoy the event…it’s not only a race. They are ready to spend 24 hours here enjoying and watching cars.”

After tallying 32 wins in Formula One, Alonso was in position to contend for the win at the Indianapolis 500 last year, another notable “one-off” race entry for the Spaniard. But he observes that preparation for the 24-hour endurance race this weekend varies greatly from what he went through for the 200-lap spectacle that took just over three hours to run last year.

For Indianapolis, he noted that race preparation was precise and, “I think we had the race in our minds, in our heads, before entering the start.”

However, a 24-hour race is much more unpredictable, and Alonso is well aware that it will require an “open-minded philosophy and…flexible strategy.”

“I think it’s impossible to plan in advance and it’s impossible to have an idea of how it will go,” he said.

Corvette Racing Kicks Off 20th Anniversary Season Back Where It All Began

With as many accomplishments as the program has achieved, it’s almost hard to believe that this year is only the 20th season of competition for Corvette Racing.

Heading into this weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona – which the team is fittingly starting from the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class pole position courtesy of Jan Magnussen’s pole-winning lap on Thursday afternoon in the No. 3 Corvette – the team owns 106 victories. Among them are three victories in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, 10 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring wins and eight victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The team has 12 manufacturer championships and 11 driver titles, including the past two in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Magnussen and Antonio Garcia taking the 2017 title after No. 4 Corvette teammates Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner did it the year before.

And this weekend, it’s back to where it all began.

“Daytona is special, because this is where it started for this program in January of 1999,” said Jim Campbell, vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports for Chevrolet. “It was a special beginning of an amazing journey that is now going into its 20th year.”

Drivers like Magnussen, Garcia, Gavin, Milner, Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell have earned superstar status among sports car racing fans through their longstanding association with Corvette Racing. Of course, the team has seen its share of aces join the program for endurance races, like Mike Rockenfeller, Marcel Fassler, Chris Kneifel and Franck Freon – and of course Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who raced for the team in the 2001 Rolex 24.

“Obviously, 2001 was uniquely special, with Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell, Chris Kneifel and Franck Freon, because they not only won the class, but won overall,” Campbell said. “There has been a lot of success with this program.”

Overseeing that success has been Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan. He can’t believe it’s been 20 years either.

“The past 20 years have flown by,” he said. “From our Daytona premier in 1999 to last year’s IMSA championships and all the excitement and monumental achievements in between.

“As a team, we have set the global standard in GT racing for continuity, consistency, professionalism and performance. Those ae the elements for which we are the most proud.”

Taylor Brothers Open New Season in Separate Cars Starting on Rolex 24 Front Row

Jordan and Ricky Taylor left Daytona in 2017 as Rolex 24 champions and teammates but return this year as competitors who will battle from the front row on Saturday.

Jordan Taylor and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R team from Wayne Taylor Racing will look for their second consecutive winners’ watch from the pole after Renger van der Zande edged out Ricky Taylor’s new teammate, Helio Castroneves, in the No. 7 Acura ARX-05 DPi from Acura Team Penske. While the front row is not unfamiliar to either of the Taylor brothers, being in separate cars will be.

“I don’t think anyone could have written it any better, I don’t think either of us expected it,” Jordan said.

“We knew we were going to be competitive, but I don’t think we even believed we’d be on the pole. So, it definitely goes with everyone’s headline of the brothers being against each other.”

Neither Taylor will start the race, as van der Zande will take the green for the No. 10 team and Castroneves will start the No. 7.

“I think that it’s a good thing that we are not the ones starting the race and we will leave it to our teammates for the first few hours,” Jordan remarked.

“We will probably be even more mindful not to do anything stupid early on, but come the last few hours if we are both in the car I’m sure it will get a little bit more aggressive. I think the interesting part is that we know each other better than anyone else so we know how we defend. We know how aggressive we are. We know how each other thinks. So I think that could definitely come into play.”

Ricky Taylor drove the final hard-fought laps of the race last year and took the lead from Filipe Albuquerque’s No. 5 Cadillac after contact between the two cars in Turn 1 in the final few minutes of the race last year. He’d make the same move in the same situation this year, even if it was his brother driving his father’s car.

“It’s the Rolex 24,” he said. “Why would I not put the move on him? I mean, obviously I don’t want to spin anybody, but I’ll be as aggressive with him as anyone else.”

Chip Ganassi Racing Seeking 200th Win

Standing in the rear of the media center at Daytona International Speedway Friday afternoon, watching his sports car drivers informally take questions from a crowd of racing reporters, Chip Ganassi smiled and acknowledged people with friendly nods and waves.

Should one of his Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs win the GTLM class in this weekend’s Rolex 24 At Daytona, it would be Ganassi’s 200th win as an owner in major league auto racing spanning sports car, IndyCar and NASCAR competition. His cars are starting third (No. 67) and fourth (No. 66) in class for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season-opener.

And while Ganassi looked every bit his typical “calm, cool and collected” about the historical opportunity on Friday, he quietly conceded that scoring such a victory would be hugely impactful to him and to his team.

“I want to win the race, I’m not worried about number 200 or number 300,’’ Ganassi said. “But,” he conceded with a smile, “certainly to get the 200th at a historical event would be a feather in our cap.’’

The six multi-national, multi-talented drivers prepared to race for Ganassi this weekend are more candid about their desire to deliver the big win, in this big race for their boss.

“No pressure, right?’’ IndyCar driver and former series champion Sebastien Bourdais said with a grin Friday, following the Rolex 24 final practice session.

“It’s a big, big deal for everyone on the team and within the organization. We’ve got the first shot at putting it (200) on the board so I don’t think it would be a bad association for Chip to have 200 synonymous with winning at Daytona. The story would be pretty cool.”

And that may be an understatement for the organization, whose six-driver lineup for the twice-around-the-clock race represents six different countries.

Bourdais, of France, will share the No. 66 Ford with Ganassi’s full-time IMSA drivers Joey Hand (USA) and Dirk Mueller (Germany).

Ryan Briscoe (Australia) and Richard Westbrook (England) are the full-time drivers of the No. 67 Ford, teaming in the endurance race with four-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon (New Zealand).

Ganassi’s teams have won the Rolex 24 a record six times overall, and last year Hand, Mueller, and Bourdais captured the GTLM class victory in the Ford GT.

Hand was very aware of the team’s opportunity to score a historical win this weekend and certainly appeared confident about the team acquiring a new victor’s Rolex.

“What makes me feel good about this is coming here calm, having that confidence,’’ Hand said. “I don’t feel a lot of pressure here. A lot of that comes from the team, the way Chip runs the team you don’t feel a lot. You just do your job, but the expectation is high. Especially coming back as the defending champion of the race.

“For us, we know the more calm, and smoother we are, the better off we are. I really feel pretty good about this, to be honest with you. I showed up here and had a good feeling.

“I’ve been able to win my personal biggest races with Chip, so to win a 200th for Chip would be another big thing for me. I definitely think it’s possible. I’d love to do that.’’

Allmendinger Shooting for Rolex 24 Class Win in Michael Shank Racing Acura

A.J. Allmendinger is an 11-time Rolex 24 At Daytona entrant and the 2012 overall race winner, so even though the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver sat out the famous 2017 running of the Rolex, he returns to the great race this weekend driving in a new class but carrying an old designation: “favorite.”

Allmendinger joins WeatherTech Championship contenders Katherine Legge, Alvaro Parente and Trent Hindman driving the No. 86 Acura NSX GT3 for his longtime friend Michael Shank.

It marks the first time Allemendinger, 37, has competed outside the Prototype class, but he is eager and enthused to try out his skills in the highly-competitive GT Daytona (GTD) class, dicing door-to-door with Ferrari, Audi, Porsche, Mercedes and Lamborghini.

“It’s always fun and this time definitely a different challenge,’’ said Allmendinger, who drives the No. 47 Kroger Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing in NASCAR.

“The GT class has always been so competitive and at times I think, the most competitive class of the three for sure — at least the most amount of cars with a chance of winning,” he said.

“The car itself isn’t a ton different to drive. It slides around. It’s fun.”

Enjoying the experience is an important element to this race for Allmendinger, who won a Cup Series race at Watkins Glen in 2014 to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs. He finished 27th in the points standings last season, however, and is eager for a good finish in the Rolex 24 to translate into a good start for the new Cup year.

Even having to learn a different type of race car has been a welcome challenge for Allmendinger, who will drive third in the rotation this weekend.

“The biggest thing I’m trying to adapt to is the ABS brakes,’’ he said. “I’ve never driven a car with ABS brakes and it’s a completely different way of using the brake pedal.

“I wish I had more laps in the car to learn it. I’d say between the test and practice here now, I’ve run 40-45 laps total. But I’m very fortunate to be with Katherine [Legge] who raced this car last year and was so fast and Alvaro (Parente), he’s so fast.

“I’ve got a lot of people I can kind of feed off and learn from,” he added. “I can stare at the data and figure out how they’re so fast,” he said smiling.

Race traffic will be much different for Allmendinger this time around the 3.56-mile Daytona International Speedway road course. Instead of being in the fastest of the cars, he will now have to navigate as they whiz by him. And it can be a delicate situation.

“It’s a different mental outlook,’’ Allmendinger said. “In the prototypes you’re always the aggressor. In traffic, you’re making the moves, you’re judging what you want to do.

“In the GT cars you’ve got to make the decision if you’re going to turn down and make the corner coming in … mentally on that side of it, it’s a big challenge figuring out how to race in the GT class.

“The best GT drivers know when to give up a pass and when to take the corner. That’s stuff I tried to learn in practice but I won’t know until I’m in the race.”

Even so Allmendinger has reason to be optimistic. He has six top-10 finishes in 11 Rolex starts including the win in 2012, a runner-up in his 2006 debut and a third-place finish in 2013.

“You know, this has always been my background,’’ Allmendinger said. “It’s no different than Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse and Christopher Bell doing all the dirt racing they do. There are not a lot of guys in Cup anymore with the background of road racing.

“If I could do this [kind of racing] nine times a year I would. I just love road racing.”

Conway Leads Final Practice Before Rolex 24

Mike Conway posted the fastest time in Friday’s lone WeatherTech Championship practice, which also was the final practice session prior to the start of the race tomorrow at 2:40 p.m. ET. Conway turned a best lap of 1:36.865 (132.301 mph) in the No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac DPi-V.R he is sharing with Felipe Nasr, Eric Curran and Stuart Middleton.

Defending GTLM Rolex 24 winner Joey Hand led the class in final practice aboard the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT. His best lap was 1:44.062 (123.151 mph). He goes in search of a second straight win with teammates Dirk Mueller and Sebastien Bourdais.

Matteo Cairoli led GT Daytona (GTD) in the No. 59 Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R at 1:46.905 (119.876 mph). His co-drivers are Steve Smith, Randy Walls, Harald Proczyk and Sven Muller.