Last weekend the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona International Speedway kicked off North America's motorpsorts season as it has done for nearly half a century. The race was won by a Porsche powered Riley entered by Brumos Racing, one of the names that is synonymous with the twice round the clock event on the banking. The winning margin was an amazing .167 of a second, yes after a whole day pounding round the track there was less than a second in it. To reinforce this position there was only a further 30 seconds or so back to the third and fourth placed cars. Truly Grand-Am produces close finishes.
There were emotional scenes in Victory Lane, as there always are at the conclusion of 24 hour races. The sheer relief of finishing and the realisation of how much is invested physically and mentally in such an event well up when the engines stop and the world ceases to spin at a ridiculous pace. For Brumos Racing these feelings were heightened by the abscence of their founder, Bob Snodgrass, who passed away just under two years ago. Brumos, a Porsche dealership from Jacksonville Florida, have a close association with the Daytona 24 Hours, taking three outright wins during the 70's and being one of the biggest supporters of the Grand-Am Daytona Prototype formula.
At the flag it was the 58 Car in front. The crew, David Donohue, Darren Law, Buddy Rice and Antonio Garcia were on the pace the whole weekend, with David taking pole position as well. Their sister car, 59 was third overall with Hurley Haywood, JC France, Joao Barbosa and Terry Borcheller on driving duties, so it a really big weekend for the Brumos team.
The race is run by the Grand-Am organisation which was established back in 1999 to bring some order to the chaos of sportscar racing in North America and to give the France family some control of the races held on their tracks. In 2008 NASCAR acquired Grand-Am from its original shareholders with the obljective of streamlining administration, marketing and other back office facilities.
The main aim of the series was to create close competition while keeping costs to a minimum. To facilitate this Grand-Am created their own class of cars, Daytona Prototypes, back in 2003. The performance of each chassis and engine combination is carefully controlled by the organisation to try as far as possible to make a level playing field. The cars are tube framed and there are restrictions on the level of technology that can be employed. Testing and aerodynamic improvements that the teams can make are strictly rationed to keep the lid on costs.
For the 2009 Rolex 24 there were 19 DPs at the start and 13 of these were built by Riley Technology. The Daytona Prototypes are powered by a variety of engines, BMW, Ford, Lexus, Pontiac and Porsche. In common with the chassis all of these are closely monitored and approved, to ensure parity. They have a capacity limit of 5 litres and should produce around 500hp, of course this being racing, teams complain that their rivals have an advantage over them in horsepower stakes.
The Prototypes are supported by a GT Class which has two sets of specification. Once again there are tube framed cars that are styled to look like road cars, Riley Technologies build a Mazda RX-8 for example. Then there are real cars from the likes of Porsche and Ferrari that near to GT3 or "Cup" specification. Yet again there are tight controls to ensure low costs and high competition.
The 2009 Grand-Am season will feature 12 rounds but as ever the biggest and best event in the series is the Rolex 24. There have been endurance races around the Tri-Oval since 1963 and the course also features an infield section plus a chicane at NASCAR turn three to slow down the cars before they get to the main straight.
The other distinguishing feature about the Rolex 24, and this applies every year now, is the staggering quality and diversity of the driver line up. Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, sporting a barnet that Elvis might have been all shook up about, swaps yarns with mega star, Danica Patrick. There are top line competitors from all of the major series and championships around the globe. This all adds to the sense of occaision about the race.
OK, OK enough of the Grand-Am 101, what actually happened?
Well the rules did what they were supposed to do and created a real race. Six cars were still on the lead lap at the halfway point and by the time the clock passed the 23rd hour point it could have been any one of four teams that would cruise into Victory Lane, it was as if they were attached to each other by elastic. OK there had been nearly SEVEN hours under Full Course Yellow and there seemed to be some judicious use of the "Lucky Dog" rule to get the pack back together again but this is the heartland of NASCAR and the SHOW is always paramount. I doubt that any of those who paid their own Dollars to get in would have complained, they got see a race.
Yes, they do get a crowd, it pales in comparison with the mob scenes at the 500 a few weeks later and is considerably smaller than the crush at Sebring but there are folk who would never miss the Rolex. How many? Well Grand-Am says it does not count the spectators, a few years ago after the race it was proudly announced that it had been a record attendance for the race. This went down well with the local press corps until one Brit asked the question "How do you know if you don't count them?" The awkward sqaud get in everywhere.
The grandstands are largely empty but the infield comes to life with RVs and Car Corrals. The crowd get a good look at the action on the banking and on the infield, having plenty of time to stroll around as the race cars rumble on through the day and night. It is one of those races that should be done at least once and the availablity of relatively inexpensive hotels around Daytona Beach make it an easily affordable diversion. Florida is also generally warmer in late January than the rest of North America.
So back to the race itself, the main protagonists were as follows, Sun Trust Racing's Dallara Ford DP01, crewed by Max Angelelli, Wayne Taylor, Pedro Lamy and Brian Friselle. The Sun Trust team had been created by Taylor who was a former two time winner.
Perhaps the pre race favourite or at least the car that no one would bet against taking another win was the lead Chip Ganassi Racing Riley Lexus XX. CGR had come out on top of the previous three Rolex and the three drivers, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas all had a collection of Rolex watches – one of the prizes on offer to winners.
The second Ganassi Riley was hardly lacking in the driver department with Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Alex Lloyd on duty.
Another leading entry was the GAINSCO/Stallings Riley Pontiac of Alex Gurney, Jon Fogerty, Jimmie Johnson and Jimmy Vasser.
A different solution to the Riley armada came from the Krohn Racing Lola Ford B08/7 effort. But both of these cars suffered engine failure as the Roush/Yates V8s gave up.
Insiders tipped the Penske Racing Riley Porsche to win but the very fast team of Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Ryan Brisco (all refugees from the ALMS) were right in the contest till at three quarter distance a drive shaft failed causing substantial rear end damage that took 15 laps to repair.
In the end the Brumos Racing team had to carry the fight to Ganassi.
In the GT Class Mazda had hopes of repeating 2008 victory with the Speedsource Racing RX-8 but all of their cars were hampered by small problems.
So the GT battle came down to a Porsche fight with Farnbacher Loles Racing and TRG each having 5 entries.
The winner was TRG with Andy Lally, Jorg Bergmeister, Patrick Long, Justin Marks and RJ Valentine collecting the silverware.
The final hour came and so David Donohue rose to the occaision being right there when Montoya was baulked coming out of the back straight chicane. But the Colombian was not going to roll over and monstered the Brumos leader for the next 35 minutes.
The Porsche powered car held on by a whisker and Donohue, one of the nicest guys in any paddock took a very popular win. Much was made of the fact he had matched his father's victory in the same race 40 years ago but DD played that down. He and his team mates had won for themselves, Brumos Racing and of course, Bob Snodgrass.
Sometimes it seems, Nice Guys do finish first.
Photos copyright and courtesy of Grand-Am and Porsche