Sons pick up drag racing baton from retired NHRA Funny Car driver Johnny Gray

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The passing of the torch began at the end of last season and still continues in drag racing’s Gray family.

Last season, team patriarch Johnny Gray won an individual single-season high four of his seven career NHRA Funny Car national events, including the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.

And while the Carlsbad, N.M. driver ultimately didn’t win his hoped-for first Funny Car championship, he was able to retire from racing at season’s end knowing he had one of the best campaigns of his lengthy and versatile (competed in seven different classes in his NHRA tenure) drag racing career.

A two-time former divisional Top Alcohol Funny Car champ in 1997 and 1998, Gray became the first driver in NHRA annals to exceed 200 mph in a gas-powered car.

Now, the elder Gray will watch from the Gainesville sidelines as sons Shane and Jonathan carry on their father’s legacy.

Shane debuts a brand new 2014 Chevrolet Camaro during the opening round of qualifying Friday at this weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway in Gainesville.

And even though Shane races in a different NHRA car class than his father, he still recalls the excitement when Johnny won last year at Gainesville.

“It was really cool seeing him win last year,” Shane Gray, sixth in the 2014 Pro Stock standings, said of his father’s Gatornationals win. “He certainly paid his dues, so anytime he won, it was real important to me. Last year was special, and it all kind of started at this race for his team. Hopefully this year we’ll go to Gainesville and make him proud.”

Meanwhile, brother Jonathan will also begin his bid to carry on the family racing tradition, making his Pro Stock career debut in this weekend’s race as well. The ink on the younger Gray’s PS license is literally still wet: he just earned his competition license for the class this past Monday in a test session in Florida.

“It’s tons different than my old Comp car,” said Jonathan Gray, who previously raced a Pontiac GTO in NHRA’s Comp eliminator class in 2012. “There is a lot more going on.

“You have to think about throttle control a whole lot more, changing gears, keeping it straight. There is just a whole lot more to worry about in the Pro Stock car than the automatic car, that’s for sure. It was a big sense of relief getting the first burnout out of the way. I know I can do it now, but we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”

While he’ll likely lean on big brother Shane and dad Johnny for advice and tips, Jonathan is as ready as he can be to make his Pro Stock debut.

“I’m as comfortable as I know how to be in the car right now, and I’m just going to keep chipping away at it, keep getting runs and getting more comfortable,” Jonathan said. “Really and truly, not a whole lot excites me. I’m pretty even. But this does. This excites me.”

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Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”