Everybody’s talkin’: Teams, drivers gearing up for Rolex 24

1 Comment

The countdown to this weekend’s 54th Rolex 24 At Daytona has begun.

And if you listen to many of the drivers entered in both of the premier Prototype or GT Le Mans classes, excitement and anticipation is likely approaching an all-time high for the endurance event that runs Jan. 30-31.

The main event kicks off at 2:40 pm ET on Saturday and winds up 24 hours later at Daytona International Speedway. It will feature more than 50 cars and 16 Prototype-class entries attacking the 3.56-mile road course that runs on a combined circuit of Daytona’s infield road course, as well as its NASCAR-style high banks.

Ford drivers are especially keen for the debut of the brand new Ford GT. But drivers for other manufacturers feel their cars are up to the challenge presented by Ford and other rivals.

Courtesy of numerous team media releases, here are thoughts from some of the key drivers entered in the event, which begins with preliminaries on Jan. 28-29:

* “It’s definitely been a challenge getting the No. 66 and No. 67 – which are completely new to our engineers and mechanics – ready for such a big race to start the new season,” said Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team manager Mike O’Gara. “The Rolex 24 is such a huge feat in the racing world and we have had to push ourselves with our testing and off-season prep to make sure the Ford GT program is where it needs to be to make sure we are competitive right out of the gate.

“On top of having the new Ford GTs, we’ve added the two DPs (Daytona Prototypes) into the mix. Preparation for this race has been different than others in the past, mostly just with the amount of time and effort that has gone into getting all four cars ready and getting our arms around the new Ford GT.

“Not only are we making sure the cars are ready, we’re ensuring we have all the necessary spares and extra parts for all four cars. That type of preparation has been a true team effort from everyone in our shop and our guys have been working really hard to get this program to a point that we know we can win races.”

Team Ganassi won the overall Rolex 24 title last year with IndyCar drivers Scott Dixon (defending series champion) and Tony Kanaan, as well as NASCAR teammates Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray sharing the driving duties in the No. 02 Target/Ford EcoBoost Riley.

* Visit Florida Racing finished second in the IMSA championship series last season and hopes a strong run in the Rolex will get its hopes to earn the title this year off on the right foot.

“Our challenge and goal this year is to go win the championship,” team owner Troy Flis said. “The ultimate goal at every race is to do well and run up front all year long. So we’re going to do whatever we have to do to do all that. I have pretty high expectations.”

Among Visit Florida Racing drivers:

Ryan Dalziel: “The field in the last couple years maybe wasn’t as strong as this one. For sure, the Prototype field has been fairly strong. The difference this year is the diversity of the field. The P2 cars and the DeltaWing have looked fast. It used to be that you’d look to see which Daytona Prototype was going to be the class-leading car. Now there are definitely four, five or six cars at this point that potentially could do well.”

Marc Goossens: “Obviously it would be nice to win Daytona but we’re here for a championship and not only that but we’re here to build for the future and see what 2017 brings. Rules are changing. We’re here and we’re hoping to win, but at the same time we’re focused on the full season and looking in the future beyond that.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay: “We’re certainly up to (winning). I’ve been second here a few times and Visit Florida Racing has shown well. There’s no reason not to think that we could win this race. We just need to focus on getting the most out of the car that we can.”

* Action Express Racing is based in NASCAR country (Denver, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte), but its sites are set on winning the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. To do so, they’ll need a strong start in the season-opening Rolex 24.

The team, including drivers Dane Cameron and Eric Curran, is hoping to live up to team manager Gary Nelson’s motto for this year, “Expect to win.”

“Dane and Eric were both accomplished racers when they came to our team,” Nelson said. “We were confident from the first day that they were going to compete for wins and championships. The way they competed throughout 2015 supported our belief with two wins and being in championship contention throughout the final race.”

Added Cameron, who earned a combined seven wins in various IMSA racing classes last season, “This is the first year of my professional racing career where everything has been the same as it was the year before. I’ve got the same race team, the same engineer, same crew chief and largely the same crew as last year. As a racecar driver you strive to find that cohesiveness and consistency from year to year, particularly with a 10-race championship. Last year we had a learning curve and getting to know each other, I feel like this year, we’re entering the season primed to compete for wins and the championship.”

New to the team is IndyCar driver Simon Pagenaud for both the Rolex 24, as well as the Atlanta race, Scott Pruett for Sebring and Sunoco Whelen Challenge winner Jonny Adam, also for Daytona.

Also, Pruett (teamed with long-time competitors Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa) will be competing in the Mustang Sampling Chevrolet Corvette Daytona Prototype, seeking a record breaking sixth overall win in the Rolex 24.

Pruett holds the record for most wins in the 24-hour event: 10 (class and overall triumphs), coming in 1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, 2002, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2013.

“Of course we want to help Scott break the record for most overall victories, that would mean Christian, Filipe and I would also win the race,” Barbosa said. “The Rolex 24 is our biggest race of the season and one of the biggest races in the world, so we want nothing more than to drive our Mustang Sampling Corvette DP into victory lane at the end of the race.”

Added Nelson, “Every driver in our Mustang Sampling Corvette DP has won this race before. Having won the Rolex 24 doesn’t make it easier to win, but it does mean that these four drivers know how to prepare and they know what to expect throughout the event.”

* Ohio-based Michael Shank Racing with Curb/Agajanian has four Rolex 24 podium finishes, including its biggest win ever in the 50th anniversary running of the race.

With a team composed of John Pew, Ozz Negri, AJ Allmendinger, and Olivier Pla, MSR is looking for significant improvement from last year’s fifth-place finish.

“My expectation from a pure results side is that we’re capable of being a podium car,” said team owner Mike Shank. “With how strong this line up is, and how much more we understand about this Honda-Ligier than we did at this time last year, I think we are strong enough to be fighting for a podium if we can avoid any trouble and be there to race on Sunday afternoon. … We’re capable of having a good result, we just have to make it happen.”

MSR appears primed to do well: In the “Roar Before the 24” held earlier this month, the team led four of the seven on-track test sessions.

Here’s what some of the MSR drivers are saying:

John Pew: “The competition is maybe the best there’s been so it’s going to be tough. There’s more P2 cars that are quite quick. It’s going to depend a lot on conditions because the DP and P2 react differently to different conditions. I think the DPs are fast in overall speed but the P2s run a fast lap. We had a really productive test at the Roar and we are all eager to get race week going and put in a lot of laps! ”

Ozz Negri: “We have a star line-up. We have Olivier (Pla) who knows the car so much and won a bunch of races. He’s a phenomenal driver. We have AJ (Allmendinger) who is in my opinion the best driver I’ve ever met and also the best guy to have as a friend, and John (Pew) who is the best semi-pro. … We’ve been working well together and we are all working to get another Rolex (watch).”

AJ Allmendinger: “The Rolex 24 is such a tough race to win. Every year teams show up and they have a lot of speed in their racecars. In the end, the race itself is the toughest thing. If you don’t get to the end of 24 hours, then you don’t have a shot to win so that’s the focus. No matter what, it’s going to be difficult. There are a lot of cars here that have a lot of speed but I really do think we have the best line up, the best team and the best car and if we get to the end of the race we’ll have a great shot to win.”

* BMW Team RLL (Rahal, Letterman and Lanigan) will campaign two new twin-turbocharged V8-powered BMW M6 GTLM cars. In testing during the Roar Before the Rolex 24, the team recorded the quickest GTLM time (1:45.066 minutes around the Daytona circuit.

“We are all excited about kicking the season off,” said team principal Bobby Rahal. “Of course, the most difficult race of the season is the first race. It is always a challenge for any team and manufacturer. But as we’ve shown over the course of the last several years, we have had some pretty trouble-free runs.

“The whole idea of this kind of racing is to spend as little time in the pits as possible. It’s a tough race. Racing for 24 hours is difficult. It’s just comes down to consistency, reliability and staying out of trouble. Even though it’s a new car, we go into this race feeling pretty confident.”

* Risi Competizione No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTLM race engineer Rick Mayer has a good scouting report of this weekend’s race.

“The Daytona 24 is the quintessential ‘crap shoot’ of endurance races,” Mayer said. “The field is packed and the pit lane boxes are the smallest of the season. You have to take as much care in the pits as on the track. Luck and patience pay large dividends here more than at other tracks.

“We have had great success with the long races at Risi Competizione. We have just been unlucky recently. Let’s hope our luck changes this year starting at Daytona.”

* Paul Miller Racing driver Bryan Sellers, who will be competing in his ninth Rolex 24, has seen both the highs and lows of the race.

“It’s elusive, it just draws you in,” Sellers said of the lure of the 24 Hours. “I’ve thought I’ve won the race so many times, been in the position to win so many times. I’m sure everybody has that same story, where they were leading by two laps and then they broke. I’ve been on the podium twice and I’ve been able to see the watch and almost touch it!”

Follow @JerryBonkowski