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A.J. Foyt returns to Road America after 21 years, drivers ready for its challenge

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After a 21-year absence, team owner and former driver A.J. Foyt will return to the legendary Road America road course for this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix.

Foyt has not been back to the 4.048-mile, 14-turn high-speed track since 1995, when his car was running in the CART IndyCar Series.

Foyt switched to the upstart rival Indy Racing League the following season. The IRL is now the Verizon IndyCar Series and will bring Indy car racing back to Road America’s home in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for the first time since 2007.

Sebastien Bourdais won that race under the Champ Car World Series banner and hopes to pick up where he left off nine years ago.

Foyt or his drivers competed eight times at Road America, with the best finish being an eighth-place showing by Mike Goff in 1991. Foyt’s best finish as a driver there was 10th in 1988.

But Road America also brings back bad memories for Foyt, who nearly died in a crash there in September 1990. He suffered severe injuries to his feet and legs when the brakes failed on his Lola, sending him head-on into a dirt embankment.

It took him eight months and several surgeries before he was able to climb back in a race car (for the 1991 Indianapolis 500).

But Foyt isn’t looking back at the past. He’s ready to start a new chapter at Road America with drivers Jack Hawksworth and Takuma Sato.

This will be Hawksworth’s second go-round at Road America, having competed in a sports car race there in 2014 (finished 12th).

“I love Road America,” Hawksworth said in a team media release. “It’s very quick, has a variety of corners and is the only track we go to that is over four miles in length.

“I had a fantastic time racing there in 2014 made even better by the fact that I had a very quick car.”

But Hawksworth also understands there’s a big difference between a sports car and his Indy car.

“The Indy car has a lot more grip and downforce so certainly braking will be later and the corner speeds higher,” he said. “It’ll just be a case of adapting to the car and putting it on the limit.

“In terms of passing, it should in theory be easier as we have the push-to-pass system in Indycar racing. Road America has a lot of character, and it is technical like other road courses yet it still allows for a lot of passing and action due to the length of some of the straights and the big braking zones.”

Sato, meanwhile, will be returning to Road America after taking part in a test there last September.

“Road America is very impressive and a great fun track, as expected,” he said of his first impression of the venue. “I’ve heard so many positive stories about Road America since I joined the IndyCar Series, and I know everyone and as well as the fans wanted IndyCar to go back there.

“So it was a nice experience that we had a great crowd show up at the test day last fall, and I had a lot of fun driving this superb track.”

While drivers like Max Chilton and retired great Mario Andretti compare Road America to Belgium’s famed Spa road course, Sato sees a greater similarity with Italy’s Imola.

“It is as fast as I experienced at possibly Imola,” Sato said. “Both tracks are the classic narrow type of track but very fast with good elevation change.

“For the drivers, you need a lot of commitment because there are so many fast corners. From an engineering perspective, you need a good stable car through the high speed sections and performance under braking with such a low downforce car.”

Another reason that this weekend is important for the Foyt teams: Primary sponsor ABC Supply Co. is headquartered in Beloit, Wisc., about 135 miles southwest of Road America. The company plans on having close to 1,000 employees at this weekend’s race.

The race will be televised live on NBC Sports Network, starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.

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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.”