Rebellion Racing. All photos courtesy of IMSA

Roar Before the Rolex 24 recap, notes, musings, observations

Leave a comment

The Roar Before the Rolex 24 test this weekend at Daytona International Speedway offered up a bevy of news, nuggets and other tidbits. Here’s a link to all times.

This test offered up a good appetizer of what’s to come before the main course, the 55th running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona itself, Jan. 28-29. And to get the other obvious note from the weekend out of the way, it was cold.

Further posts from interviews will follow in the coming days. In the meantime, here’s some notes below:

FASSLER’S LUCKY ESCAPE

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The hair-raising moment of the weekend came on Sunday with a fuel line triggering a fire to the No. 4 Corvette C7.R, and Marcel Fassler escaping uninjured. Per a statement from Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, the damage was limited to the engine compartment of the car and as a precaution, the No. 3 Corvette was withdrawn for the remainder of the weekend.

Coincidentally, the No. 4 Corvette also suffered a smaller fire in last year’s Roar. Things turned out just fine the rest of the year, starting with the car’s win in a photo finish at the Rolex 24, a follow-up win at Sebring, Corvette Racing’s 100th win overall at Lime Rock, a dramatic win at Road America and the GT Le Mans class championship for Fassler’s co-drivers, Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner.

ORECA’S STRONG START

No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 and No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The new Oreca 07 makes its race debut at the Rolex 24, as the successor to the previous generation Oreca 05. Oreca’s last top-line outing in the Prototype class at Daytona came in 2014, when the Oreca 03R – the open-top version – came in best of the LMP2-spec cars up against the Daytona Prototypes in the first race of the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, in fifth place fielded by Muscle Milk Pickett Racing.

This Oreca, built to the new-for-2017 LMP2 regulations, led six of the seven sessions. Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 car got down to a best time of 1:38.408 in the seventh and final session, with that car out front in sessions one, two, four, five and seven. Neel Jani was the car’s workhorse driver with his Rolex 24 teammates, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastien Buemi and Stephane Sarrazin, all in Las Vegas through Saturday for the Visa Las Vegas eRace. Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed team got one over for the fastest time overall, with Ben Hanley in at 1:38.343 in session six to finish as the fastest time overall.

JDC/Miller Motorsports also threatened the leaders with its Oreca 07 to keep pace, and ended ninth on the combined timesheets at 1:39.167. That team’s lineup is probably a notch below the two assembled from Rebellion and DragonSpeed, but it also enters this race knowing how to win the Rolex 24, having won in PC last year. Pace is one thing for these squads but whether it translates to reliability is the ultimate question mark, although the Oreca 05’s record last year in the FIA World Endurance Championship was rather stout.  Combined times for the session are linked here.

FLIP THE SPEEDS AROUND

Photo courtesy of IMSA
Photo courtesy of IMSA

The Balance of Performance shift between the December and January tests at Daytona saw the Cadillac DPi-V.Rs restricted by way of a 30mm gurney flap added, and their top speeds reduced from the upper ranges of 190mph down a bit.

The Mazda RT24-P, which had been down in December, topped out fastest for this test at 197.1 mph in session six with Jonathan Bomarito clocking that lap in the No. 55 car. The PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Gibson-powered Ligier JS P217 was next at 194.3 in the hands of Jose Gutierrez; the best Cadillac was only at 191.5 with Ricky Taylor.

Interestingly, the fastest Lamborghini Huracán GT3s – which were penalized for a technical violation in last year’s Rolex 24 – continued as the outright speed pacesetters in this test (GRT’s Ezequiel Perez Companc led the way at 179 mph), with several of the eight entered clocking top speeds faster than some of the Oreca FLM09 PC cars. The Ford GTs led the way in GT Le Mans (176.6 mph), with a mix of good top-end speed on the straights and, scarily, even better cornering speed through some of Daytona’s fast corners. A full breakdown of the top speeds as of session seven is linked here.

QUICK LEARNERS

So much for it taking a lot of time to adapt to a new car and/or a new track. Hanley and Buemi set the fastest times in their respective Nos. 81 and 13 Oreca 07s in their first times at Daytona. Rene Rast, a two-time GT winner at Daytona, did the lion’s share of running in his first Daytona prototype test with VISIT FLORIDA Racing and was that car’s quickest driver. RC Enerson was quicker for PR1/Mathiasen in his maiden sports car voyage than that car’s lead pro, Tom Kimber-Smith, in his first sports car drive, and coupled with Gutierrez, Bobby Oergel has two sub-20-year-old sneaky speedsters in his lineup. Pato O’Ward, like Enerson another Mazda Road to Indy veteran, impressed in his maiden test with Performance Tech in the PC class.

Alexander Sims – who bares an almost freaky resemblance to Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s “McLovin” in Superbad – was fastest of BMW Team RLL’s four drivers in its No. 19 BMW M6 GTLM, the John Baldessari-designed “Art Car,” 11th among all GTLM drivers. In GTD, Land Motorsport’s Jules Gounon impressed with both his speed and sense of humor. The son of ex-F1 and sports car racer Jean-Marc is an intriguing prospect. Jeroen Mul, Change Racing’s new full-season driver, looks to offer his Lamborghini car expertise and help bring that team forward. He was the fifth fastest Lamborghini driver this test, and considering there’s eight of the Huracan GT3s on display that was a solid effort.

The veterans are always going to be the stars, but it’s the young guns and/or Daytona rookies who are always going to be keen to impress in this opportunity.

GT TIMES ARE OVERALL, PRETTY CLOSE TO CALL

Ford and Porsche led the GT classes, but it's not set in stone for race week. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Ford and Porsche led the GT classes, but it’s not set in stone for race week. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The cat-and-mouse game in the GT ranks occurred once more in both the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona classes, with teams and manufacturers careful to share too much on track before any possible pre-Rolex 24 BoP tweaks.

In GTLM, the 11 cars from five manufacturers were covered by just 0.657 of a second from first to last (Ryan Briscoe, Ford GT, 1:44.380 to Richard Lietz, Porsche 911 RSR, 1:45.037).

In GTD, 27 cars from nine manufacturers were spread by a little more – 2.165 seconds – but first to 16th were covered by less, only 0.936 of a second among just five manufacturers, Porsche, Mercedes-AMG, Audi, Lamborghini and Ferrari. Those featuring from 17th on back were from Acura, Lexus, Aston Martin and BMW, none looking lost but perhaps more coy in their test programs. The GTD-leading entry was the No. 59 Manthey Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R with Sven Mueller clocking the fastest time of the test at 1:46.810.

With GTLM cars capable of more speed, as evidenced by the last pole time set in dry qualifying in 2015, a mid-1:43 lap should be a realistic target for the 2017 pole at the low end, with the possibility a low-1:43 or high-1:42 time could be achieved. In GTD, a low-to-mid 1:46 should do the trick. Those 2015 pole times were:

  • Prototype: Ozz Negri, Ligier JS P2 Honda, 1:39.194
  • Prototype Challenge: Johnny Mowlem, Oreca FLM09, 1:42.318
  • GT Le Mans: Oliver Gavin, Corvette C7.R, 1:43.488
  • GT Daytona: James Davison, Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3, 1:47.272

GET YOUR CAR-TO-CAR SHOTS IN

The Roar isn’t just a chance to test, but it’s also a chance to build your promotional material for the year. Witness the bevy of car-to-car shots that took place over the weekend, and nicely accumulated in two tweets by Peter Leung (@BaronVonClutch).

Forgetting the photographers here would be bad, because they’re the stars that made this imagery. Jamey Price put together the raging bulls in partnership with Lamborghini, while Ford’s Wes Duenkel put the quartet of GTs together. GM calls on Richard Prince for its car-to-car shots. Brian Cleary and Bob Chapman (Porsche shot below), two other all-around pros, are also veterans of the car-to-car shots for multiple teams and manufacturers.

LIVERY WATCH

Most, but not all, of the 55 cars that tested at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 were in their full regalia ahead of the Rolex 24 itself.

Those that weren’t, or were just in base carbon, white or black:

  • Nos. 2 and 22 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis
  • No. 13 Rebellion Racing Oreca 07 Gibson
  • No. 81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07 Gibson
  • Nos. 8 and 88 Starworks Motorsport Oreca FLM09 (leftover 2016 liveries; 2017 liveries TBD)

There may be a handful of changes to other cars beyond those six mentioned above, but those are ones that figure to change for the Rolex 24 itself.

Mazda Motorsports has broken its run of having two Soul Red cars. Its two prototypes are Soul Red (No. 55) and Machine Gray (No. 70), which provides a much clearer delineation of which Mazda is which.

GOOD ON YOU, JAKE

Eidson at Road America, 2016. Photo courtesy of IMSA
Eidson at Road America, 2016. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Jake Eidson captured the inaugural IMSA Hurley Haywood GT3 Cup Scholarship, which was expanded from a program IMSA, Porsche and Yokohama started in 2014. Previous IMSA Scholarship recipients were Victor Gomez IV (2016), Elliott Skeer (2015) and Michael Lewis (2014), all of whom remain active in North American sports car racing. The open-wheel veteran, Eidson has spent several years in the Mazda Road to Indy and made a strong debut at Road America last year with Kelly-Moss Motorsports. He’ll run with that team in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama for a full season.

“It’s a huge honor and difficult to put together the right words,” Eidson said. “Scholarships are not something you receive often, so to have this help and race in Porsche GT3 Cup is a huge honor.”

Haywood added, “Driving a Porsche Cup car is not an easy thing to do, coming from a different discipline. It shows Jake has that innate ability to know what a car’s limit is, and go to it. It’s a testament to his talent he has that he was able to adapt so quickly.”

AUDIO RECAPS

IMSA Radio was on site for the weekend. Daily recaps from Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions, hosted by IMSA Radio pit reporter Shea Adam, who also moderated an IMSA-hosted Women in Racing panel featuring Christina Nielsen, Katherine Legge and Ganassi crewmember Jessica Mace, are linked here.

QUOTES OF NOTE

Selected tidbits from various teams and drivers after the Roar Before the Rolex 24:

Eric Curran, No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R: “The guys on the Action Express Racing team are working hard to learn as quick as we can because everyone has new cars and new equipment. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re showing pretty good pace as we focus on the reliability and speed to be competitive and on top of the podium at the end of January.”

Troy Flis, Team Owner, No. 90 VISIT FLORIDA Racing Riley Mk. 30 Gibson: “Some of the issues we saw at the December test were vastly improved and we were glad to see the progress there. There is a lot of positives that came out of the Roar. With this being such a brand new car, we just didn’t have enough time to run through our whole test plan.”

Ryan Dalziel, No. 2 Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPi: “The test was good. We learned a lot about the car. Our speed is pretty good right now. We got through a couple of gremlins that we know we need to address and strengthen for the race. All in all, especially on the No. 2 car side, we are pretty happy.”

Marco Ujhasi, Director, Porsche GT Factory Motorsports: “The test miles that we covered over the last three days in preparation for the race were very important. We managed to tick off all the points we’d scheduled for ourselves and now we have a much better understanding of the car on this racetrack. In addition, we experienced changeable and very diverse track conditions. It was dry and wet, warm and cold – precisely what you need in race preparations to be primed for all eventualities. We feel very well prepared for the race and the premiere of our new 911 RSR. In this respect, these three days in Florida were very successful.”

Mark Egger, Lexus Motorsports Manager: “When you look at this first practice session, it’s the first official practice of 2017 before the Rolex 24 and the Lexus RC F GT3 has done very well. In general, we’re learning our race craft and race pace and the team is getting to know the vehicle.”

Art St. Cyr, President, Honda Performance Development: “It’s sure good to be back at the race track again for the start of the 2017 season. The last few days have been intense, but very productive for our new Acura NSX GT3 program. It’s always dangerous to read too much into the lap times at this point in the pre-season, but we believe we have enough understanding to show very competitively at the season-opening Rolex 24, here at Daytona in three weeks.”

Townsend Bell, No. 23 Alex Job Racing Audi R8 LMS: “I’m really proud of the AJR team and the brand new car. Audi did a great job, worked their tails off over the holidays for us, as did the whole AJR crew. We’re proud to be here. Things ran really smoothly [this weekend]. We really enjoyed it. I think we got a lot of really good information. Track temperature is probably the biggest thing here. Typically, when you come back for the race, it’s always warmer here. We got a little bit of heat here on Friday. But, it was really cold last night and this morning. I think we got a pretty good spectrum of information for something that came together late. I couldn’t be happy for the way everyone showed up ready to go.”

Cooper MacNeil, No. 50 Riley Motorsports-WeatherTech Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3: “We had 75 and sunny weather on Friday, rain on Saturday, and cold weather on Sunday so we logged miles in all condition. The Mercedes-AMG was great to drive all three days. We had a long to-do list and we were able to accomplish everything on it over the three days. We’ll be ready for the 24 in three weeks.”

‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits still chasing drag racing records, more innovation at 86

All photos courtesy NHRA/National Dragster
1 Comment

At 86 years old, legendary drag racer “Big Daddy” Don Garlits has found the fountain of youth:

Batteries.

No, we’re not talking about batteries for a heart pacemaker or the kind you put in your TV remote control.

Rather, the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history is still attacking the quarter-mile just like he did when he got into the sport more than six decades ago.

The difference for the Ocala, Florida, resident is rather than using nitromethane, which powers the Top Fuel dragsters he used to drive to countless wins and championships, Garlits is now piloting dragsters that are battery powered.

Or as many refer to them as “electric dragsters.”

Garlits has been working on electric dragsters for about four years now, and he’s just as competitive now as he was back in his hey-day.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is still going fast at the age of 86. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

He holds the world record for electric dragsters at 185.6 mph at 7.25 seconds. He actually has gone quicker – 7.05 seconds – but it was not recognized as a record.

Garlits has done all that with a former Top Fuel dragster that was converted to battery power. He calls it Swamp Rat 37, which continues the long line of innovations and technological advancements that Garlits has been know for his whole career.

“It’s all batteries now,” Garlits said when interviewed by MotorSportsTalk recently at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago.

MORE: ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits, 82, sets yet another national drag racing speed/elapsed time record

The electric dragsters have definitely helped “Big Daddy” in many ways, but most notable is his look and demeanor. He could easily pass for early-to-mid 60s, and his drive and desire to be the best pioneer of the battery-powered cars is just like it was when he was racing in Top Fuel.

“I feel good, real good,” Garlits said. “Well, of course, developing the electric dragster has been a big part of that.

“A man doesn’t really go to seed, so to speak, until he has nothing to do. You’ve gotta have goals, no matter how old you are.

“It’s as important to exercise your mind as it is to exercise your body, because your mind can get stiff and out of whack, too.”

At an age where most individuals would be enjoying retirement to the fullest, Garlits refuses to retire. Instead, he keeps busy with a schedule that someone half his age would have a hard time keeping up with.

In addition to constant tinkering on his electric dragster – with the goal of becoming the first person to break the 200 mph barrier – he also spends every day (except when he’s traveling on business) at the Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, which he founded in 1976.

And then there’s his latest project.

“Now I’m building Swamp Rat 38 that is designed around all that I’ve learned about electronic dragsters over the last four years,” Garlits said. “My goal is to reach 200 mph on batteries and to have a car that’s consistent and simple to operate so that a group of people can have dragsters and not cost a fortune to do it. It’s not very expensive.

“It’s going to take about 1,300 to 1,400 horsepower in about a 1,500 pound car. And I have the electric motor to do that.”

Garlits’ milestones in drag racing history are truly legendary. He was the first Top Fuel racer to break speed barriers of 170 mph, 180 mph, 200 mph, 240 mph, 250 mph and 270 mph – all in the quarter-mile – as well as was the first driver to exceed 200 mph in the one-eighth-mile.

Each of those milestones came because Garlits has spent his entire life tinkering, tweaking and strategizing. He got his mechanical curiosity from his father, an engineer for Westinghouse, who was on a team that invented a number of significant appliances, including the electric fan and the electric iron.

“That’s one reason I’ve gotten so excited about this electric dragster is because those genes are coming out,” Garlits said with a laugh.

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits back in the early stages of his drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

But seriously, innovation and the desire to never give up and always strive to be the best has been Garlits’ mantra since he first started drag racing in the late 1950s.

“The biggest difference in drag racing today vs. my era in Top Fuel is definitely the cost,” Garlits said. “I’ll never forget when I showed up at Bakersfield (California) with my car, Swamp Rat 1, in 1959 for the U.S. Fuel and Gas championships, the first real big drag race in the world.

“The total price of my car and the trailer it was on cost less than $1,000 to make. Nitro was $1.50 per gallon and it used less than a gallon per run. That’s all the cost there was. I ran a whole year on the same engine, same clutch, same tires, same everything. It was very inexpensive.

“That’s why drag racing appealed back then to so many youngsters because it was something they could dream about and actually do. Now, they’ve made this maybe as expensive as NASCAR and other types of racing.

The Swamp Rat that started it all for “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Swamp Rat 1. Photo: Museum of Drag Racing.

“The biggest cost was the engine. It came out of a wrecking yard and out of a ’57 Chrysler. It cost $450 bucks. The chassis was out of a ’31 Chevrolet and I just used the side rails, that was $35. And then the rear end out of an old Ford was $10, and the transmission and front wheels, everything was out of wrecking yards – and you made it yourself.”

Electric dragsters today are among the least expensive vehicles in motorsports, Garlits said.

“It’s probably $150,000 to get to the track with the car and truck, but that’s the last of the big costs,” Garlits said. “It costs about 7 or 8 cents a run after that.

“That’s compared to some of the Top Fuel dragster runs today, where it can cost up to $25,000 per run. Nobody can afford that.”

Garlits was forced to retire from racing in 1992 – at the age of 60 – due to a detached retina in his eye. He made two brief comebacks in 1998 and again in 2003, attaining a personal best of 323 mph in 4.7 seconds (on a quarter-mile, before NHRA scaled back Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to 1,000-foot lanes).

“Big Daddy” Don Garlits is the most notable and innovative driver in drag racing history. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

While Top Fuel dragsters are routinely hitting 330 mph and faster these days, Garlits demurs when asked if he’d like to pilot one of the current nitro dragsters.

“I wouldn’t jump into one of the 300-plus mph cars today, it’s too hard on your body,” he said. “You get hit with 8 Gs when you step on it and that’s instant, and that hurts you when you get up to my age.”

But, he adds with a caveat and another smile on his face, “Our bones and joints are not as good as they used to be – but I’d love it if I could.”

There are only a handful of electric dragsters in competition today, but Garlits is optimistic that current numbers will continue to grow. While electric drag racing is overseen by the National Electric Drag Racing Association, Garlits has had talks with the National Hot Rod Association about potential exhibition runs in the future.

But that’s just part of it.

Even though he’ll turn 87 in January, Garlits wants to get back to racing competitively in a structured series or league. It’s just a matter of having more cars out there.

“Oh yeah, I’d get right back in it,” he said emphatically. “That’s why I’m pioneering this, because I’m trying to get it going.

“Right now, there’s about four teams all fighting to reach 200 mph first, and there’s a couple of teams in Europe. We’re all taking different approaches and one of us is going to come up with the best idea, which is the most feasible, the least expensive and the one that gets the job done – and that’s the way the dragster will probably go.”

The biggest obstacle to electric dragsters continues to be consistency, particularly of the batteries that power them. Remember, these four-wheeled beasts do not run on conventional fuel, just the power produced by the batteries.

But Garlits is optimistic that further technical advances will soon come faster and more frequent, adding that “I’m in a totally different battery than what I started with. The technology in four years has leapfrogged.”

Another exmple of “Big Daddy” Don Garlits back during the most successful part of his lengthy drag racing career. Photo: NHRA/National Dragster.

In addition to trying to get the NHRA onboard when it comes to promoting and exhibiting electric dragsters, Garlits has also had discussions with noted innovator/entrepreneur Elon Musk and Tesla.

“The most important technology that I’m paying attention to and I’m trying to get them involved with my team is Tesla, because they have some nice induction motors that make 450 horsepower, and they’re small,” Garlits said. “I could put four of them in my car and I might be better off than one motor in my car. That would not only give me 1,800 horses, but also maybe 230 mph. I’m really trying to convince (Tesla to get involved with him).”

When asked what has been the greatest accomplishment of his career, Garlits is quick to answer.

“Building the revolutionary championship-winning rear-engine dragster,” he said. “There had been rear-engine dragsters, but they didn’t do well. This put the driver out-front of the motor where they were safer.”

Ironically, it was an incident on March 8, 1970 at fabled Lions Dragway in Long Beach, California, one of the worst of Garlits’ career, when the transmission on Swamp Rat 13 exploded, ultimately costing Garlits part of his right foot, as well as saw a spectator also injured.

 

But a lot of good came out of the incident, as well. While recuperating in a nearby hospital, Garlits came up with the rear-engine dragster, which revolutionized the sport.

“They had killed, I think it was six people in about a two-to-three year people prior to my big accident in Long Beach,” he said. “And they haven’t killed six since in the last 47 years.

“I’m also very proud of the Drag Racing Museum, where I’ve captured the history of the sport all the way back to the 40s’ and have all these artifacts before they became collectibles.

“Everybody laughed at me when I started the Museum in 1976 because you could go to a guy’s garage and he’d give you all that stuff, they were just trying to get rid of it, and today it’s worth a fortune. We don’t sell anything and we’ve got it there for future generations as a non-profit, so my family isn’t going to be selling anything. It’s there for America.”

And right there smack dab in the middle of all of it is the man and the legend, Big Daddy.

When asked what his life is like these days, given everything that keeps him busy, he looks straight at the questioner, broadly smiles and says matter-of-factly, “I’m having more fun right now than I ever had in my entire life, if you can believe that.”

Yes, Don, we can believe it. And with you leading the charge, that 200 mph barrier will soon be broken.

Follow @JerryBonkowski