No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R. Photo courtesy of IMSA

Young guns deliver Rolex 24 wins for Alegra, Performance Tech

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There’s something to be said for team owners that give young racing drivers an opportunity, and two of the youngest lineups in the field at this year’s 55th Rolex 24 at Daytona delivered on their promise for wins in the two designated pro-am classes in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Miami-based Alegra Motorsports used one factory Porsche driver, in the “he should be older but is still only 26 years old” Michael Christensen, along with three IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup class champions from 2016 in Daniel Morad (26), Jesse Lazare (19) and Michael de Quesada (17) and de Quesada’s father Carlos to win the 27-car GT Daytona class with its No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Meanwhile courtesy of a flawless drive with four drivers all 27 years of age or younger (James French, 24, Pato O’Ward, 17, Kyle Masson, 19, and Nick Boulle, 27) Performance Tech Motorsports scored a breakthrough win for the final Prototype Challenge class win at the Rolex 24, to give team principal Brent O’Neill a well-deserved victory for his Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based team.

It was a cool thing to note because of the lack of experience from most of these nine combined drivers. The elder de Quesada and Christensen were the only two drivers for Alegra with past Rolex 24 experience, while Performance Tech’s lead driver James French and Nick Boulle were the only two for Performance Tech with past starts.

Meanwhile the Porsche Cup champions and the other two drivers at Performance Tech, Masson and O’Ward, would be making their Rolex 24 debuts.

From L to R: Morad, C. de Quesada, M. de Quesada, Lazare, Christensen. Photo courtesy of IMSA
From L to R: Morad, C. de Quesada, M. de Quesada, Lazare, Christensen. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“I’m obviously very excited to be here,” said Carlos de Quesada. “Ten years ago we won the 24 hours, and it was just something that ‑‑ it was just unbelievable for us. We had the right team, the right drivers, the right equipment.  Everything after that is luck.  I told these guys the same thing.

“When I assembled this team, we ran Daniel Morad with Alegra Motorsports up in Canada and he won the Platinum Cup Championship up there along with the North American Cup Championship, and then Michael, my son, went ahead and won the gold class in the USA.  Because we were also running some USA Cup races, Daniel and Jesse Lazare were racing against each other and we were watching Jesse race, and just the quality of driver that he is, we decided to go ahead and invite him to drive with us for the 24 hours.”

The Performance Tech. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The Performance Tech team. Photo courtesy of IMSA

O’Neill, meanwhile, pressed ahead with the team’s effort after an accident during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test, which cost IMSA Mazda Prototype Lites champion Clark Toppe his planned seat in the race and opened the door for Boulle to rejoin the team. Rather than pack up, the team rebuilt the car with a number of spares and found the setup it needed to dial the car in from there.

What followed in the race was pretty much a tour de force in the five-car PC class. Without a scratch on the car, the quartet led 614 of 638 laps in the No. 38 Oreca FLM09 and won by 22 laps.  It marked Performance Tech’s first race win in the PC class since the American Le Mans Series days, at Baltimore 2013, with now-Mazda factory driver Tristan Nunez and Charlie Shears driving.

“This was really special,” O’Neill said. “I think we led all but about 10-minutes of 24 hours. There were a lot of people after the Roar that didn’t think that our car was going to be winning any races any time soon, but here we are. This was good for the whole team. It was a great morale booster as we head into the rest of the season. We had a lot of guests here this race, friends and family, because it’s near our home base. So, it was pretty cool to be able to pull it off. This was a great team effort. The guys in the pits did awesome and each of our drivers drove their butt off. The team deserved this.”

No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09. Photo courtesy of IMSA

French has been with O’Neill the longest of these four drivers and after scoring pole, led the team’s effort behind the wheel. The Sheboygan Falls, Wis. native has matured and developed into the team’s lead driver, and was careful to not get worried in the final stages of the race as the win looked imminent. Despite his Midwest roots, French still admitted he was cold in the open-top prototypes in the bitter overnight hours.

“The rain was just freezing cold.  That’s the best way I can describe it.  It was like 40‑something degrees, 42 degrees, and we were all soaking wet.  It was cold, not a lot of grip.  Basically trying to control the car in the slippery conditions with numb fingers and numb feet, it was pretty tough,” he said.

“I tried to ignore those thoughts, believe me, especially with this being the last season, and to not have a win up to this point, it definitely occurred that, okay, the opportunities are getting more and more slim.  But yeah, it just seemed like everything was going really smoothly.  To be honest, it wasn’t a surprise.”

O’Ward and Masson both won in their series debuts, while Boulle, who co-drove with French to a podium last year at Circuit of The Americas, adds another cool stat to the ledger – his family’s de Boulle Jewelers are the first Rolex Jeweler to win the Rolex 24.

Alegra’s charge came in the final couple hours, with Christensen closing after consistent stints earlier in the race from his four co-drivers. They saw off the efforts from the Montaplast by Land-Motorsport Audi team, which also had a four-driver lineup of four drivers 27 or younger. The young Dane has always been a little under-the-radar in his Porsche factory driver career, but as Morad related from their days racing together in the 2010 GP3 Series, he does have natural finishing hard instincts.

“Going back to 2015, leading up to this season, I hadn’t raced for four years, and prior to that I was racing in Europe actually against Michael in the GP3 series,” said Morad, who won the Porsche GT3 Cup Canada title last year. “It’s funny that we meet again, and this time thankfully in our car, because with a drive like that I wouldn’t want to drive against you.  He just showed his class.  He’s a true legend, and one of the best sports car racers in the world, and he showed that today.

“But it’s a team effort, really.  Carlos gave all of us the opportunity when no one would, no team owner would take the risk on four young drivers and put them together.”

Christensen, illustrating his cool status, just called his final stint “part of the plan.”

“To be honest, it was a long plan, really.  We all sat together and spoke about what we thought of the race itself, what do we need to do to be successful here, and we all were having the same thoughts, don’t touch anyone, be careful, it’s a long race, and everyone ‑‑ most guys out there are pushing hard at certain times of the race, especially a race with weather conditions like that.  It’s really tough just to keep it on track, and yeah, our plan was to stay on the lead lap and have a perfect race car for the end of the race.”

New schedule has Josef Newgarden seeing double (points) again in 2020

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske believes the latest revised schedule for 2020 will change his approach to the season.

The new schedule has the defending IndyCar champion looking at ways to double the possibilities for a second consecutive championship.

“When I look at the whole schedule they released now, I look at it as double-points as a whole in all of them,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com Monday. “Iowa is double points on a short oval. There are double points at the Indy GP because there are two races and a road course. Then double points at Laguna, which is a different road course than IMS. And there is double points in the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar announced to team owners two weeks ago that the season finale (once scheduled for Laguna Seca and now at St. Petersburg) will no longer be a double-points event. But Monday’s schedule revision essentially adds three double points-style races to the Indy 500’s double-points format, Newgarden said.

“Those are four events where you have to be quite strong,” Newgarden said. “They are all very different from each other. Each one is critical to get right. Iowa has a chance to be the most difficult. From a physical standpoint, it’s already a physical track for one race. To double it up on one weekend will be quite the toll for the drivers.

“It will be a very big test physically to see who will get that weekend right. You can bag a lot of points because of it.”

Just 12 days after the first schedule revision, IndyCar officials announced another revised schedule Monday because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The new schedule features doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway in July and Laguna Seca in September. There is an additional race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Oct. 3.

That race will be known as the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix. It will be the second time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that an IndyCar race is held in the fall. The only other time was the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a series of three races won by Johnny Aitken on Sept. 9, 1916.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix scheduled for May 30-31 will be dropped from the 2020 schedule. Michigan has a “Stay at Home” order that won’t be lifted in time to start construction of the Belle Isle street course.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said the Detroit event will return in 2021.

The IMS road course essentially will have a doubleheader spaced out by nearly three months. The first race will be the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix on July 4, and the second will be Oct. 3 in the Harvest Grand Prix.

The extra doubleheaders combined with the loss of Detroit gives IndyCar a 15-race schedule for 2020. It started out as a 17-race campaign, but April’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) have been canceled. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is being revived as the season finale on a TBA weekend in October.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Newgarden also is excited about the chance to run at Indianapolis for three major races in one season. Of course, that all depends on how soon IndyCar can return to action because of the global pandemic.

“I’m continually excited about the thought of getting back to the race track,” Newgarden said. “We would love to be there now, but we can’t. With the current situation, everyone is trying to do the best they can to pitch in and do their part so we can get back to the track as quickly as possible.

“I’m excited to get back to racing at some point in the future. To see that is planned to start at Texas is still great. IndyCar has done a great job staying active and fluid with the ever-changing dynamics and current situation.

“We have three opportunities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are a lot of chances to get it right at the Mecca of our sport.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in IndyCar and Roger, and they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.”

The one downer to the revised schedule is the loss of the Detroit doubleheader, a very important weekend to Team Penske because Roger Penske also owns the Detroit race. It’s a chance to showcase the series in front of as “Motor City” crowd, which is also the home to the Penske Corp.

“It’s a shame that we miss any event this year,” Newgarden said. “As a racer, you look forward to each one of them. If any of them drop off, it’s a tough pill. Detroit is more so because it is such an important race for us at Team Penske. It’s in our backyard for Penske Corp. Also, our relationship with Chevrolet, how much they put I that event and try to get it right for everybody involved. It’s tough to not have a go at that this year.

“I think of the volunteers. The Detroit weekend is so well run and executed with such a positive momentum behind it for the last eight years that I’ve gone there. I’ve always enjoyed that weekend off the back of the Indy 500.

“It’s a shame we will miss that this year, but I look forward to getting back there in 2021 and getting it started again.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500