Photo courtesy Gray Motorsports

Tanner Gray off to fast start in rookie NHRA season

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MADISON, Ill. (AP) Tanner Gray has the NHRA buzzing in his rookie season. He’s young, he’s brash and he says what’s on his mind.

In fact, one driver said the 18-year-old Gray was a “cocky little puke.”

He’s also fast – and a winner.

Two weeks ago, Gray won the Countdown playoff opener at his home track in North Carolina for his fifth Pro Stock victory of the season. That gave him the points lead, though he dropped to third behind Bo Butner and Greg Anderson last week in Pennsylvania. The young star has a chance to get back on top Sunday with a victory in the NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“He’s an instant success story,” Anderson said Friday. “When he told the world he’s going to contend for the championship in the first year, a lot of people thought he was crazy. But he’s proved he was right. He’s got a great chance to win it.”

Tanner’s father, Shane, and grandfather, Johnny, are racers. In fact, the three of them raced together at the U.S. Nationals in Indiana over the Labor Day weekend.

Gray has been able to back up his talk with his performance on the track.

He was put in a car that was competitive from the beginning in the opener in Pomona, California. Although he qualified ninth and was eliminated in the second round at Pomona, he made a statement.

At Las Vegas, Gray became the youngest champion ever at 17 years, 11 months, 18 days. He also won at Topeka, Kansas; Sonoma, California; Brainerd, Minnesota; and Concord, North Carolina.

“Some people say he was put in a fast car,” said mother Amber. “Well he was put in a fast car, but you have to have the ability to leave the starting line. He has proven himself to do that.”

The fact that Gray doesn’t have to answer to any sponsors has a lot to do with what comes out of his mouth. Most drivers choose their words carefully when talking to the media for fear of saying the wrong thing, which might cause a team to lose a major sponsor.

But Gray fires away and is not afraid to say what’s on his mind.

“Everybody has their own opinions on things,” he said. “I really don’t care what people think about me. I’m going to go out there and try to drive to the best of my ability and do the best I can.

“That’s really the only reason I’m out here. If we were out here to please everybody, nobody would be any good.”

Amber Gray thinks working with and for family can be problematic in a good way.

“It is a different environment. … But it’s always good to have the family and have the support out here,” she said. “We are blessed that his grandfather is willing to spend the money to be out here.”

The money is being spent wisely because Gray might earn his team and his family a first national title.

One thing is for sure: Gray won’t be afraid to tell people what he thinks and how he feels. He’ll also let his car do most of the talking.

“I’m a pretty confident guy,” he said. “I’m very competitive. I tell people week in and week out, the only reason I come here is to win. It’s been a lot of fun so far. It’s definitely been a learning experience for me.”

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org

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.”