New (but familiar) faces emerging in the IMSA paddock with Felipe Nasr, Tristan Vautier and Matt McMurry

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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As an international event that attracts drivers and teams from around the world, the Rolex 24 at Daytona sometimes features unknowns to the American sports car racing scene. And while they don’t always feature prominently in the storylines of the event, last weekend’s Roar Before the 24 test session indicated that quite a few could run at the sharp end of the grid.

Here are drivers who could make their marks at the Rolex 24, which will be held Jan. 27-28 at Daytona International Speedway.

FELIPE NASR – WHELEN ENGINEERING ACTION EXPRESS RACING

Former Sauber F1 driver Felipe Nasr likely wasn’t on many lists as a driver positioned to be in a leading role, but he stole the spotlight in a big way at the Roar.

The 25-year-old Brazilian set the fastest time of the weekend, pacing the Sunday afternoon qualifying session to give the No. 31 Action Express DPi-V.R top pick of pit and garage stall.

Though new to American racing, Nasr was a star on the rise three years ago in Formula One. As a rookie with Sauber in 2015, he scored points in two of his three races, finishing fifth at the Australian Grand Prix and eighth at the Chinese Grand Prix.

His 2015 campaign in F1 totaled six finishes in the points, a strong showing for a rookie driver with one of the smaller teams. However, his 2016 campaign went off the rails. He had only one points finish – ninth at the Brazilian Grand Prix –  and was ousted when the team signed Pascal Wehrlein for the 2017 season.

Sidelined for 2017, Nasr looked stateside for an opportunity and landed a good one with Action Express, which had victories with both of its cars in 2017 and won three consecutive Prototype championships from 2014-16 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Don’t be surprised if Nasr is a fixture at the front of the field — not just during the Rolex 24 but during the 2018 season.

TRISTAN VAUTIER/MATT MCMURRY – SPIRIT OF DAYTONA RACING

The resurgent (and rebranded) Spirit of Daytona Racing spent a lot of time at the front of the Prototype class, ranking in the top four of every session except the last (which suspension damage ended early for the team).

After struggling with three chassis in 2017 (two Multimatic/Riley LMP2s before switching to a Ligier JS P217 and getting a win), the team’s rebound extends to its drivers.

Full-time driver Tristan Vautier is also on the comeback trail in the American racing scene. A champion of the 2012 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Vautier seemed on track for stardom in the IndyCar Series after a promising 2013 rookie campaign.

But he didn’t return to IndyCar until 2015, running a partial season with Dale Coyne Racing. Over the past two seasons, he raced only once in IndyCar, subbing for the injured Sebastien Bourdais in June 2017 at Texas Motor Speedway (where he ran in the top five much of the race prior to a lap 151 crash).

Aside from his sporadic presence in IndyCar, Vautier has been working on a budding sports car career. He contested the entire Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup in 2016, winning a race along the way. And he spent the 2017 season as a full-time IMSA competitor, piloting a Mercedes-AMG GT3 for SunEnergy1 Racing. He set a GT Daytona class record on his way to scoring a pole at the 2017 Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Alongside Vautier, Matt McMurry also represents something of an unknown quantity. At only 19, the Phoenix native lacks the seasoning in a lot of the Prototype class’ heavy hitters.

A closer look at his career reveals a driver who is remarkably accomplished. In 2014, he became the youngest driver to enter and finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans (with Caterham Racing).

McMurry also is a veteran of the Rolex 24 with three previous starts, one from the pole position with Michael Shank Racing in 2015 and two in the GT Daytona class with Park Place Motorsports in 2016 and 2017.

Now with a high-profile team seeking to be a contender, Vautier and McMurry could become household names for race fans in 2018.

GRT Grasser Racing Team

From the “Where did they come from?” file, GRT Grasser Racing Team – a full-time Blancpain GT team slated to run only the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in IMSA – emerged from a very deep GT Daytona class as the fastest entry from the Roar Before the 24.

But a quick glance at its record in European sports car competition reveals a bit of a powerhouse, especially in its recent history. Drivers Mirko Bortolotti and Christian Engelhart brought home a 2017 Blancpain GT championship, and Engelhart and Rolf Ineichen won the 2017 ADAC GT Masters season finale.

It remains to be seen how GRT Grasser Racing Team will perform in the Rolex 24, but its prowess at the Roar put them among the GT Daytona powers. And given that last year’s GTD winner was an underdog in Alegra Motorsports, GTD could be primed for another unexpected winner.

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AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”