IMSA: 2019 Roar Before The Rolex 24 At Daytona – Friday Notebook

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IMSA Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The first day of on-track activity at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 At Daytona was a busy one, with practice sessions for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, in addition to practice and qualifying for the IMSA Prototype Challenge.

The event continues through Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

Here are some of Friday’s highlights:

* Two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi is driving in his first Rolex 24 At Daytona this year in the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE in the GT Le Mans (GTLM) class. In addition to it being his first WeatherTech Championship experience, it will be his first race in North America since losing both legs in a Champ Car crash at EuroSpeedway Lausitz (Germany) in 2001.

“In life, it’s a question of opportunities, and I had this one, which is certainly one of the opportunities I would choose,” he said. “The Rolex 24 At Daytona has always been, the 24-hour race for me in my eyes.

“Being European, people would probably be used to believe that I would want to go to Le Mans, but in reality, I grew up as a race car driver here in America.

“I’ve always heard about this race many stories from many colleagues who were involved at some points with this great event. I always dreamed to be here.

“I’ve been around a long, long time and it’s almost off time right now, but luckily, before the last curtain came down, here I am involved with BMW with a works machine for RLL, and I’m very, very excited to be here.”

* Double Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso is back for his second consecutive Rolex 24 At Daytona, this time as part of the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R driver lineup with co-drivers Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi.

In a news conference Friday afternoon with his teammates, Alonso introduced the possibility of more IMSA action in the future.

“It’s definitely a possibility that I can race in different venues in IMSA in the future, and why not maybe do the full championship one day?” Alonso said. “Not in the short term, let’s say, more medium- or long-term.”

* On the racetrack, Oliver Jarvis posted the fastest time in WeatherTech Championship practice in the No. 77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda RT24-P Daytona Prototype international (DPi) entry.

Jarvis’ best lap of 1 minute, 35.989 seconds was quicker than the existing WeatherTech Championship track record of 1:36.083 set by Renger van der Zande in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R in Rolex 24 At Daytona qualifying last year.

While Jarvis’ quick lap in the DPi class came in the first of two WeatherTech Championship sessions, the fastest times in the other three classes all were posted in the second practice, despite heavy rains that abbreviated the session.

Gabriel Autry led LMP2 with a lap of 1:39.575 in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports ORECA, with Davide Rigon leading the way in GT Le Mans (GTLM) in the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE at 1:44.718.

Jeroen Bleekemolen led GT Daytona (GTD) at 1:46.452 in the No. 33 Mercedes-AMG Team Riley Motorsports GT3.

* Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, is participating in his first Rolex 24 At Daytona since 2014 as part of the driver lineup for the No. 7 Acura Team Penske ARX-05 DPi with co-drivers Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves.

Rossi’s last Daytona run came in the DeltaWing with co-drivers Katherine Legge, Andy Meyrick and Gabby Chaves. They finished 16th in the Prototype class.

“Being able to race the 24 Hours of Daytona with Acura Team Penske is a pretty great opportunity,” Rossi said. “Obviously, the pedigree of Team Penske and their competitiveness really across all series in motorsports gives us a great opportunity and a great platform to start from, but then as well, being able to continue my relationship with Acura and stay within the Honda family outside of the IndyCar Series is a pretty cool thing for me and to be able to continue that relationship is great for the future.

“I’m excited to get started here. I don’t know a whole lot of what to expect because the last time I was here was almost five years ago. This have definitely changed for me since then.”

* Scott Pruett, the winningest driver in IMSA history with 60-career victories and a five-time overall winner of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, was introduced today as the Grand Marshal for the 57th Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 26-27.

Pruett shares the overall victory record at the Rolex 24 with Hurley Haywood and is the event’s all-time leader with 10 class wins. He retired from driving after last year’s Rolex 24.

“It’s impossible for me to sum up, in just a few words, how honored I am to be chosen as Grand Marshal for the 57th anniversary of the Rolex 24 At Daytona,” Pruett said. “This track is truly special to me for so many reasons.

“To be the Grand Marshal in itself is wonderful and to be it while ushering in the 50th Anniversary of IMSA makes it all the more special. It’s going to be an emotional weekend and start of the race for me personally, as I’m sure I will miss suiting up and taking the wheel.”

* The IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge is seeing its first action this weekend at The Roar as well, with an impressive 31 Grand Sport (GS) and nine TCR cars from nine different manufacturers preparing for the four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge coming up on Friday, Jan. 25.

Two-time champion Eric Foss is one of many who have been pleased with the progress of the series, which evolves again this season with new Michelin tires.

“It’s just been really cool to see the evolution of it,” Foss said. “Do I miss little bits of the old home-built car that you could bring to the track? For sure, but ultimately the racing’s become more challenging.

“The speed of the cars is quite amazing. We see 170 miles an hour on the banking here at Daytona, which is nothing to snooze about. It’s been really fun.

“Hopefully, I can get to watch the series evolve for a few more years before my retirement. It’s been a lot of fun. I enjoy it.”

* Sean McAlister, a 21-year-old racer from Beverly Hills, California, was introduced as the 2019 recipient of the IMSA Hurley Haywood GT3 Cup Scholarship. McAlister won 11 of 14 races in the Trophy West championship last year and moves to the IMSA-sanctioned Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama with JDX Racing for the 2019 season.

JDX won the 2018 GT3 Cup Challenge USA title with driver Trenton Estep finishing on the podium in 14 of 16 races.

“Being the 2019 recipient of the IMSA Hurley Haywood GT3 Cup Scholarship Award is an amazing honor,” McAlister said. “The scholarship provides a great opportunity for young drivers such as myself, the chance to be a part of a distinguished racing series and championship that can be a springboard to a professional driving career.”

* Alianza-Gilbert Motorsports and the Lupus Foundation of America announced Friday a motorsports initiative program for the 2019 IMSA Prototype Challenge season to raise public awareness and understanding of lupus, a chronic and potentially fatal autoimmune disease that affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Alianza – Gilbert Motorsports in this fight against lupus,” said Stevan W. Gibson, president and CEO, Lupus Foundation of America. “This partnership will allow us to raise awareness and bring lupus education and information to a new audience, while also raising critically needed funds to support lupus research and support services for the millions of families impacted by this devastating disease.”

Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
Michael L. Levitt/LAT/USA/IMSA
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Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”