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IMSA: Historic 50th season kicks off this weekend with Roar Before the Rolex 24

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IMSA Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – IMSA’s 50th Anniversary begins Friday at the Roar Before the Rolex 24 At Daytona which features three days of action.

The unofficial start to what promises to be an unforgettable season of full fields and unprecedented manufacturer involvement got going with the annual IMSA Media Day at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday.

Series regulars and special guest stars for the Rolex 24 turned out in force to participate in photo shoots and interview sessions throughout the day with media from the United States and around the world, including IMSA’s new broadcast partner – NBC.

The feeling of anticipation was palpable among the many IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Daytona Prototype international (DPi), LMP2, GT Le Mans (GTLM) and GT Daytona (GTD) making the media rounds.

“You see great names coming already for this race,” said Helio Castroneves, who is returning for his second full season of WeatherTech Championship competition as co-driver of the No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi with 2017 Prototype co-champion Ricky Taylor. “It sounds like we’re going to have a lot of cars with DPi, but also in GTD and GTLM. You have factories, there are so many in the series. When you have that kind of scenario, it shows that everybody is interested. I see no reason for it going down. It’s actually just going to continue going up.”

“It’s just amazing,” said Dirk Mueller, 2017 Rolex 24 GTLM winner and co-driver of the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT with Joey Hand and Sebastien Bourdais. “I don’t know how long we’ve been saying, ‘It’s the best championship, it’s the best championship, it’s the best championship.’ It is the best championship, that’s for sure. It keeps on getting better and better.

“All the ingredients are in here: fantastic cars, really, really good teams, good manufacturers, good drivers and it keeps getting better. It makes me somewhat proud to be part of it. It’s like a huge community and people outside it, they’re getting jealous.”

The green flag falls on the first WeatherTech Championship practice session of the season Friday at 11 a.m. ET. The weekend also features an IMSA Prototype Challenge race Saturday beginning at 12:15 p.m. The three-hour race can be seen on IMSA.TV and heard on IMSARadio.com. Ticket holders for the Rolex 24 At Daytona are admitted free while tickets are available for the event at daytonainternatonalspeedway.com.

50th Anniversary Celebration Begins:
While there have been plenty of glimpses of what is in store for IMSA’s 50th Anniversary in 2019, the official start to the celebration begins this weekend at the Roar Before the Rolex 24.

The celebration will last throughout the season in each championship. The four cornerstones of the golden anniversary include Drivers & Teams, Tracks, Manufacturers and Fans. During the year there will be many opportunities for fans to reive their IMSA memories to see historical cars and meet drivers from the past. Many teams and manufacturers have already announced plans to run historical liveries during the year.

IMSA released a commemorative book in August entitled “IMSA: Celebrating 50 Years.” The 216-page book is available for purchase and contains the stories of the drivers, cars, teams, manufacturers, events and executives that make up the storied history of IMSA.

The book tells the story of its formation between John and Peggy Bishop and Bill France, Sr., to the first race at Pocono in 1969, to its current standing as a highly regarded sanctioning body that will lead seven motorsport platforms in 2019, including its flagship – the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

IMSA also will be the featured marque at the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in August.

New for 2019:

Michelin begins its status as the “Official Tire Supplier” of IMSA this weekend as well as officially beginning its entitlement of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge and the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup which begins at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

IMSA also starts its six-year partnership with the NBC Sports Group in January to televise the WeatherTech Championship, which will feature an 80 percent increase of network coverage in 2019. A majority of programming (45 hours) will be broadcast on NBCSN and all races will be streamed on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App.

Defending Champions Have New Looks:
Two of the three championship teams from the WeatherTech Championship will have new looks in 2019.

The Prototype class champion from 2018 – the No. 31 Whelen Cadillac DPi-V.R., driven by Felipe Nasr and Eric Curran will have a new addition as Pipo Derani joins the team as a full-time driver in the team’s now Daytona Prototype international (DPi) class, with Curran joining the team for the four IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup rounds.

The GT Daytona (GTD) class champion of the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini will have Ryan Hardwick joining champion Bryan Sellers. Hardwick enters the car as the World Final Champion in the AM class in Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America in 2018.

The only champions without a change are the pair of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia in the No. 3 Corvette Racing machine. The duo won the title without winning a race in 2018.

Stars In Cars:
Once again, the Rolex 24 At Daytona will feature some of the biggest names in motorsports.

Two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso made his Rolex 24 debut last year and is back in 2019 as part of the Wayne Taylor Racing No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi alongside regulars Jordan Taylor and Renger van de Zande. They will also be joined by Kamui Kobayashi, Alonso’s teammate in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Alex Zanardi, the two-timeCART champion and former Formula 1 driver, makes his debut at Daytona in the Roar and the Rolex. Zanardi, driving for BMW, uses a specially-modified steering wheel and hand controls to drive after losing his legs in a Champ Car crash back in 2001. Since then, he has also become a multi-gold medalist in the Paralympics.

Racing at The Roar:
After its successful debut with a race at the 2018 Roar, there once again will be an IMSA Prototype Challenge race over the weekend.

The season-opener on Saturday, Jan. 5 will be the first three-hour race for the series, which shifts to a single-class LMP3 format in 2019 as well. It will start at 12:15 p.m. EST. The race can be seen on IMSA.tv and can be heard on IMSARadio.com and RadioLeMans.com.

Roman De Angelis won the race in 2018 driving for ANSA Motorsports.

Three-time F1 champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File
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BERLIN (AP) Three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda, who won two of his titles after a horrific crash that left him with serious burns and went on to become a prominent figure in the aviation industry, has died. He was 70.

The Austria Press Agency reported that Lauda’s family said in a statement he “passed away peacefully” on Monday. Walter Klepetko, a doctor who performed a lung transplant on Lauda last year, said Tuesday: “Niki Lauda has died. I have to confirm that.”

Lauda won the F1 drivers’ championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and again in 1984 with McLaren.

In 1976, he was badly burned when he crashed during the German Grand Prix but made an astonishingly fast return to racing just six weeks later.

Lauda remained closely involved with the Formula One circuit after retiring as a driver in 1985, and in recent years served as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team.

Born on Feb. 22, 1949 into a wealthy Vienna industrial family, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into the paper-manufacturing industry, but instead concentrated his business talents and determination on his dreams of becoming a racing driver.

Lauda financed his early career with the help of a string of loans, working his way through the ranks of Formula 3 and Formula 2. He made his Formula 1 debut for the March team at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix and picked up his first points in 1973 with a fifth-place finish for BRM in Belgium.

Lauda joined Ferrari in 1974, winning a Grand Prix for the first time that year in Spain and his first drivers’ title with five victories the following season.

Facing tough competition from McLaren’s James Hunt, he appeared on course to defend his title in 1976 when he crashed at the Nuerburgring during the German Grand Prix. Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning car, but the accident would scar him for life. The baseball cap Lauda almost always wore in public became a personal trademark.

“The main damage, I think to myself, was lung damage from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” he recalled nearly a decade later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”

Lauda fell into a coma for a time. He said that “for three or four days it was touch and go.”

“Then my lungs recovered and I got my skin grafts done, then basically there was nothing left,” he added. “I was really lucky in a way that I didn’t do any (other) damage to myself. So the real question was then will I be able to drive again, because certainly it was not easy to come back after a race like that.”

Lauda made his comeback just six weeks after the crash, finishing fourth at Monza after overcoming his initial fears.

He recalled “shaking with fear” as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking, “I can’t drive.”

The next day, Lauda said he “started very slowly trying to get all the feelings back, especially the confidence that I’m capable of driving these cars again.” The result, he said, boosted his confidence and after four or five races “I had basically overcome the problem of having an accident and everything went back to normal.”

He won his second championship in 1977 before switching to Brabham and then retiring in 1979 to concentrate on setting up his airline, Lauda Air, declaring that he “didn’t want to drive around in circles anymore.”

Lauda came out of retirement in 1982 after a big-money offer from McLaren, reportedly about $3 million a year.

He finished fifth his first year back and 10th in 1983, but came back to win five races and edge out teammate Alain Prost for his third title in 1984. He retired for good the following year, saying he needed more time to devote to his airline business.

Initially a charter airline, Lauda Air expanded in the 1980s to offer flights to Asia and Australia. In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 213 passengers and 10 crew.

Lauda occasionally took the controls of the airline’s jets himself over the years. In 1997, longtime rival Austrian Airlines took a minority stake and in 2000, with the company making losses, he resigned as board chairman after an external audit criticized a lack of internal financial control over business conducted in foreign currency. Austrian Airlines later took full control.

Lauda founded a new airline, Niki, in 2003. Germany’s Air Berlin took a minority stake and later full control of that airline, which Lauda bought back in early 2018 after it fell victim to its parent’s financial woes.

He partnered with budget carrier Ryanair on Niki’s successor, LaudaMotion.

On the Formula One circuit, Lauda later formed a close bond with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who joined the team in 2013. He often backed Hamilton in public and provided advice and counsel to the British driver.

Lauda also intervened as a Mercedes mediator when Hamilton and his former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg feuded, argued and traded barbs as they fought for the title between 2014-16

Lauda twice underwent kidney transplants, receiving an organ donated by his brother in 1997 and, when that stopped functioning well, a kidney donated by his girlfriend in 2005.

In August 2018, he underwent a lung transplant that the Vienna General Hospital said was made necessary by a “serious lung illness.” It didn’t give details.

Lauda is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He had two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage.