Driving with the stars at Daytona: How to handle racing your heroes

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Fernando Alonso undoubtedly competed against a field full of admirers of his prodigious talent when he made his endurance racing debut at Daytona International Speedway last year.

Jeff Segal is among the many who hold the Spaniard’s ability in high esteem.

But the AIM Vasser Sullivan driver had a rather droll greeting for Alonso after the drivers meeting for the 2018 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

“ ‘Please don’t hit me,’ ” Segal recalled telling the two-time Formula One champion with a laugh. “I think I said that to him.”

Alonso’s response?

“He just looked at me,” said Segal, a two-time GT Series champion from Philadelphia who will be making his 13th Rolex 24 start. “I don’t think he really got it. I don’t think we share the same brand of humor. That’s OK, though.”

They will be sharing the track again this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, which has attracted another lineup of megawatt starpower befitting its global brand. Alonso is back for the second consecutive year, but he has healthy competition for being the race’s biggest draw.

ROLEX 24 COVERAGE: Full announcer lineup, NBCSN/NBC Sports App schedule

Alex Zanardi, who won two CART championships and raced in F1 before becoming a gold medal Paralympian after losing his legs in a crash, might be the most transcendent storyline of 2019. Kamui Kobayashi, Alonso’s teammate, makes his Rolex 24 debut after a versatile career in endurance racing and F1. Longtime Ferrari F1 driver Rubens Barrichello will make his fourth Rolex 24 start.

Alex Zanardi smiles during a May 24, 2013 presentation of his 1998 CART championship-winning Reynard-Honda from team owner Chip Ganassi at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

And there is the usual complement of IndyCar drivers in the race. Team Penske alone has six Indianapolis 500 victories among its two cars (three for Helio Castroneves, two for Juan Pablo Montoya and 2016 winner Alexander Rossi). Chip Ganassi Racing will have 2018 series winners Scott Dixon (the five-time and defending IndyCar champion) and Sebastien Bourdais (a four-time champ in Champ Car).

For many veterans and sports car aces in the field, they will be competing against stars whom they once idolized while growing up race fans.

Katherine Legge, who is driving for Heinricher Racing with Michael Shank Racing’s all-female team in GTD, has gotten only two celebrity autographs in her life: pop star Phil Collins and Zanardi.

“He is ultimately one of my heroes in racing and in life,” Legge said. “He’s the ultimate race car driver and also his mental strength and just everything about him. He is who everybody aspires to be like.”

But on the track, she naturally will compartmentalize that fandom when racing against a hero – just like many of her peers.

Kyle Kaiser, who races in the DPI class for Juncos Racing, will be making his Rolex 24 debut and will take the lessons from when he raced against Bourdais and Dixon in four IndyCar starts last year.

“Looking at the idols I’ve raced against, this last year was the first,” Kaiser said. “The first test day was where it struck me. I looked at my name on the timing chart, saw guys around me and was like, ‘Whoa. That’s pretty crazy.’ After time, you do a race, and it’s, ‘Wait, I want to beat these guys.’ Even though they have all this experience, you still want to beat them. It’s just another driver.”

Fernando Alonso walks to the grid in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, before his final F1 start of the 2018 season. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

In his Rolex 24 debut, Alonso might have felt like just another driver, battling brake problems and a lack of “pure lap time” in finishing 38th overall.

He returns with a shot at the overall in 2019 but also a modest view of the accolades brought by his resume.

“The first time or moment you are happy to hear that and happy to have their respect, but 2 seconds after that, you are into the job, the next meeting trying to setup the car and working with the engineers and the guys,” Alonso said. “You feel that respect but the same respect I have for everyone. We all have our point of view, our way of working with the team, our philosophy, our way of training, so I’m always open to learn from everyone. What you achieve in the past, it means nothing in this moment or in 5 minutes.”

That essentially is how Segal views racing against the superstars from other disciplines. The Rolex 24 is an entirely different playing field.

“To me the coolest part is when they are on the track here, we’re all equals,” Segal said. “You have someone like Alonso on the track with you, you don’t drive any differently around him. It’s someone who will cut you off, and you get angry, start swearing inside your helmet, and then someone says, ‘Oh well, that’s Fernando Alonso.’ You’re like, ‘So? Why’d he do that?’

“So it’s this great equalizer to be able to share the track with people I grew up watching on TV and still watch on TV and still hold in tremendously high regard. To have a shot at winning this race again some of these drivers is just really a privilege.”

Said AIM Vasser Sullivan teammate Jack Hawksworth, an IndyCar veteran himself: “The bigger the high-profile names you can bring into it, that’s great for the fans. There are drivers you absolutely wouldn’t normally see in this racing and this environment. As a driver, honestly, it really doesn’t make much difference. You see another car with another helmet. You race the car in front of you.”

Instead of being awestruck, Segal said the feeling “to be completely honest, is very much the opposite. Because as professional and experienced as a guy like Alonso is, he’s very inexperienced at sports car racing. If you put me in two- to three-wide going into a corner and put me with the sports car racing regular, I’m pretty at ease.

“If you put me with someone who doesn’t do this regularly, regardless of what the background, skill level or speed is, I’m a lot more anxious because they don’t have the experience of dealing with slower cars. They don’t have the experience of dealing with multiclass, and in Formula One, they don’t really pass. So this is a new experience for a guy like Alonso, more than a regular here.”

There are the practical reasons of understanding a competitor’s style, too.

Juan Pablo Montoya talks to teammates during qualifying for the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe. (Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

“When you’re on track, you have to think it’s any other guy,” said Ricky Taylor, who will be teamed with Castroneves and Rossi in a sister car to Montoya’s at Penske. “But you also have to think, ‘It’s JPM. If there’s an opening, he’s going to go.’ I’ve learned from watching him for 15 to 20 years, those lessons of he’s going to make a hole for himself. Those bits in my head and getting to work with him on a day-to-day basis, you learn how good they are in different situations.

“It’s been really interesting to learn from them in a race. All those things I find out working with them day to day is something I use when racing against them.”

Jordan Taylor, who will be paired this year with Alonso and Kobayashi, said there is much experience and information to be gleaned from his teammates.

“Not a lot of guys get to be teammates and drive the same cars as Fernando Alonso,” Taylor said. “He’s probably regarded as one of the best drivers in the world right now. To be able to compare data and listen to how he gives feedback is priceless. I can’t wait for it.”

But there’s a give and take, too, as Alonso learns the nuances of Daytona.

“There has to be a mutual respect,” Taylor said. “He knows we’ve done this race multiple times. He’s only done Daytona once, so there’s things that he doesn’t know necessarily about this event in particular. Our style of racing in America is much different. Our restart and pit stop procedures.

“So for him there’s a lot of little things that he doesn’t know about that we can help him with to understand, but at the same time, in sports car racing, you’re always learning. It’s always changing. And I think having four guys in the car with four very different backgrounds is an interesting thing where we can learn from all different points of view as a team. So I think it’s a cool thing to have.”

In 2017, the Taylor brothers won the overall title with Max Angelelli and Jeff Gordon. The four-time NASCAR champion’s moonlighting prompted some gawking from Austin Cindric, who was making his Rolex debut as an 18-year-old two years ago.

“They were talking on the PA that Jeff Gordon is about to get in the car,” said Cindric, who drives for Team Penske in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. “I was also getting ready to get in my car. I’m pulling out of pit lane and see the Wayne Taylor Racing car coming out of pit lane. ‘Oh that’s Jeff Gordon!’ So I’m watching Jeff Gordon on his out lap, seeing what he does and how he drives, seeing how he goes about it.

“You’ve got guys like Zanardi, Alonso, Montoya and Castroneves. Those are guys I grew up idolizing. It’s pretty cool. I have a separate fan in me that gets to enjoy it on the straightaways and do my job in the corners and manage that as being part of the event. It definitely is cool. There’s no other race that has that kind of draw by teams and drivers. It’s neat to be part of it.”