Ryan: Rain robbed this Rolex 24 of what it promised to be — legendary

0 Comments

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When it rains it pours, but never has a potential racing classic been so dampened by the washout that turned Daytona International Speedway into a 3.56-mile flood plain Sunday.

The 2019 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona will be remembered less for what it was – a maddeningly tantalizing endurance race that concluded in fits and starts that lasted nearly nine hours – than for what it could have been.

That is, one of the all-time greatest showcases of talent and showdowns at the World Center of Racing.

Think of all the deliciously riveting storylines entering this event and then think about how they were living up to the hype through an extremely chippy first half of the 24-hour race.

–Fernando Alonso, making his second consecutive start in the Rolex 24 but in a championship-caliber car, put his gargantuan talent on full display by charging to big leads in his No. 10 Cadillac DPI.

–Juan Pablo Montoya, the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner whose aggression and verve always makes for beguiling drives at Daytona, engaged in a fierce battle with Kamui Kobayashi, Alonso’s accomplished and versatile teammate. It led to JPM hinting (with his trademark moxie) at playing rough later in the race.

— Montoya, Alexander Rossi and Helio Castroneves – three sublime talents with six Indianapolis 500 victories between them – had Team Penske’s two Acuras humming with the approval of motorsports magnate namesake Roger Penske, who was atop the pit box with no plans to sleep for 24 consecutive hours for the second year in a row.

Alex Zanardi signs autographs Saturday (Courtesy of IMSA).

And we have yet to mention Alex Zanardi, the immensely popular star whose return to American racing for the first time in nearly two decades drew the majority of the prerace headlines.

His team had initial problems with the specially modified steering wheel designed to allow Zanardi (who lost his legs in a 2001 crash) to pilot his BMW M8 at 180-plus mph with only his hands. But his spirits remained unbowed, and the race at least held the flicker of an unbelievably happy ending that would have dovetailed with his amazing life story.

Until shortly before daybreak.

At roughly 6 a.m., the heavy stuff began to arrive, and all of the action and accompanying subplots came to a screeching halt.

Alonso’s historic win with Wayne Taylor Racing at least offered a consolation postscript to a Daytona race that was unprecedented for all the wrong reasons.

“I’ve been around a long time,” Zanardi, 52, said, “but this was definitely one of the toughest conditions I’ve ever experienced in my racing career.”

The rain is nothing new for Central Florida. NASCAR fans are well aware of the clockwork summer thunderstorms that annually delay Cup races here around the Fourth of July weekend.

But this was inclement weather on a demoralizingly next level for Daytona: Borderline tropical storm-esque conditions that progressively worsened through the day.

As the wind kicked up, and the raindrops intensified, it became impossible to have the track in any sort of raceable form. Sports cars are built to run in the wet with specially constructed rain tires. But new supplier Michelin had no hope of building rubber that could match the untenable circumstances.

“You’re just standing in water up to your ankles in some of the puddles,” Rossi said after exiting his third-place No. 7 Acura for the final time. “They’re not racing conditions, unfortunately, which is a shame. It was an amazing race across all the classes before the weather started.”

This was not the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

Call it the 16 Hours of a Riveting Rolex Followed by 8 Hours of Incessant Rain That Wrecked The Last Third of a Sports Car Spectacle.

That was enough to even stun Penske, who extraordinarily was left searching for context from his 81 years and a career spanning 17 Indianapolis 500 wins and championships across several series.

“I’ve never seen a race like this,” The Captain told NBCSN’s Kelli Stavast. “Have you?”

It’s unlikely any of the fans who have been coming for this festival of speed for more than a half-century had seen anything like it, either.

At least there were the traditional fireworks, the Ferris wheel and the fairgrounds-style layout of fast cars and funnel cakes to enjoy and peruse Saturday night, because there was no fun to be had in their second run around the clock.

By late Sunday afternoon, the infield was a ghost town of mud bogs and flapping pup tents abandoned by fans who apparently had made a hasty and wise departure from the premises long before darkness fell.

The first red flag fell at 7:22 a.m. and lasted an hour and 45 minutes. After a brief attempt at green, the race went back under yellow for other 90 minutes – so long it left Penske’s Ricky Taylor needing to climb out of his car because he’d fallen ill.

The race went green again at 10:48 a.m., but the incessant spins and detours through the grass inevitably resulted in another yellow flag – and then a red flag at 12:39 p.m. that effectively ended the race.

It’s certainly fair to have a slight quibble with how IMSA handled the finish. After a promised 2 p.m. announcement that passed without news, series and race officials left everyone hanging for 25 minutes before announcing the race had been deemed official 10 minutes short of the 24-hour mark under “some of the most extreme weather conditions ever seen at Daytona International Speedway.”

With rain falling at nearly an inch per hour, there was no saving this race.

GTD driver Daniel Morad, whose No. 29 Audi was among the last casualties, said “it got a little bit dangerous” when drivers were flying through the Bus Stop section with no control. “It’s not worth people’s safety to go back green if it’s going to be this dangerous,” he said.

Said Eric Curran, whose Whelen Engineering Racing team finished second to Alonso: “I don’t want to see a bunch of cars get wrecked, and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt. It’s just about keeping the thing on the track and trying not to hurt yourself and everyone around you. It’s just miserable. You’re so focused just on yourself and keeping the car on the track more so than you are racing the guy next to you.”

 

Fernando Alonso exults afer his Daytona win (Courtesy of IMSA).

Winning car owner Wayne Taylor realized things had become untenable through the radio transmissions of Alonso, the two-time Formula One champion who also has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win and will go for an Indianapolis 500 win in May.

When he watched the pace car ahead of him nearly lose it under the final yellow, Alonso radioed he was fearful of the conditions.

“When I heard him come on the radio, talking fear, I suddenly realized, ‘This is not safe,’ ” Taylor said. “This is really not good when a guy like that is telling you that.”

The numbers bore out that gravity.

It was the first time in Rolex 24 history that the event was marred by two red flags (and only the seventh and eighth times there’d been a stoppage).

Of the 593 laps, 126 – or 21 percent – were run under yellow, and it wreaked havoc on the flow and fortunes of teams in the race.

Alonso took the lead for the final time because sports car ace Felipe Nasr blew the Turn 1 corner shortly before the last yellow.

In the GT Le Mans class, defending winner Richard Westbrook pitted his Chip Ganassi Racing Ford from the lead just before the final red.

“I’ve driven in many, many conditions in my life ‑‑ in the fog, in the rain, but nothing like that,” said Westbrook, whose team had rallied from five laps down. “It was ridiculous.  But then to throw the red when they did is just really … it’s like a real kick in the (genitals).”

The feeling probably was similar for fans who were teased with the possibility of some big-name heavyweights slugging it out for a crown jewel but instead didn’t even get the satisfaction of Alonso’s No. 10 DPI crossing the finish line beneath the checkered flag.

Not that it bothered the Spaniard, whose team exquisitely executed its strategy of blending conservatism with occasionally blistering speed, playing the long game by sacrificing pace in dry conditions.

“I think it was perfect like that,” Alonso said when asked if he would have rather raced for the win. “I love it, you know.

“Every time that I jump in the car I felt good. I felt competitive, and in the last moment to cross the line, or not crossing the line, I think the car No. 10 was dominating the whole 24 hours. So happy to win in whatever way.”

Hard to argue with that: One of the best drivers in the world won in one of the race’s best cars.

That at least offered some comfort at the end of a miserable half-day that offered only one true blameless conclusion: It was just one of those days.

“Today it rained like hell, and this is nobody’s fault,” Zanardi said. “Just the good Lord that was not very keen with us.”

It’s always smart to heed the advice of the inspirational Italian. So with that, let’s say a prayer for the Rolex 24.

Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to have some divine intervention ensuring a debacle like Sunday’s never happens again.

The winning No. 10 team of Alonso, Kamui Kobayashi, Renger Van Der Zande and Jordan Taylor, from left to right (Courtesy of IMSA).

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

1 Comment

THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500