First-timer’s experience of the Rolex 24 at Daytona

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The baptism was over, and all I wanted to do was crawl into bed.

Working the Rolex 24 at Daytona as a researcher for NBC Sports promised to deliver a memorable experience, as it was my first sports car event and my first visit to one of the world’s great race tracks.

It did just that, but I was in no mood to celebrate afterwards. I was too chilled to the bone. My clothes were too soaked by the torrential rain that turned the race into a chaotic mess. And I could feel a head cold coming on.

I had to tell my grandparents down the road in Edgewater that I was too tired to see them one last time before heading back to Connecticut (they didn’t need to drive in the downpour to see me, anyway). My post-race dinner was Lean Cuisine chicken alfredo and a Sprite from the mini-market inside the hotel lobby. I promptly went to sleep after that, and when I got back home on Monday, I snoozed away the afternoon.

I don’t write this to scare you off seeing the Rolex 24 for yourself. Far from it. But if you do go to next year’s running, plan to lay low the day after. As I learned the hard way, that’s a given.

Also a given? You’ll have a really good time.

Sports car racing attracts a unique crowd. Well-heeled types bring their prized four-wheel possessions – a Corvette here, a Porsche 911 there – and show them off in massive car corrals. But there’s plenty of blue-collar folks as well, and they’re loving the experience just as much. IMSA’s long line of manufacturers know this, and they set up impressive hospitality and display areas to hock their latest models.

Even cooler is the access that fans get to the team garages and, before the race, pit lane. A crushing mass of humanity made it tough for yours truly to get to the Peacock Pit Box for work, but as a fan, this open access is pretty great. You’ll never get a better chance to get a selfie with a world-class driver or watch one of these highly technological, highly expensive race cars being prepared for battle.

What’s special about these cars is that they all have personality. Each manufacturer has its own distinct growl to playfully tickle or brutally pulverize your ears. Either way, you find yourself attracted to the sound as much as their looks. The Corvettes and Ford GTs from the GT Le Mans class deliver raw, uncensored screams from their American muscle – don’t bother trying to talk to the person next to you when you’re near them. On the other hand, the Lamborghini Huracan from the GT Daytona class has a futuristic-sounding ‘whistle’ sitting on top of its natural roar. Hang around this world long enough, and you’ll learn to recognize cars on their sound alone (and perhaps win a few infield bets).

But while the cars are fantastic, it’s still very much a human sport. More than 170 drivers took part in the Rolex 24, and while some of them had a bigger presence than others, they all had the dream of winning and taking home a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona timepiece.

We tried to showcase some of their stories on the Peacock Pit Box, welcoming drivers fresh off or preparing for a stint in the car. We even had a handful of legends join us, like 5-time Rolex 24 champs Scott Pruett and Hurley Haywood, as well as Indy 500 icon Bobby Rahal, whose #25 BMW squad took the class win in GTLM.

From the perspective of my job, I produced race recaps at certain intervals for the crew on the Pit Box and also gave them information on our guests before they arrived. With this being our first Rolex 24 and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race, we really wanted to make a great first impression with everyone – drivers, teams, and most importantly, the fans. As a researcher, you do that by finding accurate information and entertaining stories that can make people care about the subject as a person, not just an athlete. Not to brag, but I believe we did well on this front; the largely positive social media reaction to our broadcast bore that out.

It’s just a pity that Mother Nature had such an impact on the final outcome. They say this was some of the worst weather ever seen at a Rolex 24, and I’ll take their word for it. The rain kept coming, and so did the carnage. Understandably, only one word seemed to be on drivers’ lips through it all: Insane. When the checkered flag finally flew, 10 minutes away from the traditional 24-hour distance, it was, quite frankly, a relief.

But even with that, and being wet and shivering when it was all over, I still discovered why the Rolex 24 is such a special event. It’s a legendary test of human and machine, a massive auto show, and a raging party rolled into one. You don’t have to be a race fan to get the appeal of this global gathering.

Just make sure to ask for the following Monday off. You’ll need it.

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”