Rolex 24 qualifying race could be a tug of war between drivers and teams over discretion


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The racing begins Sunday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the battles on track could be as epic as the fights over the team radio.

For the first time in the history of the sports car endurance classic, a qualifying race will set the starting grid and also put points on the line toward the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship

NBC Sports analyst Townsend Bell, who won’t be racing Sunday but will be in the GTD class for the Rolex 24, said even though the risks still might not be worth the reward, it’ll be difficult for drivers to dial back the aggression despite “heavy governance from the timing stand.

STARTING GRIDClick here for the Motul 100 starting grid l Starting grid by number

“The Motul 100 only is awarding about 10% of points of the Rolex 24, but that doesn’t mean anyone is trying 90% less,” Bell said. “When drivers are being told to tune it back, we think in orders of 1, 2, or 3% less hard, not 90% less hard.

“It’s a fascinating contrast between the racer’s natural urge and tendency to fight tooth and nail for every position thinking every position and corner counts, and the big-picture intelligence from the timing stand, should hear a lot of interesting radio chatter.”

The Motul 100 (which will begin at 2 p.m. ET and be shown on tape delay at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is somewhat a function of a scheduling quirk driven by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, moving the Roar before the Rolex 24 test session to directly lead into the main event and help teams with travel logistics and budget. The race also will allow IMSA officials to evaluate where teams’ performance and determine if any tweaks are needed.

But having a qualifying race to determine the starting order of a 24-hour race where starting position mostly is negligible also has raised some eyebrows.

Wayne Taylor, owner of the two-time defending Rolex 24 overall winning team, openly questioned the reason for the Motul 100’s existence during a Zoom news conference with reporters Wednesday.

Laurens Vanthoor, a former GTLM champion with Porsche Motorsport who is moving to GTD to race for Pfaff Motorsports said he initially wondered why the race was necessary. But then he thought of the opportunity for his relatively new team to practice pit stops, work on strategy and work its way into race shape.

“It’s not bad as a warmup,” Vanthoor said. “I know why IMSA wants to do this, but also for the teams, it’s a good warmup to see how we operate together. Maybe see some mistakes that we can prevent for the race. The goal is not to go crazy and crash into each other. I see it as a test race where the result is not that important. It’s more to learn and get better.”

Because it’s based in Canada, Pfaff Motorsports (which won last year’s GTD pole with a famous plaid paint scheme) missed much of the 2020 season because of travel restrictions.

The No. 9 Porsche 911 GT3R of Pfaff Motorsports that is being driven by Zach Robichon, Laurens Vanthoor, Matt Campbell and Lars Kern at the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona (IMSA).

Co-driver Zacharie Robichon said the Motul 100 is “an opportunity for us. We benefit more because of our lack of running. We have to be careful because it is so close (to the main event), but it’s a dress rehearsal, and we’ll use it as that.”

Action Express team manager Gary Nelson likes the concept of being able to try new parts in race conitions.

“We could start with some of our experimental parts and systems on the car and not be risking those in the 24-hour race,” Nelson said. “If the car outperforms the other cars with these new items, we could kind of check them off as that’s a good part. In road racing, or my whole life in racing, I’ve always got this list of things I want to try.”

For seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, the race will be a chance for reps behind the wheel with co-driver Kamui Kobayashi, who missed a December test.

It’ll also be an opportunity for teams to measure how cars react over the course of a full stint while drivers can evaluate setups in traffic and tire degradation.

“The key is to be smart and think about the big prize at the end of the day … and not get into any argy bargy,” NBC Sports analyst Calvin Fish said. “But when the door closes a lot of times for race car drivers, those thoughts go straight out the window.

“So it’s going to take a lot of discipline from team managers to hone in with the drivers and make sure they don’t get too excited even though it’s the opening race of the season.”

Tony Kanaan at peace with IndyCar career end: ‘I’ll always be an Indianapolis 500 winner’


INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.

Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.

The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.

Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.

He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.

Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.

He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.

Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.

It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.

Lauren Kanaan with daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Bruce Martin Photo).

Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.

Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.

Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.

She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.

After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.

One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.

Tony Kanaan shares a moment with former engineer Eric Cowdin (Bruce Martin Photo).

Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.

Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.

Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.

But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.

Tony Kanaan gets emotional during an interview after the Indy 500 (Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.

“Yeah, it was emotional.”

Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.

“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.

“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.

“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”

At one point in the second half of the race, Kanaan passed Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin by driving through the grass on the backstretch.

“That was OK, right?” Kanaan said. “That is one thing I have not done in 22 years here. Even (team owner) Sam Schmidt came to me and said, ‘That was a good one.’

“That was a farewell move.”

On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.

“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.

“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’

“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.

Tony Kanaan is embraced by his wife, Lauren, after finishing 16th in the 107th Indianapolis 500 ((Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar/ USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.

“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.

“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”

After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.

There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.

Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.

“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC “It wasn’t enough.

“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.

“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.

“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”

Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.

“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”

Tony Kanaan hugs his son Max before the Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.

Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.

“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.

Tony Kanaan kisses his daughter Nina before the 107th Indy 500 (Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network).

“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”

Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.

“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.

“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.

“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY Sports Images Network)