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

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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.”

How IndyCar rookie Sting Ray Robb got that name (and some more of his backstory)

IndyCar Sting Ray Robb
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Every NTT IndyCar Series season brings a new round of getting to know the rookies, and it’s fairly obvious where the story starts with Sting Ray Robb.

Just for clarification, “Robb” is the last name. His given name indeed is “String Ray” on the birth certificate.

Why, yes, he does come from performance-car parentage.

And yes, the IndyCar rookie named “Sting Ray” will be driving the No. 51 Dallara-Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware.

How did that go over with a mom and dad who clearly prefer American automotive brands?

“That’s a tricky question,” Robb said with a laugh Tuesday during the IndyCar Preseason Content Days. “Yeah, my parents are big Corvette fans, and I think that they ruled out criticizing me too badly because they know the dream is IndyCar.”

“I’ll be in a Honda car and I’m assuming it’ll go pretty quick, so I’m OK with all of that.”

“They’re not going to rename you ‘NSX’ or something?” asked Motorsport.com’s David Malsher-Lopez (whose bitingly sardonic wit is regularly heard in IndyCar media centers).

“No. I hope not,” Robb said. “My name is my name. I don’t need a rename, thank you.”

Robb, 21, has been making a name for himself lately, finishing second in last year’s Indy NXT standings with 11 top-five finishes, eight podiums and two pole positions.

But the Payette, Idaho, native also has an intriguing backstory beyond his successful four years in the Road to Indy ladder system (that also included the 2020 Indy Pro title).

He hails from the same small town (northwest of Boise on the Oregon border) that produced Minnesota Twins slugger and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.

Robb, whose graduating class was less than 100, recently found that Wikipedia listed him and Killebrew as the “notable alumni” from Payette High School.

“It’s nice to be see and appreciate all the things that I’ve learned and been through,” said Robb, who also played some baseball in his day, adding that “I’m more of a consistent singles hitter, slap hitter if you want to call it. No home runs, just doubles or triples here and there.”

Some other facts on the newest memorable name of IndyCar:

–He’s managed by Pieter Rossi (father of Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner), but he also gets a lot of help from his mother, Kimmie.

“We call her my ‘momager’ because she’s my mom and my manager,” Robb said. “She has been a huge role in my career because she does things that I’m unable to do as a driver.

“She’s able to play hardball with the contracts, etc., and have my best interest in mind when it comes to negotiating, along with Pieter. He may be someone that has a lot of experience in the series with Alexander, but he may not know what’s best for me. It’s good to have them both on my side, and I can learn a lot from them.”

–His family have been lifelong supporters since go-karting. “It was my mom, my dad, my grandparents on the road every weekend,” he said. “My dad has missed one race in my entire life, and it was because he was in the hospital. So we let him have a pass, and he was still on the phone every 30 minutes making sure that tire pressure was right, engine temp was right, we had the right gear on the car, etc.”

–Robb graduated high school a year early to focus on racing after being home-schooled as a child. “I went to someone’s house actually, and she taught me from the time I was in pre-K through sixth grade,” Robb said. “So in seventh grade I started going to public school, and I hate to say it, but I feel like I stopped learning after that point. But it was OK. I got some social skills, lucky for you guys.”

–He also has a wild story about how he landed his current ride during a random encounter in a trip to the gym (which you can read about here).